Cultivation Of Unauthorised Bt Brinjal, HTBT Cotton Gains Roots Across The Nation As Farmers Seek New Technology
Farmers have opted for the economical Bt brinjal variety as they look for technological support to optimise crop cultivation.
Cultivation of Bt brinjal and herbicide-tolerant Bt (HTBT) cotton, which are not authorised by the Union government, is catching up across the country.
Bt brinjal derives its name from Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria which contains protein to help the crop resist pest attacks. HTBT cotton helps the plant withstand the effect of herbicides that are sprayed to kill weeds on plants besides resisting pest attack.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had announced a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal in 2010 until there was a consensus in the country politically, professionally and publicly.
HTBT cotton has not been approved by the Genetic Appraisal Engineering Committee (GAEC) as mandated by the government.
This is because Monsanto, now taken over by Bayer, withdrew its application for the approval of the variety in protest against a government move to force it to share its technology with local seed manufacturers.
In view of an uncertain regulatory and business environment, Monsanto withdrew its application in 2016.
Despite both plant varieties being unapproved, which means their planting is illegal, farmers continue to cultivate the crop.
“Gujarat farmers are growing Bt brinjal. Growers in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra are also growing the variety,” said Anil Ghanwat, president of the Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers’ organisation in Maharashtra.
“Ground reports say Bt brinjal is being grown in Haryana and Maharashtra,” said B K Singh, chairman and managing director of BK Weather Systems.
Singh has also introduced an app “Fasal Salah” that advises farmers on weather conditions while receiving feedback on their crop plans and status. Thus, he gets the reports of such cultivation.
“Bt brinjal is being sold in the form of seedlings and not seeds. Farmers know both Bt brinjal and HTBT cotton are unauthorised but they are buying and planting them as they seem to have faith in the manufacturers,” Ghanwat said.
The Shetkari Sanghatana is urging the Centre to allow farmers to sow the plant varieties of their choice, including Bt ones, as they are looking at various ways to cultivate crops without much loss and cut costs.
“Farmers incur huge costs in cultivating brinjal since the fruit borer menace requires them to use insecticides. The Bt brinjal variety does not require such rampant use of insecticide and farmers find it economical,” said a seed industry source, who did not wish to be identified.
Brinjal crops are vulnerable to pest attacks, especially the fruit borer, that sometimes damage 35-40 per cent of the crop, thus affecting the grower financially.
One of the reasons why farmers are able to get the seedlings or even seeds of Bt brinjal is that neighbouring Bangladesh has approved its cultivation.
“We have a porous border with Bangladesh. The variety must even be cultivated in Bengal if farmers in far away states can adopt it,” said the seed industry source.
“Bengal approved the Bt brinjal variety that was developed in India. They have now been growing this for four to five years successfully,” said Dr C D Mayee, president, South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC).
Last year, a Haryana farmer was found growing Bt brinjal unaware that it was a transgenic crop. He bought the seeds as he was told that if he grows the variety, he could avoid pest attacks.
The Fatehabad farmer reaped quality brinjals, which raised the eyebrows of a few NGOs. They then approached the grower, who innocently shared the seeds he had with them. The NGOs made a global-positioning-system marking of his field and complained to government officials. The crop on his farm was then destroyed.
Since then, farmers have begun to insist that they should be allowed to grow plant and crop of their choice.
HTBT cotton cultivation picked up last year with farmers in Maharashtra defying the state government’s fiat to not plant it.
“Last year, at least 15-20 per cent of cotton grown in Maharashtra was HTBT variety. In states such as Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it could have been more. HTBT is even grown in some parts of Madhya Pradesh,” said Mayee.
“This year, at least 25 per cent of cotton planted in Maharashtra is HTBT variety. There is a shortage of seeds. Otherwise, 90 per cent of cotton in the state would have been of the HTBT variety,” said Ghanwat.
HTBT cotton too helps growers save huge costs. Seeds of HTBT cotton are sold at Rs 1,500 for a 450 gm packet. This is higher than the ceiling of Rs 740 per packet fixed for sale of Bollgard cotton II but farmers go for the costlier option.
A cotton grower spends Rs 23,500 on an acre of irrigated land and Rs 15,400 on rain-fed land to grow genetically-modified cotton. Of this, 25 per cent of the cost on irrigated farms and 20 per cent of the cost on rain-fed lands goes towards removing weeds, which grow along with the cotton plant and affects its growth.
The HTBT cotton will help growers avoid expenditure on removing weeds.
“Farmers should not cultivate unauthorised seeds since it will harm them more. This will give rise to manufacturers of illegal and spurious seeds who cannot be held accountable,” Mayee said.
“We welcome 5G technology in telecom but resist any technology advance in agriculture. Each political party has groups for and against technological development in agriculture. We need to provide our farmers with the latest technology,” the SABC president said, adding that the Centre should hold direct talks with Bayer, which now owns Monsanto patents.
“Government can purchase the licence paying the firm and then it can authorise some 10-15 seed companies in the country to grow these varieties,” said Mayee.
Industry experts and farmer organisations are unanimous in their view that growers need to be provided the latest technology or advancement in agriculture and then leave it to the consumers to decide.
“A farmer will not grow if he finds no takers for his offerings but he/she has to be given the freedom,” said an expert.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare, the area under cotton until 10 July has increased to 10.48 million hectares (mh) against 7.71 mh during the same time last year. Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Telangana and Maharashtra account for 60 per cent of this.
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