Company says improper practices at the farm level, absence of refuge planting, and spread of illegal seeds cause crop failure
New Delhi: The damage to the cotton crop last year from pink bollworm pest attacks in several states has prompted the seed industry lobby to write to technology provider, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd (MMBL), urging it to take liability for any claims for compensation.
“It may be important for you to declare that Bollgard II (genetically modified Bt cotton) cannot give protection against pink bollworms due to development of resistance by the insect," said a 21 February letter from National Seed Association of India (NSAI) to MMBL. Mint has a copy of the letter.
In the absence of such a declaration, domestic seed companies will face “huge claims of compensation... which are beyond the financial abilities of our member companies," the letter said, adding, “we request you to take responsibility for any compensation claims that might arise from the cotton crop sown in 2016-17".
An MMBL spokesperson said the firm is examining the letter.
Referring to internal tests in Gujarat which showed resistance in pests to the technology, the company said this was a result of improper practices at the farm level, absence of refuge planting (for the pest to feed on), and spread of illegal seeds.
It added that the technology still provided effective protection against the American bollworm and spotted bollworm. “Resistance is a natural, evolutionary process. We continue to find that our traits are still bringing great value to farmers in all the regions where they are used," MMBL said.
The latest rift between NSAI and MMBL comes on the back of India’s antitrust regulator, Competition Commission of India, ordering an investigation last week to find out if MMBL abused its dominant position in the cotton seed market.
MMBL, a joint venture between Mahyco Seeds Ltd and Monsanto Co., a global technology provider of genetically modified seeds, supplies its genetically modified Bollgard II technology to 49 seed companies in India in exchange for a trait or royalty fee. Over 90% of India’s cotton crop uses this technology.
India approved genetically modified Bt cotton technology for commercial cultivation in 2002. The selling point of the technology was its resistance to the bollworm pest that reduced use of pesticides.
While the technology helped India become the world’s second largest producer and exporter from a net importer of cotton, in recent years resistance of Bt cotton to pest attacks has become a recurring issue.
According to the letter, last year’s Bt cotton crop was severely damaged in major cotton-growing states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh.
“Many of our members received notices from seed regulators seeking explanation and in certain cases compensation for the losses suffered by farmers," the letter said.
Mint has seen copies of show-cause notices issued to seed companies by district agriculture authorities in Maharashtra and Karnataka. These were issued under provisions of the Seed Act, 1966 and its corresponding rules.
NSAI is not the only one complaining about Bt cotton’s resistance to pest attacks.
According to K.R. Kranthi, director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, results of resistance monitoring studies from 44 districts across the country conducted between 2011 and 2015 showed crop damage and pest survival in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and central Maharashtra.
The Union government told the Delhi high court on 23 January that Bt cotton had developed resistance to the pink bollworm and royalty on the technology should come down with its efficacy.
The government’s response came in a dispute over its earlier order (7 December, 2015) to regulate cotton seed prices. MMBL challenged certain provisions of the price control order in the Delhi high court, especially those determining trait or royalty fees.
The price control committee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday (24 February) and will take a final decision on seed prices by 31 March, in time for sowing of the cotton crop in June.
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