If market and industry estimates are true, Indian farmers have, in the current kharif season, bought and planted about 35 lakh packets of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds incorporating unapproved “herbicide tolerance” or HT technology.
Right now, the only GM cotton permitted to be grown in India are hybrids/varieties that contain ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’ genes, isolated from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and coding for proteins toxic to bollworm insect pests. The government hasn’t so far approved cultivation of cotton harbouring other GM traits, including resistance to specific herbicides. In normal cotton, spraying of herbicide is not possible once the plant has emerged out of the soil, as the chemical cannot distinguish between weeds and the crop itself. But with cotton that is genetically engineered to ‘tolerate’ herbicide application – through introduction of another alien gene, this time coding for a protein inhibiting the action of that chemical – only the weeds, not the crop, get killed.
The fact that Indian farmers are now growing HT cotton, albeit illegally, has been officially proved by tests reports from at least two government research institutions.
The first one, dated February 7 this year, is from the Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). That report confirmed the presence of the ‘cp4-epsps’ gene – which confers tolerance to glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide – in kapas or seed-cotton boll samples collected from six out of nine fields in seven villages of Nagpur district. Considering these were from the 2016-17 crop, it means that illegal HT cotton cultivation had taken place even last year.
The second report is dated July 4 and from the Telangana government’s DNA Fingerprinting & Transgenic Crops Monitoring Laboratory at Hyderabad. The seed sample tested in this case was supplied by the agriculture officer of Farooqnagar mandal in Ranga Reddy district. This one, too, tested positive for the presence of not just ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’, but also the ‘cp4-epsps’ gene.
Simply put, there exists today a grey market for cotton seeds incorporating both Bt (bollworm insect-resistance) and HT traits, despite the latter being an unapproved technology in India. What could be the size of this market? According to the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), a New Delhi-based agricultural science think-tank, 34.9 lakh packets of HT cotton hybrid seeds were sold across India’s this kharif season, up from 12.7 lakh in 2016-17 and 8.15 lakh the year before. This is as against the current season’s estimated 430 lakh-odd packets sales of “legal” GM cotton, containing only ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’ Bt genes. Farmers, moreover, reportedly shelled out anywhere between Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,500 per packet of “illegal” HT cotton hybrid seeds. This is much more than the government-fixed maximum sale price of Rs 800 for a packet of “approved” Bt cotton hybrids.
At an average rate of Rs 1,300 per packet, the market for “unapproved” GM cotton technology seeds is already worth over Rs 450 crore, compared to the Rs 3,450 crore for legal Bt hybrids. Also, at 1.5-1.7 packets per acre, the illegally sold seeds would have got planted in around 22 lakh out of the country’s 300 lakh acres or so area sown under cotton this time. And assuming an average holding of one hectare or 2.471 acres, almost nine lakh farmers would have sown these seeds. Illegally, of course!
One way to view this whole thing is through the prism of regulatory failure. As per rules notified under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, GM crops are clubbed along with “hazardous microorganisms”. Their commercial cultivation (“release into the environment”) is, hence, subject to risk assessment and regulatory approval, based on contained greenhouse as well as confined field trials. For ‘Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex (BGIIRRF)’ — the US life sciences giant Monsanto’s proprietary GM event, expressing both Bt insect-resistance and glyphosate herbicide-tolerance traits — the biosafety research level-1 and level-2 trials were completed in India by 2012-13. The entire biosafety dossier containing the results of the trials was, in March 2013, submitted to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in the Union Ministry of Environment, which did not, however, take any decision on allowing commercial release.
But we now have farmers in Maharashtra, Telangana and other states actually growing HT cotton. Not only are they planting “unapproved” cotton hybrids, but don’t apparently mind even paying a premium for these seeds. It’s unclear how the seed firms — most of them unknown local players — were able to access the ‘cp4-epsps’ gene and develop HT hybrids based on it. Green NGOs may claim Monsanto itself would have leaked the technology, though one cannot understand why the company should do so – that too, for a proprietary event on which it can earn huge royalty/trait fees. As a matter of fact, Monsanto, in July 2016, withdrew its application for commercial release of the BGIIRRF event, citing the regulatory uncertainties and also ambiguities in intellectual property protection with regard to GM technology in India.
“BGIIRRF cotton is widely cultivated in the US, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. It’s not impossible for any breeder to bring a few grams of seeds and cross that donor variety having the desired gene with his own material. Subsequent backcrossing with the local parent material over 3-4 generations will eventually produce a commercial HT hybrid, whose seeds he can then sell to farmers here. That’s what is most likely to have happened,” says C D Mayee, president of SABC and a former director of CICR.
But regulatory failure in preventing the rampant illegal sale and planting of seeds based on an unapproved GM crop event is only one part. More significant, perhaps, is its highlighting an aspect that neither the government nor the NGOs seem to appreciate: The Indian farmer’s hunger for technology.
Cotton cultivation typically entails three rounds of weeding, each requiring 9-10 labourers per acre. At Rs 1,500-2,000 for every round — plus 2-3 times of bullock inter-culture operations, each costing Rs 500-600 — the farmer would spend upwards of Rs 6,000 per acre on removing weeds that compete with his crop for nutrients and water. If all this trouble — including finding labour just when most need — can be avoided by spraying herbicide, and there is technology enabling that, one can easily understand why nine lakh farmers may have planted HT cotton, even without official approval.
If only the government and the NGOs, too, understand.