New Delhi: Last month, in perhaps the world’s first farmer movement in favour of genetically-modified (GM) crops, farmers in Maharashtra planted the banned herbicide-tolerant Bt (HTBt) Cotton — an act that can invite a Rs 1 lakh fine and five years’ jail term.
The farmers said they were protesting against the government’s cap on this technology, adding they didn’t want subsidies or loan waivers, “just give us our independence”.
While Bt cotton, a pest-resistant variety that produces an insecticide to combat bollworm, is approved in India, the use of HTBt cotton is banned.
What is Bt cotton?
Bt cotton was created by adding genes derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces over 200 different toxins, each harmful to different insects.
When certain insects attack the Bt cotton plant, they get killed. Such pest-resistant crops do away with the need for broad-spectrum insecticides, which harm natural insect predators in the farm.
Reducing the use of pesticides also prevents the agricultural run-off from polluting rivers and the food chain.
Bt cotton was first approved for commercial use in the United States in 1995. In 2002, a joint venture between US-based Monsanto and the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co Ltd (Mahyco) introduced Bt cotton to India.
In 2011, India grew the largest GM cotton crop at 10.6 million hectares. As of 2014, 95 per cent of cotton grown in India was genetically-modified.
What is HTBt Cotton?
The HTBt variety adds another genetic modification to the Bt cotton crop — it makes the crop resistant to a commonly-used herbicide.
HTBt plants allow farmers to spray herbicides to get rid of parasitic weeds in the farm without harming the main crop. Using this variety could save the farmers from having to put in extra labour in pulling out weeds, which deprive the cotton plants of vital nutrients and reduce yield.
Why is HTBt cotton banned in India?
All GM crops in India need to be approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex body under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for regulating the manufacture, use, import, export and storage of hazardous micro-organisms or genetically-engineered organisms (GMOs) and cells in the country.
According to Vijay N. Waghmare, acting director and head of division of crop improvement at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Central Institute of Cotton Research, since Monsanto has withdrawn an application seeking approval for its next generation of genetically-modified cotton seeds in India, approving it is now difficult.
In 2016, Mahyco, Monsanto’s technology partner in India, withdrew an application seeking approval for its next generation of genetically-modified cotton seeds.
This was done to protest the government’s proposal that would force Monsanto to share its technology with local seed companies, according to a Reuters report.
Where are farmers getting the HTBt cotton seeds from?
Multiple media reports claim that the seed is easily available in the market and is already widely planted and harvested by farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
According to Anil Ghanwat, president of the Shetkari Sanghatana that led the farmers’ movement in Maharashtra in June, said various Indian companies were illegally marketing HTbt cotton seeds, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
The exact source of these seeds is not always known; they might have been smuggled from abroad, Ghanwat said. He added that the seeds had been in use for at least three years, and farmers were happy with the results.
What is the harm in using HTBt cotton?
The herbicide-tolerance can easily spread through pollination, and eventually give rise to a variety of ‘super-weeds’ that are resistant to existing herbicides, Waghmare explains.
This could create a situation akin to what the world is witnessing today with antibiotic resistance — misuse of over-the-counter antibiotics has caused several strains of disease-causing bacteria to become immune to existing medications.
A 2013 study, which used data from several countries, including the US, China, and Australia, showed that pests evolved resistance to Bt crops after a few generations.
Scientists’ push for GM
A number of scientists and agricultural researchers have backed GM crops, and the farmers’ protest in Maharashtra.
“The myth that Bt is poisonous needs to go,” said T.M. Manjunath, an agricultural entomologist and former director of Monsanto, who has been involved with Bt cotton from its inception in India. “Bt is not a poison to humans or mammals or any other animals other than the group of pests which includes bollworm. It was specifically designed to be that way.”
Bhagirath Choudhary, who runs South Asia Biotechnology Centre in New Delhi, has also backed the technology, especially in the face of charges that it needs extra water or fertilisers.
“There hasn’t been enough conclusive evidence to say that fertiliser or water usage has increased,” he explained. “But if it has, it is not because of the genetic engineering itself but because of hybridisation.
“Hybrids are very responsive to fertilisers and farmers know it. Even when there is no Bt involved and hybridisation takes place, it is accepted practice to add fertiliser as it highly increases yields,” said Choudhary.