Maharashtra, Telangana farmers plant illegal GM cotton in protest
Thousands of farmers defied the law to plant an unapproved variety of genetically modified (GM) cotton on nearly 20% of the cultivated area in Maharashtra and Telangana this past kharif or summer-sown season, the highest so far, as part of a protest movement by pro-GM farm groups.
This means the share of herbicide tolerant (Ht) cotton in total output could be between 1.5-2%, said Ajit Narde, the chief technology officer of the Shetkari Sangathana, a pro-GM-technology farm lobby in Maharashtra.
Harvesting of cotton, sown in June, is almost over in major states, including in Maharashtra and Telangana, and according to Shetkari Sangathana’s own estimates, the share of herbicide tolerant (Ht) cotton in total output from these states could be nearly 2% of the total.
The growing acreage of herbicide tolerant (Ht) cotton points to a thriving illegal seed market in the country and poses environmental threats because it has not been cleared by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the country’s biotech regulator.
The Shetkari Sangathana says its farmers have defied the law to protest the government’s shutting of doors to new GM technology.
In four districts of Maharashtra, close to 90% of the cotton grown belongs to the illegal HtBT variety. About 15% of Telengana’s crop belongs to the illegal variety, Narde said.
Ht cotton is a genetically modified to withstand the herbicides glyphosate, so that farmers can spray the entire cotton with the chemical, kills the weed but not the cotton plant.
“The risk are indiscriminate use of glyphosate, which has been linked to cancer. Since the seeds are illegal, there is no guarantee of the genetic material and farmers have no way of knowing what they are buying,” said SR Rao, a former senior advisor with the department of biotechnology, ministry of environment. Rao was one of the members of a federal panel that probed the extent of illegal Ht cotton farming.
In 2002, India allowed Bt cotton, the only GM crop approved for commercial cultivation. The adoption Bt cotton catapulted India into the world’s second largest cotton exporter and nearly 90% of all cotton grown in the country is of the GM cotton variety. There have been cases of the current Bt cotton technology developing resistance to the pink bollworm, the principal pest it is supposed to repel.
If the area is indeed 20%, this means the illegal Ht cotton seed market will be close Rs 1000 crore and 7-8 million illegal seed packets must have been sold in this season, said a Maharashtra agriculture department official, requesting anonymity.
In 2018, a high-level expert panel, the Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (Fisec), was set up by the Prime Minister’s Office under the department of biotechnology to probe illegal Ht cotton markets. It estimated the share of the illegal Ht cotton crop in 2018 to be 15% of the total plantation.
“The situation going so totally out of control points to the apathy and incapability of regulatory authorities to tackle the problem. It is a regulatory failure,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.
The onus of cracking down on illegal networks and illegal sowing is on the states, an official of the department of biotechnology said. Maharashtra has so far slapped cases against 13 farmers, against which the Shetkari Sangathana approached the Mumbai high court, which asked the government in August 2019 not to proceed against the farmers, said Narde.
The Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court has asked the Maharashtra police not to take “coercive action” against farmers accused of planting Ht cotton on the ground that these farmers bought the seeds from the market in good faith, lawyer Satish Borulkar, who appeared for the farmers, said. The court has asked the state government to present a detailed report in the case.
According to Kuruganti, the production centres of illegal hybrid Ht cotton seeds are well-known and are limited to three states: Gujarat, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. “One way to curb the menace is to restrict the availability of glyphosate. If glyphosate isn’t available freely, then farmers have no incentive to plant Ht cotton,” she said. Currently, Indian regulations allow the chemical glyphosate to be used only for tea gardens.
Narde of the Shetkari Sangathana said 80% of the area in cotton growing districts such as Gadchiroli and Chandrapur are now under the Ht cotton variety.
One of the risks of using unapproved seeds is that they could be fakes or don’t possess the traits that they are supposed to.
“The seeds that we have used are showing very good results. Farmers want access to better technology to improve their incomes,” said Vijay Niwal of Hiwari village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district.
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