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Deccan Herald - Help farmers with quality GE seeds

Help farmers with quality GE seeds By C Kameswara Rao
Govts can work with existing consumer protection laws to ensure productivity of GE crop.

Currently, pest resistant Bt cotton is the only commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crop in India. Hybrids with the single bacterial gene Cry 1Ac (mostly Bollgard I of Monsanto) predominate, although there is a small volume of Bollgard II, the hybrids with two staked bacterial genes, Cry 1Ac and Cry 1Ab, that are grown in some zones.

Commercialisation of Bt cotton brought to the fore a number of difficulties the farmers face in the matter of seed, of both GE and non-GE crops. When more GE crops become commercialised the situation would worsen. Governmental intervention and the cooperation of the seed industry are needed to safeguard farmers’ interests.

The Indian Seeds Act, 1966 regulates only notified varieties but seed certification by governmental agencies is merely optional. There is a comprehensive Seeds Bill, 2004 which provides for registration, certification and seed testing, regulated by a Central and several State Committees.

Under the Seed Bill, 2004, a GE variety, cleared by the Indian regulatory authority for commercialisation would have to be registered. GE crop varieties involving ‘Genetic Use Restriction Technology and Terminator Technology’ are prohibited. Certification of registered seed for quality and reliability by recognised agencies would be mandatory, whether GE or not. Sale of seed of spurious transgenic varieties and unregistered and uncertified seed attracts punitive provisions.

The Seed Bill, 2004, has been in cold storage on account of pressure from both the seed industry and groups with conflicting interests, all of which claim to speak for the farmers. When this Bill comes into force, there would certainly be a far greater protection for the farmer and consumer, but the Governments have adequate power to act even within the purview of the Seed Act of 1966 and consumer protection laws that are currently in force, to ensure productivity through quality and reliability of the seed. However, there are some important interventions that can be brought about.

First, among them, could be through mandatory registration and notification of GE crop varieties before a GE crop is approved by the regulatory authority for commercialisation. By the time a GE crop is approved for commercialisation, mandatory seed certification by various seed certification agencies in different states should be prepared to evaluate that particular GE crop for seed germination, seedling viability, agronomic factors and the suitability of the variety for cultivation.

Currently, there are no Seed Certification Agencies in any state that are involved in evaluation and certification of Bt cotton seeds. So, there is no guarantee that a particular variety sold in an area is suitable to be grown there.

Third, it should be ensured that the seed of a GE crop is sold at the officially determined prices through recognised private and/or public sector agencies. This will prevent reuse of those seeds.

Allegations of the existence of a spurious seed market have been made. Strict measures must be taken to root out black market in preventing the sale of illegal GE seeds.

It is also imperative to have a mechanism in place to educate farmers and guide them on the suitability of a GE variety to their land and the application of fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation methods. Extension personnel at the State or district level, officers from the Department of Agriculture and scientists from agricultural universities can be roped in to educate farmers.

The Bt cotton farmers have had no benefit of any professional advice and are left to their fate, once the seed is sold. Currently, there is a glut of Bt cotton hybrids, with the farmer being no wiser about which variety he should cultivate and how. Bt cotton is being grown in areas where it should not be grown such as on red soils, particularly as a rain fed crop. The farmer often does not plant a refugium and indulges in panic excessive insecticide application. The civil society should help the farmers with right information.

(The writer is executive secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore)