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Protect the Indian Farmer by Ensuring Quality and Reliability of the Seed of Genetically Engineered Crops
Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org, chaakaaraav@yahoo.com

'Pest resistant Bt cotton is currently the only genetically engineered (GE) crop in commercial cultivation in India.  The Bt cotton with cry 1Ac predominates, although there is a small volume of cotton varieties with two staked genes, Cry 1Ac and Cry 1Ab, in some zones of the country. 

Bt cotton cultivation started with three varieties on 72,000 acres in 2002-03.  According to the seed industry sources, Bt cotton cultivation in India grew to about 140 varieties on 15 million acres in the 2007-08 crop season.  That the majority of the farmers do prefer Bt cotton is no longer in doubt, as also that they face several difficulties that can be removed by Governmental intervention.

The Indian Seeds Act, 1966 only regulates notified varieties, but Seed Certification by Governmental Agencies is 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 transgenic variety that was cleared by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) would have to be Registered.  Transgenic crop varieties involving ‘Genetic Use Restriction Technology and Terminator Technology’ are prohibited.  Certification of Registered seed for quality and reliability by recognized agencies would be mandatory.  Sale of seed of spurious transgenic varieties and un-Registered and un–Certified seed attracts punitive provisions. 

The Seed Bill, 2004, has been in cold storage for years on account of pressure from groups with conflicting interest, primarily the Seed Industry on one side and the Civil Society Organizations and Farmers’ Associations which claim to speak for the farmers, on the other.  When this Bill comes into force, there would certainly be a far greater protection of farmer and consumer, but it looks like 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 of GE crops.  Some important interventions are:

  • Mandatory Registration and Notification of GE crop varieties: Provision should be made for mandatory registration and official notification of a GE seed/crop, at least by the stage of approval by the Review Committee for Genetic Modification (RCGM) and/or GEAC, for multi-location open field trials.  Registration and notification should be a requirement before GEAC approves a transgenic crop for commercialization.

            Currently, Bt cotton is not notified anywhere in India and it was recently deleted even from the list of Essential Commodities.

  • Mandatory Seed Certification:

      By the time a GE crop is approved for commercialization, the Seed Certification Agencies in different States should be prepared to evaluate seed of the transgenic crop for seed germination, seedling viability, agronomic factors (and yield potential) and more importantly the suitability of a particular variety  for cultivation in different specified regions of the State.

            An infrastructure of several seed testing labs should be created both in the public and private sectors to handle the voluminous job. 

            Currently, in no State, Seed Certification Agencies are involved in evaluation and certification of Bt cotton seed.

  • Sale of Authentic Seed in Authentic Containers and Outlets:

      It should be ensured that the seed of a GE crop is sold at the officially determined prices through recognized private and/or public sector agencies, which would be responsible for the sale of authentic seed in authentic containers designed in such a way that they cannot be reused.

            Only in Andhra Pradesh, there is an officially fixed price for Bt cotton seed and in  no State there is the system of recognized outlets to sell the farmers authentic seed   and there are complaints of reuse of containers.  Reduction in the cost of the seed has certainly helped to increase acreage under Bt cotton.

  • Control of Black Market, and the Illegal and Spurious Seed Market:

      Very strict preventive and deterrent measures should be taken to root out black market in the authentic seed and to prevent the sale of illegal and spurious GE  seed. 

       The sale of illegal and spurious Bt cotton seed is rampant through out the country, more particularly in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.  During the 2006-    07 cotton season about 75 per cent of Bt crop in India was from illegal seed. Illegal Bt cotton seed trade has drastically come down in the 2007-08 season to 1.5 million acres, against 15 million acres of authentic seed.  Availability of a large number of varieties at far lower prices than in the past has contributed to reduce illegal seed market, but spurious Bt seed still flourishes.

  • Farmer Education and Guidance:

      A mechanism should be put in place, to advise the farmer on a) the suitability of a transgenic variety to his land, b) crop husbandry more particularly the application of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and weeding, and c) precautionary measures such as the refugium.  This mechanism should include the seed   developer/distributor, extension personnel of the State/District officers of the Department of Agriculture and the scientists of the Agricultural Universities or their research centres who are experienced in the particular crop, in different parts of the State.

       Currently, the Bt cotton farmers have no benefit of any professional advice and are left to their fate, once the seed is sold.  Presently, there is a glut of Bt cotton  varieties, with the farmer being no wiser about which variety he should cultivate and how, in a situation of ‘deskilling’.  Bt cotton is being grown in areas where it  should not be grown, particularly as a rain fed crop. The farmer often does not  plant a refugium and indulges in panic excessive insecticide application. 

The Civil Society Organizations should take up these issues to help the farmer, instead of a futile campaign against GE crops.

October 18, 2007