Not only is this creating an unregulated market for genetically modified (GM) seeds, it is potentially harmful to the environment because it entails use of herbicides which are otherwise restricted.
At the same time, given that these seeds are not approved by the regulator there is every chance the seeds, which are expensive, could lead to crop failure, increasing the downside risks to farmers—cotton farming has witnessed the highest number of suicides.
The Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee, or FISEC, under the department of biotechnology was set up by the PMO in October last year, after reports emerged that farmers are using unapproved genetically modified HT cotton seeds to save on labour costs. A copy of the report which was submitted to the PMO in June has been reviewed by Mint.
The FISEC panel collected 13,361 leaf and seed samples and found 15% prevalence of unapproved HT cotton in major states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and about 5% in Punjab.
Last year sales of genetically modified Bt cotton seeds were estimated at 45 million packets.
“At 15% prevalence this translates to 6.75 million illegal seed packets or close to ₹ 900 crore business in illegal seeds," said a biotechnology expert who did not want to be named.
Average price of HT cotton seeds were ₹ 1,300 per packet last year compared to ₹ 800 for legal Bt cotton seed packets. Both varieties are genetically modified.
Usage of illegal seed use far surpasses what was previously estimated at 3.5 million packets in the 2017 kharif season by the Delhi-based non-profit South Asia Biotechnology Centre.
Farmers are using “HT cotton for 1-2 years and are satisfied with the technology which is less labour intensive and hence is cost beneficial," the report said pointing to the risks farmers are taking despite the possibility of facing prosecution or seeds turning out to be of poor quality.
“Some farmers companied about the lack of trait purity (or seed quality and effectiveness) but they could not do much as they do not have any bill to show as a proof of seed purchase," the report said. It added that illegal seeds were supplied “hand-to-hand by middle men directly to the farmers often without any proper packet with labels."
Using HT cotton seeds, farmers can spray herbicides like glyphosate which kills the weed but not the cotton plant which is genetically tolerant to chemical sprays.
Currently India allows glyphosate to be used only for tea plantations and non-agricultural use.
“Use of glyphosate in agriculture can lead to resistance and the rise of super weeds, besides contamination of resources like soil and water," said Kavitha Kuruganti, convener of policy advocacy group Association for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.
The FISEC report said that hybrids developed by the seed company Mahyco which were in regulatory approval were not found in any field samples “indicating there has been no deliberate release" by the company into the market.
A Mahyco spokesperson said the company has always adhered to guidelines and protocols set by regulators but refused to say more since it is yet to see the FISEC report.
However, the report said that “the 14 illegal hybrids collected from the fields could be grouped into two major groups, indicating very narrow genetic base reflecting organised breeding activity by couple of companies."
The committee ruled out smuggling of seeds from countries where HT cotton is approved for cultivation “since the genotypes were found native to India."
“This essentially means that the technology was stolen during field trials and used by domestic seed companies in a case of regulatory oversight," said the expert quoted earlier.
According to FISEC the samples were found negative for all globally approved HT genes except for round-up ready flex or RRF event MON88913, a proprietary technology developed by Monsanto.
The genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) of the environment ministry, the agency tasked to decide on commercialization of GM crops, is likely to act following the FISEC report. A meeting of GEAC is likely to be held later this month.
Based on its findings the FISEC panel recommended state governments to “destroy all confiscated HT cotton seeds", enforce labelling requirements by GEAC such that only approved seeds are available in the market, and restrict use of glyphosate in farming.