Bt cotton: Centre to soon allow commercial use of 3 locally made varieties

The three new strains of Bt cotton were grown using the now off-patent Bollgard-1 technology

The government is expected to soon allow commercial release of three genetically modified (Bt) and indigenously developed varieties of cotton seed, for the first time. These were grown using the now off-patent Bollgard-1 technology (BG-1).

Officials said the seeds (called PAU-1, RS 2013 and F-1861) had been recommended for commercial release by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The seeds can be re-used and this allows significantly lower prices than existing Bt cotton varieties, mostly licensed by seed giant Monsanto.

Monsanto first started sub-licensing the BG-1 technology, which went off-patent in 2006. It now sub-licenses BG-2. Seeds produced by using this technology occupy 95 per cent of the Indian cotton market. A third technology, BG-3, is in the pipeline but commercial use has not yet been approved.

"We welcome the move to commercially release indigenously produced Bt cotton but it remains to be seen whether this is parallel to the existing BG-2. If priced significantly lower than existing seeds, it can have some attraction among farmers, mainly in those areas where pink bollworm is not a big problem," Kalyan Goswami, executive director of National Seed Association of India (NSAI), told this newspaper.

Pink bollworm is a major problem in the main cotton growing regions of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

NITI Aayog in its recently issued three-year (2017-18 to 2019-20) draft action agenda had supported the use of Bt seeds developed by domestic institutions and companies. Among these three, PAU 1 and F-1861 were developed by Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. RS-2013 was developed by Rajasthan Agricultural University, Bikaner.

Officials say the average yield of the genotypes is around 500 kg a hectare, more than conventional cotton seed and close to the average yield from existing Bt varieties. Cotton Corporation of India said the country's average yield in the 2016-17 crop year that ends this September was 568 kg a ha.

Locally made Bt varieties, say officials, are moderately resistant to cotton leaf curl disease and the quality of the crop is at par with all conventional varieties.

The move to commercialise the Indian version of Bt cotton comes soon after Monsanto deciding to go slow on bringing new seed technologies into the country, after its dispute with some licensees over the trait value or licence fees. The dispute led to the Centre appointing a panel to recommend on cotton seed prices. The latter lowered the retail sale price of Bt cotton seed to Rs 800 for a 450g packet, down from the earlier Rs 830-1,030, and slashed the licence fee charged by research firms by 74 per cent. The same price was maintained for 2017-18. The move helped farmers but raised a big question over India's Intellectual Property Rights regime.

Monsanto Mahyco Biotech (India), a joint venture of Mahyco Seeds and Monsanto, licenses its patented Bollgard-II cotton seed technology to domestic seed companies, for a royalty fee.

Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-supportive entity, has opposed any move to commercialise even locally produced BT cotton. "We are primarily against Bt cotton and GM technology, mainly because of its adverse impact on environment and health, irrespective of the country or company which produces it," said its convener, Ashwini Mahajan.

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