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Monday, February 24, 2020

To Bt or not to Bt: 60 lakh cotton farmers or a handful of vested interests?

The government should not succumb to pressures for removal of trait fee on a technology that has made India the world’s No. 1 cotton producer.

Written by Ram Kaundinya | Updated: February 22, 2018 5:36:46 am
Cotton, Cotton farming, Cotton farmer, agriculture sector, msp, bt cotton, monsanto, agriculture ministry, indian express Cotton being harvested at a field in Telangana. (Express Photo: Sreenivas Janyala)

During the last cotton season, there were reports of the pink bollworm (PBW) not being effectively controlled, especially in some 700 villages of Maharashtra where the infestation of this insect pest was stated to be high. However, at a review meeting conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in October 2017, the participating scientists concluded that there was no case for “de-notifying” Bt cotton as demanded by some quarters. The PBW outbreak, it was emphasised, was confined only to certain areas, even while the technology continued to be effective against other bollworm insects. Moreover, there were prescribed agronomic methods for even managing PBW, as was successfully demonstrated in Gujarat during the recent season.

Subsequently, Union Minister of State for Environment Mahesh Sharma said, in a written reply to a Parliament question on February 5, that Bt cotton had helped double India’s production and minimise the damage caused by bollworms since its introduction in 2002-03. A status paper published in January 2017 by the directorate of cotton development at Nagpur, too, clearly brought out the benefits from Bt cotton cultivation.

Given all these endorsements, it is surprising to see the news of a few seed companies approaching the Union Agriculture Minister and seeking removal of the Rs 49-per-packet trait fee currently payable to the Bt technology provider. The logic for demanding “de-notification” of the technology is its apparent ineffectiveness to protect the cotton crop from PBW attacks. Even assuming that claim to be correct, can this be reason enough to make the technology free and eliminate the trait fee?

The Bt cotton trait was approved primarily for the control of the American bollworm — a devastating pest of the crop prior to the last decade — while effectiveness against spotted bollworm, armyworm and PBW were added features of the technology. Even today, the control of these pests — barring PBW in certain pockets — through the trait has been pretty good. Proof of it is the undiminished demand for Bt cotton seeds from farmers. Since the trait fee is for control of all bollworms, not just PBW, what’s the rationale for its removal? If Bt technology is no longer delivering any value to farmers, why can’t seed firms, instead of demanding waiver/reduction of the trait fee, simply sell non-Bt cotton seeds? Why use a technology that has apparently ceased to be effective?

Also, can the seed firms that have incorporated Bt technology into their hybrids absolve themselves of responsibility for resistance development by pests? Shouldn’t they also be accountable for the proper utilisation of the technology and following all the related regulatory and stewardship guideline? The ICAR meeting’s minutes revealed about 30 per cent of seed samples used to plant refugia non-Bt cotton around the main Bt crop to be of low quality. That could have been a major cause of vulnerability to PBW. The quality of seed used and trait purity have important bearing on the technology’s performance. These are the responsibility of seed companies. Blaming the technology provider shows the mala fide intention of a section of the industry that has profited on the back of Bt cotton technology. The distortions from price control and fixation of royalty by the government has, as it is, put off major global technology providers. Removal of trait fee will prove the proverbial last straw, when farmers themselves want newer technologies to bring down cultivation costs and yield losses from pest and disease attacks. Is this the way to achieve our mission of doubling their incomes?

During the last two decades, Indian farmers took advantage of the shifting of cotton acreages out of the US. With Bt technology also coming at the right time, India was able to emerge as the world’s biggest cotton producer. But now with changing international dynamics and acreages slowly moving back to the US, we are in the danger of losing that hard-earned position. Denying farmers access to modern technology and pandering to the lobbying pressures of a handful of seed companies is akin to killing the golden goose. We shouldn’t sacrifice the interests of 60 lakh cotton farmers — not to forget our textile industry that has benefited from augmented supply of raw fibre — for the short-term gains of a selected few.

At the time of Bt technology’s introduction in 2002, PBW wasn’t a major pest. It is a scientific fact that when the threat from one pest recedes due to control by a new pesticide or biotechnology trait, other pests tend to develop resistance. This happens because of reduced competition for the latter. Resistance development is a natural and evolutionary process — and it applies to all living beings, including insects and microbes. It shouldn’t surprise, therefore, if PBW were to develop resistance owing to lack of competition from other bollworms. No pesticide or biotechnology product can be eternally effective. But that’s also precisely why continuous research and development on new technology products is important.

Even with regard to PBW, there are scientific methods to manage the pest while using the existing Bt technology. We saw this in Gujarat, where the state government kept the pest’s infestation under control during the recent season. The Gujarat experience should be extended to other states in the coming cotton season. A key factor behind vulnerability to PBW has been non-adherence to the planting of non-Bt cotton — as a refuge crop for the pest — by farmers. The poor quality of non-Bt refuge seeds supplied by some companies has only made things worse. The introduction of “refugia in bag” — supply of non-Bt seeds along with Bt seeds in the same, as opposed to separate, packets — should hopefully address this issue.

One thing is clear: Reduction or removal of trait fee on Bt technology is not going to help the Indian farmer. On the contrary, he will be deprived of new technology innovations that would help lower his production costs and boost harvested yields. The government should not take any step that damages the long-term interests of our farmers.

The writer is an agricultural policy expert and former CEO of Advanta Seeds.

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