As our readers would recall, the Government has been taking a number of robust (and some would say heavy-handed) measures to control the price of Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which, until recently, was widely recognized as the only pest-resistant variety of cotton available in India.
As I noted in my most recent piece on this issue, the fact that the Government has been compelled to take a large number of measures against a single company in order to make pest-resistant seeds available at an affordable price is reflective of the Government’s failure to appropriately incentivize the growth of desi cotton, the share of which comprises a paltry 3% of India’s cotton acreage. In that article, I had expressed the hope that the Government would use this incident to take a hard look at its failure to incentivize the growth and widespread adoption of desi cotton and devise appropriate strategies accordingly.
If recent news reports are to be believed, the Government seems to have done exactly that. More specifically, as this article notes, farmers across North India have begun adopting, on a fairly large scale, a local variety of cotton that is resistant to a particularly pernicious pest, found during dry weather, called the whitefly. As the article notes, the coverage of the new local variety has increased nearly by 24 times over the last year, from 3,000 hectares to roughly 72,280 hectares this year.
The emergence of a credible alternative to Bt Cotton is a welcome development, not only because it is likely to provide farmers the freedom to choose cotton seeds that they find suitable and appropriate, but also because it indicates the Government’s desire to address the problem of unaffordable pest-resistant cotton seeds by developing viable competitors to Bt cotton as opposed to doing so by impairing Monsanto’s contractual freedoms.
Even though India has emerged as the world’s largest producer of cotton, a substantial portion of the country’s cotton crop is destroyed each year by a large variety of pernicious pests. Indeed, this is the reason why the country’s cotton yield per hectare hovers around 470-550 KG while the global average is 786 KG.
While various strategies have been devised to curb this menace, none has worked as well as Bt cotton, a genetically modified variety of cotton which accounts for almost 90% of the country’s cotton acreage. It is no wonder, then, that Monsanto’s unique expertise in the production of Bt cotton have propelled it to the position of India’s undisputed leader in the production of pest-resistant cotton.
While no institution, either in the public or the private sector, would have been in a position to produce cotton seeds that could hold a candle to Bt cotton a year ago, a lot has changed in recent months.
More specifically, last year, two-thirds of the cotton crop in Punjab, one of the leading cotton producing states in India, was destroyed by a fairly common pest found in North India called the whitefly. This exposed the chinks in Monsanto’s armour, namely the inability of Bt cotton to fight pests other than the bollworm such as the whitefly. As Monsanto’s spokespersons noted at the time, Bt cotton was designed exclusively to fight various forms of bollworms, rendering the seeds susceptible to other pests.
Therefore, the vacuum that was created by Bt cotton’s failure to fight pests other than bollworms has now been filled by the introduction of the new desi variety of cotton.
Modalities for selling seeds to farmers:
One of the chief reasons why desi cotton seeds have not taken off in India in a big way thus far is because of the failure of the Government and the Central Institute for Cotton Research in developing a robust and practical pathway for making these seeds available to farmers in an efficient and transparent fashion. This being the case, the strategy adopted to make this whitefly-resistant variety of cotton available to farmers at an affordable price acquires added significance.
As this article notes, these cotton seeds are most commonly distributed to farmers during kisan melas which are frequently held in cotton farms across North India, especially in the cotton belt.
While this approach seems to have yielded significantly better results than other strategies adopted thus far, it is not free from flaws. As the article alluded to above goes on to explain, farmers wishing to buy desi cotton seeds have often been forced to return empty-handed from agriculture department offices and kisan melas because of lack of availability of adequate quantities of desi cotton seeds. While state government and agricultural universities across North India have made an aggressive push for the adoption of desi cotton, so long as such seeds are not produced on a sufficiently large scale, desi cotton will not be able to emerge as a sustainable and effective substitute for Bt cotton.
While the widespread adoption of desi cotton by farmers in North India is a cause for celebration, we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that this development is attributable, in large part, to the fact that Monsanto’s GM seeds are not resistant to pests like the whitefly and not to the inherent superiority of the desi seeds in terms of quality or impact. Indeed, one would be in a position to recognize desi cotton seeds as a genuine substitute only when they are developed in such a way as to enable them to fight the pests in the battle against which Monsanto’s GM seeds have thus far enjoyed a virtual monopoly.
However, it would be incorrect to think that the emergence of desi cotton has not had a material bearing on Monsanto’s expansion plans in India. As this news report indicates, Monsanto has decided to withdraw its application for seeking regulatory approvals for its next-generation GM seeds called Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex technology. While the decision was doubtless driven in large part by the Government’s attempts to impose arbitrary licensing terms down Monsanto’s throat, it may also have been significantly impacted by the vulnerability of the seeds to newly emerging pests and the possibility of Monsanto losing its monopoly in the area of pest-resistant seeds.
All in all, it would be interesting to see how this battle between Bt cotton and desi varieties pans out, now that the latter have well and truly entered the fray.