An indigenously developed genetically modified cotton is being cultivated in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region illegally, adding to the Centre woes arising from the planting of unauthorised HTBt cotton in various parts of the country.
Known by different names such as 4Bt, Bt4 and 4G, the new cotton, also a Bt variety, has been developed by crossing cotton grown locally in the Saurashtra region with cotton cultivated in Australia and the US.
According to cotton traders in Rajkot, the fibre length of the new Bt cotton is longer than other ones grown in the country as well as the yield. It is also brighter white than other cotton. In its first year of introduction, it was free of the pink bollworm menace that had affected the cotton crop in many parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra last year.
Agriculture Ministry officials told BusinessLine that they had sent a circular to all States to check planting of illegal seeds and take action against those responsible, including stockists and dealers.
“We have advised State governments to take action under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, if necessary,” said an official, who did not wish to be identified. Basically, the Centre’s stand is that it is for the State governments to act against illegal planting.
In the case of HTBt cotton, whose cultivation is illegal as it has not been authorised by the General Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), its planting gained over the last two years with growers defying State authorities.
Last year, HTBt cotton made up 15 per cent of the total 129.57 lakh hectares acreage under the crop, according to the seed industry. The new cotton is also not authorised by the GEAC, which clears Bt seeds for cultivation. Seed industry sources said it is risky for farmers to grow unauthorised seeds since they are unlikely to get any compensation in the event of crop failure.
Gujarat officials said that last year, the new Bt cotton was planted by some growers in the Saurashtra region, where the crop is cultivated on 16 lakh hectares. Following the success, more growers have latched on to it this year. In the new cotton planting this year, spurious seeds have got mixed.
“We are unable to find out which is genuine, and which is fake. We will get to know only when the crop is ready for harvest, though even the genuine is illegal to grow,” said an official without wanting to identify. The officials are also waiting for instructions from the State government to take action as it involves farmers.
“It is an ‘open secret’ that farmers are growing the new Bt cotton illegally. We have told the authorities that we will support any cotton that can give better yield and return to the growers,” said a Gujarat-based trader on the condition of anonymity.
An industry source said: “Farmers are gullible that if you tell them seeds contain Bt they believe it. There is no recourse for them in case of a crop failure.
“There is no guarantee that all required norms are followed such as growing refugee plants around the Bt variety in cultivating the new variety. That poses danger to other crops too.”
“An unknown brand is being sold in the market . It has become popular in the Saurashtra region, but the illegal seed is affecting the private sector which has been in existence for nearly five decades and produces 99 per cent of cotton, millets and maize seeds,” said M Ramasami, Chairman and Managing Director of Rasi seeds.
“The new Bt cotton was cultivated in 30-40 per cent of the area under the natural fibre last year. In view of its benefits. growers could plant over 50 per cent of the area with this,” said Anand Popat, a Rajkot-based raw cotton, yarn and cotton waste dealer.
The new Bt cotton is preferred by growers as ginners are willing to pay a premium for it. “Farmers get Rs 250-300 a quintal premium for this variety,” said Poppat.
Another trader in Rajkot said that the new Bt cotton has caught the fancy of growers despite its price being higher than Bt cotton seeds sold by established companies.
“A 450 gm packet of the new Bt cotton costs Rs 1,400 now against Rs 750-800 for a packet of seeds offered by established companies. Last year, when the new variety was offered on sale, it was sold at Rs 800-900 per packet,” said the trader, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some of the leading experts in the cotton seed industry said they were unaware of the development, but the industry source said that they were “maintaining such a stance only for public consumption”.
Traders said that the new Bt cotton will undergo trial cultivation in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and, possibly, Maharashtra this year.
Industry sources said that farmers are seeking cotton varieties that have better yield, which has dropped to below 500 kg per hectare after a record 566 kg during the 2013-14 season.
“No new seed technology has been introduced since the last decade and a half. Countries such as Brazil, the US and Australia are at least three generations ahead of India,” said the industry source.
“The Centre should find a solution or else illegal seeds will gain at the cost of the organised seed sector. It should begin approving new seeds, including Bt and HTBt, for trails,” said Rasi seeds’ Ramasami.
(With inputs from TV Jayan, New Delhi, and Rutam Vora, Ahmedabad)