Controls on GM crops will curb access to new solutions needed to tackle climate change. Our farmers will be the biggest losers
Bt cotton, the only Genetically Modified (GM) crop so far allowed for cultivation in India, is genetically tweaked to kill bollworms that ravage cotton crops. It promises substantial increase in return by saving on pesticide use and increase in crop yield. At the price paid for Bt cotton seed, including technology fee paid to biotech major Monsanto, farmers get handsome returns. Since its introduction, the use of Bt cotton in India has increased manifold with the area under coverage, leap-frogging from a mere 50,000 hectare to around 12 million hectare, covering major States such as Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. At present, 98 per cent of the area under cotton is covered by Bt technology. Yet Bayer-Monsanto (renamed after acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer) faces a stifling environment due to legal/judicial, regulatory and administrative hurdles. On March 28, 2017, a single judge Bench of the Delhi High Court upheld Monsanto’s patent related to the gene sequence responsible for Bt trait but held as illegal the latter’s termination of its sub-licence agreement for GM hybrid cotton seeds with Nuziveedu Seeds (a local seed company). It also ordered domestic companies to make all future royalty payments as per Government stipulations.
While Monsanto challenged the above order pertaining to termination of sub-licence agreement, Nuziveedu challenged the portion upholding of the patent. A Division Bench of the Delhi High Court in its judgement on May 2, 2018, invalidated the patent, arguing that gene sequence responsible for Bt trait is a part of the seed, and, hence, unpatentable in terms of Section 3(j) of the Patents (Amendment) Act, 2005 that excludes higher life forms like plants, animals and their parts, and essential biological processes from the realm of patentability. Bayer Monsanto challenged this order in the Supreme Court. In its order dated January 8, the apex court restored Monsanto’s Bt cotton patent in India till its validity is decided finally by Delhi High Court. But this does little to unshackle the company. In December 2015, the Union Agriculture Ministry had issued a Cotton Seed Price Control Order under which it fixed the price of cotton seed sales all over the country at a uniform level and max trait fee (royalty) payable to Monsanto. Under it, MRP of a packet of Bollgard II seed (450 grams) was cut from Rs 930 (including Rs 163 for trait fee) to Rs 800 (Rs 42 trait fee). The cut in trait fee alone was Rs 121. In March 2018, the price was further reduced to Rs 740, including trait value of Rs 39.
The company had challenged the order but till date, the court has not even started hearing the case. Meanwhile, limiting the trait fee to a pittance five per cent of MRP denies the innovator a reasonable opportunity to recuperate the investment on discovery, development and commercialisation of the new transgenic variety. Furthermore, on May 18, 2016, the ministry had issued another order, making it mandatory for Monsanto to license technology to any seed company that approaches it. Following protests, though the order was withdrawn, local companies are freely selling seeds bearing patented technology of the biotech major. A company, which holds patent for the product of its innovation, has exclusive rights over its production/import, distribution, pricing and use. In this case, however, forget exclusivity, the innovator/patent holder (read: Monsanto) has no say whatsoever even as decision on all these parameters are taken by the Government. The situation remains unchanged despite the top court’s order.
This is not a good sign for farmers, who will not only be denied access to advanced versions of Bt cotton but also new technology solutions for saline soils, drought-and flood-resistant GM crops. They badly need the help of technology to meet the challenges of fast-changing climatic conditions. Already, Monsanto withdrew the herbicide tolerant cotton seeds from the approval process in August 2016. Reportedly, it also put in abeyance its plans to submit newer seeds for approval in India. A collateral damage is by way of unapproved new seeds finding their way to the farmers. According to the Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee, a body of experts-chaired by the co-chair of Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, around 15 per cent of the seeds being used in major cotton-growing States comprise unapproved herbicide-tolerant seeds. Even worse, these seeds are selling at Rs 1,200-1,500 per packet — almost double the MRP of Bollgard II seed (albeit approved) fixed by the Union Government. These illegal seeds have increased the problem of resistant weeds and are responsible for the new threat posed to the cotton crop — pink bollworms. The crux of the problem lies with the mindset of the Government. It feels that the innovator is out there to exploit the patent-induced monopoly to fleece farmers, which is not true. This in turn prompts it to impose excessive controls viz pricing, licensing an royalty. This mindset has to change or else our farmers will be put to loss due to denial of access to new solutions.
(The writer is a freelance journalist)