"Monsanto will be liable" – Kalyan Goswami, director general of the National Seed Association of India
EXCERPT: Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), says the pink bollworm attacks are a failure of the technology for which Monsanto charges a fee. "They, not the government, have to pay compensation. We are of the firm opinion that multinational companies blackmail the government and the people. The government should take them to task and not plead with them."
These two issues could put the brakes on the Bt cotton story
By G Seetharaman, ET Bureau
Economic Times, Jan 21, 2018
"Open any boll here and you'll see it's destroyed," says Ganesh Shere, a farmer at a village called Jamb in Yavatmal district, about 160 km from Nagpur, in northeast Maharashtra.
He walks along the length of his bone-dry, four-acre cotton field and splits two dozen cotton bolls, with a stone or his fingers, to reveal the damage done by pink bollworms, which have become resistant to the genetically modified (GM) cotton variety he uses.
His yield this year has only been 200 kg, less than 5% of what he produced last year. Shere, a 61-year-old former police sub-inspector, pegs his losses at Rs 2 lakh.
Maharashtra is the state with the largest area under cotton cultivation in the country and Shere is among the lakhs of farmers who depend on the cash crop. The loss caused by the pink bollworm infestation have raised questions about the sustainability of GM cotton, which accounts for over 90% of all cotton grown in the country. Bt cotton, as GM cotton is known, is the only commercialised GM crop in the country. MonsantoBSE 1.62 % introduced its first-generation Bt cotton, called Bollgard I (BG-I) in 2002 and Bollgard II (BG-II) in 2006, the latter of which is still the de facto GM cotton variety.
Traditional hybrid seeds are a result of cross-pollination of two different but related plants, but GM hybrid seeds involve the artificial insertion of a gene from a different species. For instance, BG-II contains two genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (hence Bt cotton) and BG-I contains only one gene.
They are supposed to provide immunity to the plant from pests like American and pink bollworms. GM seeds are mostly either pest-resistant or herbicide-tolerant, the latter of which is still not legal in India. Despite the wide adoption of Bt cotton, India has been wary of GM food crops, withholding its nod for brinjal and mustard.
GM crops were first commercialised in the US, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, China and Australia in 1996, and in 2016 more than 1.8 crore farmers in 26 countries planted GM crops. Four-fifths of the world's soybean crop are GM, as are two-thirds of cotton and a third of maize; India, the world's biggest cotton producer, has the fifth largest area under GM crop cultivation, and Bt cotton seeds account for 40% of the Rs 14,000 crore national seeds market. Maharashtra's neighbour Gujarat grows more cotton than any other state.
According to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, the adoption of Bt cotton was low till 2005. Between 2005-06 and 2016-17, India's cotton acreage and yields increased by a fifth. In 2017-18, while the area is bigger than last year, productivity is expected to be 9% lower.
Vijay Kumar, principal secretary in the Maharashtra agriculture department, says around 80% of the cotton-growing area is affected by pink bollworms. "But we still don't know the extent of damage."
While the farmers ET Magazine spoke to admitted that there was pink bollworm infestation even in the past, this year is the worst. Shere's neighbour, Purushottam Fendar, is slightly better off, getting a quarter of last year's yields on his sevenacre farm, where he planted Bt cotton seeds after the onset of rains in June.
Though both Shere and Fender have irrigation facilities, most cotton grown in Maharashtra is rainfed, a reason why the state's cotton productivity is among the poorest in India. Fendar, who sold his cotton for Rs 4,600 per 100 kg, is pinning his hopes on insurance making good his loss. Kumar says affected farmers will also be compensated under the National Disaster Relief Fund, up to Rs 26,000 per farmer. The state government has also said seed companies must compensate farmers for their losses.
But Kalyan Goswami, director general of the National Seed Association of India (NSAI), an industry body, does not agree. "If the seed does not germinate or if the plant does not flower or is not healthy, then the industry is responsible. If the boll is not able to resist pink bollworms, there is nothing we can do... Monsanto will be liable and not the seed companies."
"Resistance is a natural and evolutionary adaptation of insects and pests to widely and continuously applied stress factors," says a spokesperson for Monsanto Mahyco Biotech (MMB), a joint venture between Monsanto and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company.
MMB licenses the Bollgard technology to nearly four dozen seed companies, for which it charges a royalty fee. In March 2016 the government decided to cap the price of BG-II seeds at Rs 800 per 450 gm pack (it had been selling at Rs 830-1,000 in different states) and also the royalty paid to MMB at Rs 49 per packet, compared to Rs 184 earlier, despite Monsanto's threatening to leave India. Months later, Bayer AG announced that it would acquire Monsanto for $66 billion.
Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), says the pink bollworm attacks are a failure of the technology for which Monsanto charges a fee.
"They, not the government, have to pay compensation. We are of the firm opinion that multinational companies blackmail the government and the people. The government should take them to task and not plead with them." The SJM is an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the ruling coalitions both at the Centre and in Maharashtra.
"BG-II continues to substantially fulfill its intended function of controlling a majority of Lepidopteran pests including the American bollworm, which is the primary pest, thereby providing farmers with great benefits," says the MMB spokesperson. Among the reasons for the rise in pink bollworm infestation area, according to the company, are use of unapproved Bt cotton, lack of planting of non-Bt crops next to Bt cotton and early planting and prolonging the life cycle of the plant.
Keshav Kranthi of the International Cotton Advisory Committee says the pink bollworm is a manageable insect and that it be can be tackled by opting for shorter duration crops — 140-160 days (in India the life of the crop is usually more than 180 days). Though GM crops face strident opposition due to their perceived adverse ecological and health implications, but there is not enough robust empirical data to back that, partly because GM crops have only been around for a little over two decades. A 2013 analysis by Italian researchers of 1,783 studies published between 2002 and 2012 did not find any significant hazard to human health, biodiversity, or the environment caused by GM crops.
Shere, the farmer, has burnt the stalks to prepare his farm for the next cotton crop. "I'll see which cotton the government recommends." Some advocate abandoning Bt cotton for local varieties, even of the organic kind, which they say will reduce farmers' dependence on companies. "There is nothing left with the farmer except his land. He has to buy his seeds, fertilisers and pesticides," says Suraj Bhakre, who works for Deendayal Bahuuddeshiya Prasarak Mandal, an initiative that promotes low-cost farming in Yavatmal.
Kranthi believes organic cotton needs to be backed by research. "It needs good short season varieties that are developed exclusively for organic farming. High yields can be obtained under organic systems with only such varieties.
Besides the problem of pink bollworms, cotton is also plagued by use of illegal herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton seeds. New Delhibased South Asia Biotechnology Centre estimated that in 2017-18 the sale of herbicidetolerant seeds almost trebled to 35 lakh packets from the previous year, with Telangana, Maharashtra and Andhra being the top consumers. The governments in these states are looking into the issue. After the Centre capped the prices of Bt cotton seeds in 2016, Monsanto withdrew its application for sale of a herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton seed.
Farmers used to Bt cotton may not really think of an alternative immediately and may consider the pink bollworm problem this season an anomaly. But given that Bt cotton is certainly not cheap — each acre requires two packets of BG-II, costing Rs 1,600, and another Rs 12,000-13,000 on fertilisers and pesticides - those affected may not take the viability of Bt cotton for granted anymore.