Fifty Percent of Andhra Cotton Has Illegal HT Trait, Say Farmers, Govt Notifies Committee to Study “Efficacy,” Monsanto Cries Foul

Guntur farmers present the widespread cultivation of Bt cotton with illegal herbicide-tolerance (HT) trait as an accomplished fact. They want the government to legitimize it by allowing the breeding of better quality HT seeds though the trait is patented in India. The AP government obliges with a committee. Vivian Fernandes reports on whether this is an elaborate plot to undermine seeds patents with the PPVFR Act.

The Andhra Pradesh government has notified a committee of three officials to inspect cotton fields and study the “efficacy” of illegal herbicide tolerant cotton being grown in the state. The committee will give its report in 15 days.

The notification was issued on 5 October, after the government received a representation from farmers of Amravati block in Guntur district seeking better quality herbicide-tolerant Bt cottonseed. They admitted in the representation that illegal “RRF or Glycel Bt cotton seed” is being planted in 50 percent of the state’s villages and 15 percent of its area.

RRF Bt cotton is Monsanto’s genetically-modified insect-resistant cotton with tolerance to the herbicide, glyphosate, which the company sells as Roundup.  (Glycel is the brand for the same salt of Excel Industries). Mahyco or Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company had conducted bio-safety trials on Roundup Ready Flex Bt cotton till the stage II level. It was hopeful of getting approval for commercial release of the trait, but withdrew the application last year fearing other seed companies would use the technology without its authorization once the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) gave its approval.

The cultivation of herbicide-tolerant cotton is illegal, as the trait has not been approved in India.

The representation by farmers seems to be a ploy by some seed companies to grab the technology and sell the seed without authorization of the patent holders. Curiously, the farmers in their representation, the notification says, have said that better quality seeds can be developed by research stations as there can be no patents on plants and seeds (through they can have patented traits in them) as per the seed control order and the government’s clarification.

In May last year, the agriculture ministry had sought to waive patents on genetically-modified traits in crops like Bt cotton using the Essential Commodities Act. The order was hastily withdrawn.

The Delhi High Court has upheld the patents on GM traits but has said the trait fee can be regulated by the government. The matter is under challenge in the division bench of the Delhi High Court.

The founder and managing director of Nuziveedu Seeds, M Prabhakara Rao, and the National Seed Association of India, of which he is the chairman, have been saying that the Indian Patent Act does not apply to plants and seeds and that genetically-modified traits incorporated in them, are protected by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act. They have been asserting that seed companies as breeders have a limited right to use patented plant technologies for research without authorization. Once a patented trait is incorporated in a plant or seed, they can be multiplied through conventional breeding methods without permission. The trait owners, they say, can make a claim on the PPVFR Authority for “benefit-share,” but not seek royalty from seed companies. Nuziveedu Seeds is a former franchisee of Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech.

Monsanto, in a press statement, has expressed “grave concern that some seed companies, while suppressing their real intent of profiteering, are attempting to illegally incorporate unauthorized and unapproved herbicide-tolerant technologies in their seeds.”  Commercial release of GM technologies without the regulatory approval may not only pose risks to the country’s farmers but is also a violation of the laws, the release says.

Roundup Ready Flex or RRF, Monsanto says, is a propriety technology and has a patent in India. It says it had brought to the notice of GEAC as early as September 2008 that seeds with herbicide tolerance trait were being sold illegally in India.  It has been making continuous representations to GEAC since then, it says, the latest being in August.

(Top photo of a brand of illegal herbicide-tolerant cotton courtesy of SABC).

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