Source: The Hindu Businessline

Radheshyam Jadhav | Pune |
April 06, 2021

Seed industry seeks government intervention

Maharashtra farmers will cultivate the unapproved herbicide-tolerant Bt (HTBt) cotton in over 50 per cent of the area under the fibre crop during the next crop year starting July, according to the State apex farmers’ body Shetkari Sanghatana (SS).

It is illegal to grow HTBt cotton in India since the Government has not cleared it for commercial cultivation. During the current crop year to June and the previous one, farmers in some parts of the country had defied the Government in cultivating HTBt cotton.

In Maharashtra, where cotton is cultivated in 29 per cent of the total land under Kharif cultivation, farmers planted the illegal variety on 25-35 per cent of the area. Farmers in Gujarat, Telangana and Andhra , too, grew HTBt cotton this season.

“The movement for HTBt cotton that started in 2019 has gained momentum and now farmers are cultivating more of HTBt cotton. This kharif, 50 per cent cotton grown in the State will be growing HTBt. Now, we don’t have to launch a programme or movement to encourage farmers to grow HTBt. Farmers themselves are now inclined towards HTBt,” Anil Ghanwat, president of SS, told BusinessLine.

SS, which has been supporting farmers in cultivating HTBt cotton and helping them confront government officials, favours farmers in the country getting access to the latest technological development in agriculture. In India, the government has approved only cultivation of genetically-modified (GM) non-food crop, which is cotton. Since 2006, no new GM variety, including cotton, has been approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal agency to clear GM crops in the country.

Bt cotton is the only genetically modified (GM) crop that has been approved for commercial cultivation by the Government of India. Farmers have been cultivating HTBt crop despite the penal provisions that carrying, storing, selling or sowing of unauthorised GM crops will result in Rs.1-lakh fine and five years’ imprisonment.

“We will continue to sow HTBt cotton. Let government arrest us, but we will continue to use HTBt seeds. These seeds are easily available in the market and farmers are already using them. The government must not stop farmers from using advanced seeds and technology,” said Ghanwat. One of the reasons why farmers favour HTBt cotton is that it helps them save costs in clearing weeds on their farms while cultivating cotton.

A cotton farmers spends Rs.23,500 on an acre of irrigated land and Rs.15,400 on rain-fed farm. Of this 25 per cent of the cost on irrigated and 20 per cent of rain-fed land is spend on removing weeds. The HTBt cotton can withstand the effect of the herbicide that is sprayed on the weeds. In particular, farmers use Glyphosate herbicide to control the weeds but it is banned by some States such as Kerala.

Environmental groups and those opposed to GM technology claim that Glyphosate is harmful to humans and hence HTBt cotton cultivation should not be permitted. Farmers say the cultivation cost reduces drastically with HTBt seeds as they can spray herbicides to eliminate weeds without damage to cotton crop and save labour cost required to pull out weeds that reduce the yield.

Illegal seed business

Meanwhile, the Seed Industries Association of Maharashtra (SIAM), at its board of directors meeting recently, expressed concern over the illegal sales of HTBt cottonseeds. “The seed industry is suffering because of the illegal trade of HTBt. We strongly oppose any move to encourage farmers to cultivate banned variety and appeal to the government to act in the matter,” said SB Wankhede, Executive Director of SIAM.

However, SIAM has demanded that the government not stop GM crop trials. “We cannot decide the positive or negative impact of GM seeds unless trials are conducted” Wankhede told BusinessLine.

Farmers also run the risk of cultivating an unauthorised variety since they cannot be compensated in case of any loss. The Centre allowed cultivation of Bt cotton in 2002 mainly since farmers in some parts of the country then began growing the GM variety without any legal backing.

The seed industry claims that “motivated agents” are duping farmers and trying to sabotage the legal cotton seed business. The illegal seed trade has dented the cotton seed business by 10-15 per cent incurring an annual loss of Rs.200-400 crore, according to industry players. Earlier cases of the sale of illegal HTBt cotton seeds have been reported in the districts of Nagpur, Chandrapur, Parbhani, Nandurbar, Yavatmal, Bhandara and Gadchiroli of Maharashtra.

Govt stand

Even as farmers and the seed industry demand that field trials of GM crops must be started, the Central government has asked the States to take a call. Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar recently told Rajya Sabha that it has been decided that proposals for field trials of GM crops, including Bt brinjal, will not be taken up for consideration by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) without the recommendation of the State/UT concerned. However, the State government officials said that they were still waiting for further directions from the Centre. (Source: The Hindu Businessline)