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Grey market corners new GM hybrids as farmers look beyond Bt cotton

Sold illegally, new the GM varieties are popular, as they offer both insect and herbicide tolerance

B Dasarath Reddy  |  Hyderabad 

Grey market corners new GM hybrids as farmers look beyond Bt cotton

The cultivation of (GM) crops with new transgenic traits such as (HT) is spreading fast in cotton growing states even though no license or approval has been granted by authorities such as or for growing them in India.

Farmers are swayed by the multiple benefits of these GM varieties, which are being sold illegally, as they offer the twin advantage of resistance and In comparison, the approved Bt variety (and Bollgard II) is only bollworm-resistant. 

The new GM varieties are being sold at half the price of approved by the grey market players, who seem to be outsmarting regulatory officials by operating directly in remote parts without any valid licenses.

"During a recent field visit, I tried to sensitise a group of farmers about the risk involved in buying the cotton seed without an invoice. What they told me was this: We understand the risk in the event of a crop failure. But we have only seen the benefits so far and the yields are also better," N Kumara Swamy, deputy director, in-charge of Seed Cell at the Agriculture Commissionerate of Telangana government, told Business Standard.

According to Swamy, farmers often keep the information under wraps fearing that they could be sent to jail if they were found cultivating the illegal GM cotton varieties.

The National Seed Association of India (NSAI), an industry body of seed companies, believes that the unapproved transgenic cotton seed varieties that carry a combination of HT and IT (insect tolerant) traits are being cultivated in about 15-20 per cent of the total cotton crop area in the country. It was estimated that cotton is cultivated in about 12 million hectares in India.

"According to our information, the cultivation of these GM cotton hybrids is happening in all the major cotton growing states. To that extent the cotton seed market has shrunk for the licensed seed companies," said M Prabhakara Rao, president of NSAI, who is also the chairman of Hyderabad-based Limited.

Seed companies cannot produce or sell these new GM traits in their proprietary hybrids because the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has not granted approval for commercial cultivation of the HT GM trait in cotton despite allowing the field trials long ago.

Apparently no evaluation is undertaken on the environmental impact, or other implications, if any, from herbicide tolerant cotton being cultivated in violation of law since 2013-14.

The DNA Fingerprinting and Transgenic Crops Monitoring Lab (DFTCM Lab) in Hyderabad had established the presence of a GM cotton event called 1445 with a single gene copy of HT trait in a test conducted on samples about 4 years ago.

A recent lab test on three samples of seed seized from a bus-stand in Guntur by the DFTCM Lab (the one which is now under the AP government's control), also found that the samples belong to the same unapproved 1445 event, which have been cultivated in countries like Australia and the US, according to the lab officials. A test report issued as recently as on July 3, 2017 by Telangana DFTCM Lab on a seed sample collected in Rangareddy district also confirmed that the sample contains herbicide tolerant traits.

It is not fully known about the network of the unorganised, grey market operators who not only laid their hands on these unapproved GM cotton traits but also manage the breeding and production for development of several new HT varieties for their illegal sale across the country.

Some say that there is a strong possibility of GM seeds being stolen during the field trials while others do not rule out the possibility of people bringing them from outside the country. As a matter of fact only a few seeds are enough to develop new varieties and keep producing their seeds year after year.

"Both Monsanto and Bayer had conducted field trials on GM cotton with HT trait containing a single gene copy in 2007, 2008 and 2009 in India. But we do not have the traceability to tell whether the seed samples seized in Guntur belong to one of these GM cotton hybrids that had undergone field trials in Gujarat," K M V Prasad Reddy, additional director of DFTCM Lab (AP) says. However it's easy to establish through certain molecular tests its same event and gene that was tested or not, according to experts.

The problem of unauthorized GM cotton has got further aggravated this year with grey market players allegedly selling the unauthorized Round-up Ready Flex (RRFlex) GM seed to farmers in several parts of the country, including AP and Telangana, in a big way.

This is the same GM cotton trait that Mahyco Monsanto, the Indian subsidiary of global seed company Monsanto, had withdrawn from seeking approval for commercial use in August, 2016 in an act of protest.

"We understand the sale of such seeds is happening in remote places of the state like, for example, Asifabad region, Mahadevpur region, Kamalapur to Kothagudem etc by agents who are not even having seed license. The farmers are getting attracted to purchase such seeds since they are available at very low prices at Rs 400-450 per packet and also due to the fact that cultivation of such varieties enables them to use broad spectrum herbicides based on glyphosate to control weeds thereby reducing the efforts and costs in weed maintenance," Hyderabad-based Seedsmen Association has informed Telangana government in a recent letter while seeking close monitoring and sampling of the sale of such seeds for testing for unapproved GM traits.

In its letter the association also proposed to work within Indian IPR laws in collaboration of state agriculture university to obtain approval for various new GM traits available in the farmers' fields to develop new cotton hybrids and varieties. This was suggested to remove grey market operators and make approved traits and hybrids available to farmers so that quality regulation of seeds doesn't go out of hand thereby benefiting farmers, according to Seedsmen Association president A S N Reddy.

First Published: Mon, July 24 2017. 20:53 IST