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It is almost official now that there is a thriving business in the new cotton technology, Bollgard-II with herbicide tolerant traits. This technology has, however, not been approved by the government.

The Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC), set up at the instance of the Prime Minister’s office (PMO), has submitted a report which points out that unauthorised herbicide tolerant Bt cotton was planted in 15 per cent of the area under cotton in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana and in 5 per cent of the area under cotton in Punjab during the 2017 kharif season.

The report also points out that farmers have been paying Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 per 450gm packet of seeds, despite an official cap of Rs 800 per 450gm packet of these seeds.

The FISEC report also reveals that the seeds have not been smuggled from outside the country but were manipulated with the original varieties of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Limited (MMBL) that were under trial through official procedures — uncertainties over licensee fees led to the curtailing of the trials.

What does this indicate ?

Farmers want access to new technologies provided they benefit from them, and they are ready to take risks to procure these seeds even if that means transacting with unscrupulous dealers and paying prices substantially higher than those fixed by the government.

On the flip side, the illicit business puts the government’s regulatory mechanism in poor light.

Similar Situation in the Past?

The Vajpayee government was faced with a somewhat similar situation in 2001 when it learnt that some farmers in Gujarat had planted Bt cotton without government approval. The natural bureaucratic reaction was to confiscate and burn the illicit cotton crop. But the political maturity of the then PM averted such an imprudent action. He sensed that there was an opportunity for India to emerge as a leader in biotech. He approved the use of Bt cotton in 2002, the first GMO crop in the country, despite opposition from several quarters. Vajpayee extended Lal Bahadur Shastri’s well-known slogan to include science —”Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan”. He was clear that Indian agriculture should be based on science, and the country needed to become a leader in the use of biotech in order to fight hunger and malnutrition.

What were the results of that bold decision?

India officially released its first Bt cotton (Bollgard I) in 2002, patented by MMBL and multiplied by several Indian companies.

Licensee fees ensured protection of MMBL’s intellectual property rights.

In 2006, MMBL introduced Bollgard-II with additional traits. As a result of this decision, India has emerged as the largest producer of cotton and the second largest exporter in the world. India gained from extra exports of raw cotton and yarn. The country also benefitted in terms of import savings, to the tune of $ 67 billion, cumulatively during the period between 2003-04 to 2016-17. Farmers’ earnings increased and the nation earned valuable foreign exchange. Today, more than 95 per cent of the country’s cotton growing area is under Bt cotton.

What is Bollgard I / Bt Cotton?

Bt cotton is a genetically modified organism (GMOcotton variety, which produces an insecticide to bollworm. It is produced by the gene coding technique by inserting Bt toxin into cotton as a transgene that causes it to produce this natural insecticide in its tissues.

Bollgard-I (BG-I) was the first Bt variety launched by MMBL with single gene, cry1Ac, that fought infestations caused by the American bollworm (Heliothis Armigera).

The last official approval for BG-II with double gene cry1Ac and cry2Ab for enhanced protection came in 2006. After 12 years of BG-II, these benefits seem to be fading away.

The pink bollworm outbreak in Maharashtra in 2017 may be an indication of that.

Along with better farm practices for BG-II, it is time to have BG-III with additional pest resistant proteins (cry1Ac, cry2Ab and vip3A) along with HT (Roundup Ready Flex (RRF)) traits.

This will enhance pest resistance and along with some glyphosate spraying, will save the farmer labour costs on management.

Brazil and the US are global leaders in the use of this technology.

Way Forward :

  • The government should give serious thought to giving farmers access to the best technologies.
  • It should also put in place measures to protect the IPR of suppliers of genuine innovations.

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