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Monsanto’s Bt cotton tech to be royalty-free?

The MSP for a 450-gram packet of Bt cotton seeds is now Rs 800, of which Rs 49 is the royalty (“trait value”) on Bollgard-II (BG II), the proprietary technology of the US life sciences major Monsanto.

Written by Harish Damodaran | New Delhi |
February 8, 2018 1:55:26 am
Sudhakar Kale a farmer of Katpur Village, Amaravati District in Maharastra, shows leaves of a BT cotton plant (Express Archive)

Will the pressure to be seen as farmer-friendly, especially with national elections looming, lead the Narendra Modi government to scrap the “trait value” on Bt cotton? There is increasing talk of this, even as the Agriculture Ministry is expected to fix the maximum sale price (MSP) of Bt cotton seed packets for the coming kharif planting season by early next month.

The MSP for a 450-gram packet of Bt cotton seeds is now Rs 800, of which Rs 49 is the royalty (“trait value”) on Bollgard-II (BG II), the proprietary technology of the US life sciences major Monsanto. BG II technology allows seed firms to incorporate two genes ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’, isolated from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and coding for proteins toxic to bollworm insect pests, into their hybrids.

However, a section of seedmakers belonging to the National Seed Association of India (NSAI) and the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a Communist Party of India-affiliated farmers’ union, have demanded “removal” of the Rs 49 trait value. The reason: BG II Bt cotton’s failure to control the pink bollworm (PBW) pest that has caused heavy damage to the crop during the last two seasons, especially in Maharashtra.

“There is no agronomic value for the trait anymore….(Hence) it is unfair and unjust to charge trait value to the farmers on the said BG II trait,” the AIKS has represented to the Union Agriculture Ministry. The latter has already removed the trait value on BG I, Monsanto’s first-generation Bt technology that was introduced in India in 2002. BG I deployed a single ‘cry1Ac’ gene, which Monsanto itself admitted had become ineffective against PBW. BG II technology, launched in 2006, was seen as more effective, by virtue of having a stacked combination of both ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’ Bt genes.

But with PBW developing resistance to BG II as well, the AIKS has sought that farmers not be charged for a “non-performing trait”. NSAI, too, has held that “farmers are bound to agitate” if made to pay an extra amount as trait value “without any benefit”. If the trait value is removed, seed companies can declare that BG II is not effective against PBW and farmers cannot claim any compensation from them on this count.

A Monsanto spokesperson, when contacted, said that if the BG II trait had nil value, seed companies shouldn’t incorporate it into their hybrids and “they might as well sell non-Bt cotton”. By reducing the trait fee from Rs 49 to zero, “they basically want to continue selling Bt cotton, while using this technology for free”.

Bt cotton, moreover, specifically targeted the American bollworm and other larvae of the “helicoverpa” species. “We have a three-gene BG III trait that can be more effective against PBW (which belongs to another “pectinophora” species). But who would bring in new technology, if it is ultimately going to be supplied free?,” the spokesperson pointed out.

BG III, which deploys a gene ‘Vip3A’ providing a third mode of action against bollworm larvae in addition to the ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’, is claimed to increase the longevity of the technology. Farmers in Australia and the US have already planted BG III cotton.

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