Last year, almost 35 lakh packets of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, incorporating unapproved ‘herbicide-tolerance’ or HT technology, were bought and planted by farmers across India. But this time round, state governments seem better prepared to curb this illegal cultivation, even as sowing of cotton is over in northwest India and is about to commence in the main western, central and southern growing regions with the advance of the monsoon rains.
“Last year, the problem (of farmers planting HT cotton) was noticed only around early September and so no preventive action could be taken. This year, we began cracking down on dealers of these seeds from March, while not allowing release of any packets from company/ distributor godowns for retail sales before May 15,” said Subhash Katkar, the chief quality control officer of Maharashtra’s agriculture department. Besides, joint training workshops for officials from the agriculture, police and weights & measures departments were held to check the entry of illegal seeds through state borders.
The state government had, as on June 5, registered 24 cases and seized 16,533 packets of HT seeds worth
Rs 4.68 crore from eight districts: Nagpur, Wardha, Amravati, Yavatmal, Chandrapur, Nanded, Jalna and Nandurbar. The illegal seed influx into Maharashtra has been mainly happening through the areas adjoining Gujarat and Telangana. The modus operandi of the sellers is to appoint commission agents in the border villages and distribute the seeds through their networks. “We have completely broken these networks. The supplies have, as a result, been largely plugged,” claimed Katkar.
Subhash Nagre, the joint director of agriculture at Amravati division, noted that the HT seed smugglers were now using the detour route of Gadchiroli — unlike directly through Yavatmal last year — to push the seeds into Maharashtra’s prime cotton belt of Vidarbha and Marathwada. “We found Warora in Chandrapur district to be their main distribution point and identified the main people involved there,” he added.
The Indian Express spoke to three prominent agro-input dealers from Yavatmal, Amravati and Akola. All three confirmed, on condition of anonymity, that the influx and sale of HT seeds had been significantly curbed this year, due to the Maharashtra government’s aggressive measures.
Farmers Nitin Khadse, from Jalka village in Yavatmal district’s Maregaon taluka, and Sudam Pawar, from Amgaon Khadki in Seloo taluka of Wardha, also corroborated this information. “Last year, some farmers we know had sowed these seeds. But we have no knowledge of any one procuring or planning to plant the same this time,” they admitted. The agriculture department has distributed over one lakh pamphlets to spread awareness among farmers of the risks in cultivating illegal HT cotton.
India currently allows planting of GM cotton containing only ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’ genes, isolated from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) soil bacterium and coding for proteins toxic to Heliothis bollworm insect pests. The Centre has not approved cultivation of cotton harbouring other GM traits, including resistance to herbicides. Spraying of herbicide cannot be done in normal cotton 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 foreign gene, this time coding for a protein inhibiting the action of that chemical — only the weeds, not the crop, get destroyed.
During the last season, tests at the Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research had revealed that hybrids manufactured by Kaveri Seeds (under the ‘Jadoo’ and ‘ATM’ brands), Dhanlaxmi Crop Science Pvt. Ltd (‘Balbhadra’) and Aditya Seeds (‘Arjun’) contained the ‘cp4-epsps’ gene. This gene confers tolerance to glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide.
The agriculture department has this time ensured that seed samples are randomly selected and sent for testing before the release of packets for sale from godowns. The companies have also been directed to print on their packets that the seeds being sold do not contain any HT gene.
For the current season, the Maharashtra government has permitted sale of 370 Bt cotton hybrids manufactured by 42 seed companies. “As many as 25 marketing companies have also been allowed to operate, but they can sell hybrids only under the original brand names. They cannot buy from the seed companies and then sell under different brands. We have cancelled the licences of 53 firms that were selling the same hybrids under different names. Such parallel marketing makes it easier to push seeds containing the illegal gene,” Katkar pointed out.
Nagre stated that the Maharashtra government is even planning to ban the use of glyphosate — which Andhra Pradesh has already done. According to him, farmers are not very keen to plant cotton after the severe pink bollworm infestation of the crop last year. Maharashtra may see a 15% decline in cotton area, with farmers opting to sow soyabean instead. That prospect alone might diminish the enthusiasm for cultivation of illegal HT cotton.
The South Asia Biotechnology Centre, a New Delhi-based agricultural think-tank, pegged the total sale of HT cotton hybrid seeds in 2017 at 34.9 lakh packets. The bulk of it was accounted for by three states: Telangana (16 lakh), Maharashtra (12 lakh) and Andhra Pradesh (4 lakh). Farmers reportedly shelled out anywhere from Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,500 per packet of these illegal seeds. This was much more than the government-fixed maximum retail price of Rs 800 for a packet of approved Bt cotton hybrids. Seed companies sold an estimated 430 lakh packets of legal GM cotton seeds, containing only ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’ Bt genes.
Farm activist Kishore Tiwari — who now heads the Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission, a state government-constituted expert body — felt that the supply of HT cotton seeds was clearly meeting a demand of farmers. “Farmers spend thousands of rupees on de-weeding operations. Hence, they are prepared to buy these seeds. All the concerned stakeholders need to sit down and seriously discuss the way ahead to satisfy the farmers’ want,” he told The Indian Express.