GM crops: Government should set up an independent regulator at the earliest

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Rarely does a large multinational company threaten to leave India. But that is exactly what Monsanto, the $40-billion American seed and agrochemical behemoth, did earlier this month.

In December, the ministry of agriculture had issued an order to cap the prices of Bt cotton seeds, the genetically modified (GM) hybrid developed by Monsanto, and set up a committee for the same. But the main worry for the company was the ministry's intention to regulate the royalty or trait fee paid to Mahyco MonsantoBSE 12.66 % Biotech (India), or MMB, a joint venture set up by Monsanto, by local seed companies using its technology.

MMB challenged the order in the Delhi High Court, which refused to stay it. Then came this salvo from Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, which made headlines.

"If the committee recommends imposing a sharp, mandatory cut in the trait fees paid on Bt cotton seeds, MMB will have no choice but to reevaluate every aspect of our position in India," said Shilpa Divekar Nirula, chief executive of Monsanto India, in a statement on March 4.

She added that such "arbitrary and innovation-stifling government interventions" make it impossible to recover research and development investments.
Strong words, but evidently not strong enough. Four days later, the government in a notification announced that, from April 1, the price of Bollgard II (BG-II) Bt cotton seeds would be capped at Rs 800 per 450 gm pack across India, which includes trait fees and taxes of Rs 49.

Now, the seeds are sold at anywhere between Rs 830 and Rs 1,000 in different parts of the country and the trait fee is around Rs 184, including taxes. The government also fixed the price of Bollgard I (BG-I) seeds at Rs 635 with no trait fee.

Government Raps "We're not scared if Monsanto leaves the country, because our team of scientists are working to develop (an) indigenous variety of (GM) seeds," Sanjeev Balyan, minister of state for agriculture, told Reuters on March 16. But Monsanto got some relief on Wednesday when the Karnataka High Court stayed the government's price control order that slashes the trait fee.

However, it allowed the government to fix the price of the seeds. Monsanto did not respond to ET Magazine's questions and Mahyco officials were not available for comment.

"If a company has a monopoly and is exploiting farmers, why should the government not intervene?" asks Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an organisation campaigning against GM crops.

MMB was recently served a notice by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, asking why the patent for BG-II should not be revoked as it has failed to resist pink bollworms.

Monsanto's problems do not end there: the Competition Commission of India (CCI) has, following the agriculture ministry's complaint, decided to look into alleged anti-competitive practices by MMB. Despite these actions, which have been welcomed by the anti-GM technology camp, the government has hardly made clear its position on GM or transgenic crops, but more on that later.

Cottoning On The current imbroglio is only the latest in the chequered history of GM crops in India. Unlike normal hybrid seeds, which are a result of cross-pollination of two different but related plants, 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, which is what Bt denotes, and BG-I contains only one gene. They are supposed to provide immunity to the plant primarily from pink bollworms. GM seeds are mostly either pest-resistant or herbicide-tolerant.

While genetic modification technology in plants is more than three decades old, it was first commercialised in the US, Argentina, China, Mexico, Canada and Australia in 1996, and in India in 2002, with the release of BG-I, during the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government. Four years later, BG-II was approved.
Bt cotton, the only GM crop that is now commercially cultivated in India, was responsible for a huge leap in India's cotton production. Between 2002-03 and 2014-15, India's cotton acreage rose by 65% and yields increased 78%, and production nearly trebled, making India the world's largest producer of cotton. Currently, around 95% of India's cotton farmers use Bt cotton, which has also halved insecticide use.

"Bt cotton in India has been a runaway success, but we can't ascribe the entire cotton revolution in India to it. Only about 20% of the increase in yields is because of Bt cotton," says former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, referring to a study done by the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The study found that since the adoption of Bt cotton was low till 2005, factors such as irrigation, use of fertilisers and pesticides, and human labour may have also played a part in the growth in cotton yields till 2010. It's interesting to note that in the three decades before the introduction of Bt cotton in India, yields rose nearly twoand-a-half times.

Last year, MMB took to court eight of its 49 sub-licensees, including Nuziveedu Seeds, Kaveri Seeds and Ankur Seeds, which use its Bollgard technologies, for refusing to pay over Rs 400 crore in trait fee. Kalyan Goswami, executive director of the National Seed Association of India, says that in the last three years the pink bollworm has resurfaced in Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

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