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India reports record plantation of illegal cotton hybrid

Cotton is the only GM crop allowed to be cultivated in India. However, farmers can only grow the BT (Bacillus thuringenisis) cotton that can naturally protect itself against natural pest – the pink bollworm.

THE CURRENT season has seen the highest sowing of unauthorised genetically-modified (GM) cotton. As compared to the sale of approximately 30 lakh packets of this hybrid in 2018, seed companies say, this year, the sales have been between 60-65 lakh packets.

Cotton is the only GM crop allowed to be cultivated in India. However, farmers can only grow the BT (Bacillus thuringenisis) cotton that can naturally protect itself against natural pest – the pink bollworm.

However since the past few years, cotton growers have veered towards another hybrid, which allows the plant to develop resistance to the application of herbicide glyphosate or HT BT. Manual weed control, cotton farmers say, is both time consuming and difficult given the paucity of labourers in the rural area.

Over the years, farmers have veered towards growing this unauthorised hybrid although it is illegal to do so in India. Farmers in Gujarat, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh surreptitiously produce the seeds, which are then smuggled to farmers in Maharashtra and other states.

Given the illegal nature of the seeds, both production and sales are carried out in cloak and dagger manner. State agriculture commissioners often conduct raids on such businesses, confiscate the seeds and systematically destroy them.

In 2018, the Centre had constituted a special committee to study the problem. The committee had estimated a sale of 30-33 lakh packets of the illegal hybrid. In the next season, the state and the Centre had clamped down on seed production and also introduced only licensed usage of the commonly used herbicide glyphosate, which had put the clamped down on production. However, production and sales had again rebounded.

Seed manufacturers said, for the current season, sales of such seeds have peaked. “Our surveys talk of 60-65 lakh packets of illegal hybrid this season. This has to be the highest in the last few seasons,” said an insider of the industry.

Bhagirath Choudhary, founder director of South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC) talked about the ease of operations and paucity of labour as the main reasons for farmers going for this hybrid. “Getting labour during the crop cycle is difficult. So farmers are opting for the option which technology offers,” he added.

Shetkari Sanghtana, a farmers’ union, founded by late Sharad Joshi, had taken up the cause of HtBt cotton. In 2019, the union had carried out open sowing of this hybrid in defiance of the law.

This year the union has asked to contact if they required help with sowing of this hybrid. Laxmikant Kauthakar, spokesperson of the union, said they received calls from over 60,000 farmers. “Majority of the calls were from Maharashtra but some farmers from Gujarat had also contacted us,” he added.

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