Cotton controversy – A clear view on GM Crops
India’s cotton growers are keen to buy ‘illegal’ herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton seed varieties at black market rates, much to the dismay of the organised seed industry and the anti-GM groups who fear its environmental effects.
An increased demand
- A moratorium was imposed in 2009 on approval of all GM crops which remains even now. However, the ground realities with respect to cotton cultivation have undergone a significant change.
- The demand for the unapproved HTBT cotton seeds, which arrived on the scene about four years back, has arisen in a context of the dominant Bt strain in India, BG-II (which was introduced in 2006 and accounts for most of India’s cotton acreage) falling prey to pink bollworm pest attacks in recent years.
- Cotton farmers have been faced with falling yields (from 500 kg/ha in 2017-18 to 443 kg/ha in 2018-19 and 486 kg/ha in 2019-20), while dealing with constant or rising costs.
- The HTBT cotton plant is resistant to the usage of glyphosate-based weedicides, a popular labour-saving product, which too has been allowed for use in very restricted conditions in India for its alleged carcinogenic effects.
- According to the organised seed industry, illegal trade in HTBT seeds is in the region of ₹300 crore, with 50 lakh packets of 450 g each in circulation. They fear it has been used over 15-20 per cent of cotton area.
- This is a straightforward case of market forces rising to meet a genuine demand. However, the implications of unregulated seed trade are indeed serious, as farmers in search of high yields may suffer a dead loss if the expensive seeds (selling at over the maximum rates fixed by the Centre) are spurious.
- Bonafide seed distributors and producers suffer as well, while farmers’ groups have stepped up protests seeking HTBT approval, allowing for reduced costs and quality control. The Centre must take a clear position on the HTBT issue.
Response by Government
- In perhaps an implicit effort to curb the use of HTBT seeds, the Centre has said that glyphosate-based weedicides must be applied in the presence of a pest control operator.
- However, the sowing season is close to completion. The use of glyphosate in India has increased since 2016-17.
- Be that as it may, the larger issue of taking a clear position on GM-based seed technology cannot be shelved.
- Ideally, India should have a credible regulator — the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill has been on the backburner since 2013 — to assess these issues on a case-by-case basis, involving all stakeholders. India’s initiatives on this count should be driven by public-funded research.
- The development of indigenous varieties and strains must be given more emphasis, given our gene pool in seeds. A pragmatic rather than knee-jerk response to GM is long overdue, with a distinction being made between food and non-food crops.