Gene Revolution and farmer fleecing
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 07 Apr 2016 4 Comments
In a veiled attack on Bt cotton seed supplier Mahyco Monsanto Hybrid Biotech (India), Union Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh pointedly said that a Bt cotton seed company had exploited Indian cotton farmers by hiking seed prices regularly and unfairly. The minister added, “If the farmer is in any kind of distress, government will not tolerate it. We are not here to please any rich person or company”.  Strong words, indeed.  


Before one goes further, it is pertinent to examine what has been churning in the seed sector. The seed sector is abuzz with a lot of developments in the recent past. It was not very long ago when New Delhi cracked the whip and clamped on the Bt cotton seed prices. It was, until then, laissez-faire, for the seed industry players, Mahyco-Monsanto in the lead. When New Delhi cracked the whip, rightly, the industry cried foul, and Monsanto threatened exiting from India.


This was a hollow threat. The Indian market is too big for Monsanto to gamble on. And, with the next biggest player in the seed business, Syngenta, of  Switzerland, which Monsanto had tried in vain to buy up, already bought up by the China Chemical Company, exiting India and moving to China was no alternative. It was just a hollow threat to scare the government, a hara kiri, to say the least.


In this scenario, it is pertinent to examine what Monsanto and its Indian arm Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company), now jointly known as Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India (P) Ltd, tried to do in India in the early years, when Monsanto was desperately trying to have a foothold in the Indian seed business.   


It was in 2002 that, with much arm twisting at the highest level, when the NDA was on its way out and UPA was waiting in the wings to take over, that Monsanto succeeded to bring into India the first genetically modified (GM) cotton crop, Bollgard I, a reference to the dreaded American Pink Bollworm that was devastating Indian cotton crop in several parts of the country. The technology involved transferring a gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, and stitching it up with the cotton cell. The resultant plant would exude a protein (toxin) which when sucked by the insect pest, would kill it.


It is a dubious technology and came under a serious cloud of suspicion in the US and Europe when it was taken up by Monsanto. That is another story which space restriction will not permit the author to go into detail here.


It is a “Recombinant RNA (Ribo Nucleic Acid)-based” technology at the periphery of good and foolproof science. Suffice to say, after a series of discussion at the highest level, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (subsequently rechristened as Genetic  Engineering Appraisal Committee), which operates as though it is the CIA of India, gave clearance to Bollgard I and allowed its commercial cultivation in India.


Farmers from Punjab took to it wholeheartedly and there followed a “Bt cotton sweep” in India. Cotton production, for a time, seemed to climb. This author had warned, as early as 2003, that the Bt cotton would fail in India. Alas, the warning fell on deaf ears. At the time of writing this piece, the total decimation of Bt cotton in Punjab and Rajasthan stands testimony to the author’s earlier warning. To make a long story short, the white fly took over from the pink boll worm, meaning the pest got smarter than the Bt crop.


Mahyco-Monsanto followed the Bollgard I with variants, such as Bollgard II, with no better field results. Bt cotton needs the best of cultural practices, plentiful fertiliser supply, assured irrigation, and occasional supplemental insecticidal sprays. This is the same condition in which the Bt cotton thrived in US, Brazil, Argentina or even in China. And this is also the reason why the Bt cotton failed miserably in rain-fed areas of the country.


The testimony to this is the Vidarbha district of Maharashtra, the “cotton belt” of the state.  When a poor or marginal farmer could not afford the necessary inputs, the crop failed. And mass suicides followed. What happened in Punjab and Rajasthan to Bt cotton due to white fly attack turned out to be a national disaster, but New Delhi kept the whole thing under wraps.


More than the worrisome failed technology, what worries one more is how, while Mahyco-Monsanto fixed the price of a 500-gram seed packet of Bollgard I at Rs 1950 in India, in 2003, the same was selling at about US $2 in China. That is what this author found while on a scientific mission to China in 2004. Translated into currency parity, at the time, what a poor or marginal cotton Indian farmer was made to pay in India was almost a twenty-fold increase than what his counterpart paid in China. The exponential increase in the price was explained by Mahyco-Monsanto as “trait value”.  


But, there is another side to the story. The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences brought out its own version of Bt cotton and Monsanto had a run for its money! This also begs the question, why couldn’t the Indian counterpart cotton scientist accomplish what the Chinese scientists did. Doesn’t is show the high-powered ICAR, our agricultural universities involved in cotton research and the well-funded Central Cotton Research Institute in poor light?


At the height of escalating Bt cotton seed prices put in place by Mahyco-Monsanto, many other private seed players followed, borrowing the half-baked technology from Mahyco-Monsanto combine. The Monopolistic Trade Practices Commission then came on the scene and put a clamp on Bt cotton seed prices. Credit must go to the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh Government for this commendable initiative which provided great succour to the beleaguered cotton farmer. What our central minister has done now is to follow up on this bold and commendable initiative, which is praiseworthy.


During the last half century, when hybrid seeds were widely used by Indian farmers, the question of seed prices, be it of wheat, rice or cotton, was never an issue. But, Monsanto set in place a very bad precedent in India. Tragically, some of our own scientists, for personal gain, are responsible for this state of affairs.


In 2013, at a hurriedly arranged meeting in Washington, it was announced that Monsanto-Syngenta and a totally unknown Belgian molecular biologist were awarded the 2013 World Food Prize? It transpired that an Indian agricultural scientist facilitated this, by virtue of the fact that he was the chairman of the selection committee for this prestigious prize! Was it a covert attempt to open the Indian market to Monsanto?   


It is the deep conviction of this author that the Indian seed industry must be under the public sector, like the ICAR, or agricultural universities. Way back in the mid-1960s, at the height of the “green revolution”, the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology,  Pantnagar, which this author had the privilege to serve from 1970-1980, put in place a very dynamic seed company, the “Tarai Seeds”, under the incorruptible leadership of late Dr. Dhyan Pal Singh, the University’s Vice Chancellor. “Tarai Seeds” became world famous, with a money back guarantee. A far cry from what Mahyco-Monsanto and its cohorts are practising now in India, when the seed failed and the poor cotton farmer took the suicide route to escape the clutches of the Shylockian money lender!


The author was Former Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium, currently Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany                    

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