Due to the absolute inaction by regulators, farmers are being pushed into buying these seeds at a high cost, without any authentic certification process.

Representative image of a man in grey trousers and white shirt wearing a white cap spraying pesticide with a machine over a green field
Voices Agriculture Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 16:23

Answering a question about action on the presence of illegal Herbicide Tolerant (HT) Bt cotton seeds in a recent interview, Environment Secretary RP Gupta pushed the responsibility on states, evading talking about the responsibility of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). After more than 5 years, no seed company has been named for illegally producing, distributing and profiting from these seeds.

While the percentage of trade in these seeds is a matter of estimation, one cannot ignore the presence of an entire sales network of HT Bt cotton seeds. Without effective action, the distribution, sales and annual production of illegal HT Bt seeds is continuing at the cost of farmers. States write a letter to the Centre and seem to think that their job is done. The Centre in turn says it is the responsibility of states.

Adequate scientific evidence of the ill-effects of HT crops and associated herbicides in general in terms of their health and environmental implications, and glyphosate in particular, is available. These include soil health impact, carcinogenic potential of glyphosate, occupational and accidental poisoning, etc. Several of the studies point to the problem cropping up even with sub-lethal doses of the active ingredient as well as the problem with surfactants and other ā€˜inertā€™ materials in glyphosate.

A Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC) was set up in 2017, reportedly at the direction of the Prime Ministerā€™s office, to make an assessment of the scale on which unapproved HT cotton was cultivated and to suggest measures to curb it. This committeeā€™s report is not available in the public domain, though seed industry representatives seem to have access. At a meeting called by the union government on June 17, 2018 to discuss this issue, states were advised to disallow the sale of glyphosate with a view to curbing the proliferation of unapproved, genetically modified (GM) HT cotton. But there is no reference to direct action on curbing illegal HT Bt cotton.

FISEC prepared its report after visiting different states and interacting with select individuals from the seed industry and with officials. This coordination and cooperative work between the union government and states seems to have vanished post submission of the committeeā€™s report. Apparently, FISEC has exonerated Mahyco while establishing a ā€œcouple of companiesā€ for breeding and sale of HT Bt cotton seeds. If this is true, there is no regulatory action on the companies that have been identified as involved in this for more than two years.

On the other hand, farmers are being pushed into buying these seeds at a high cost, without any authentic certification process. Illegal HT Bt cotton seed trade has been allowed to fester due to the absolute inaction by regulators. The lack of effective deterrent action is due probably to the stranglehold of the biotech seed industry on regulators. Legal or illegal, Bt cotton has led to increasing turnovers of seed companies, who have expanded their illegal activities brazenly, in contempt of the law of the land, and control the narrative in media and official parleys. For these reasons, farmers are being forced to use such illegal cotton seeds, and consumers are clueless about the entry of HT Bt cotton seed oil in the food chain. Independent scientific and laboratory capacity is scarce in India. Many scientists too are either silent or give in to the pressure from biotech seed industry lobbies.

Seed companies, which are divided among different associations, are now fighting over market shares and profit percentages. Contentious issues include cotton seed prices, royalty, breeding rights, legal approvals, market practices and monopolies. Officials of union and state agricultural departments remain silent spectators. Governments, through their inaction, ineffectiveness and negligence, have left farmers with no choice but to buy illegal HT Bt seeds.

Given the grave situation for farmers, who are the victims of market wars of the seed companies and the negligent attitude of regulators, one would expect political parties and farmer unions to come to the rescue. However, even these democratic mechanisms are silent or confused, alternately, simply because some of them are sponsored by the seed company lobbies.

In this regard, the union government has to clarify why the FISEC report remains undisclosed and why its recommendations are not being pursued.

While scientific and laboratory capacity must be ramped up, monitoring systems must be set up with reporting of the situation made mandatory. Special squads and monitoring teams should be created, and details put in the public domain. The union government should formulate strong subordinate legislation under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, which creates appropriate and effective institutional mechanisms for GM seed regulation, both at central and state levels.

Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi is a public policy expert based in Hyderabad.

Views expressed are the authorā€™s own.

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