Agri ministry defies govt

Agri ministry defies govt

While the intent of the government is to give a big push to commercialisation of GM crops, the agriculture ministry is against it.

In December 2015, the Union Agriculture Ministry had issued a Cotton Seed Price Control Order under which it fixed the price of cotton seed sales all over the country at a uniform level and max trait fee (royalty) payable to the technology provider (TP). Given that the genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton accounts for 98% total cotton seeds used in India, the decision was directed primarily at this segment.

The ministry also ordered a probe by the Competition Commission of India (CCI) – in to alleged ‘monopolistic’ practices by the Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Private Limited (MMBL) – a 50:50 joint venture between the US biotech giant and the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco). The ball did not stop here.

On May 18, 2016, it issued another order making it mandatory for GMTP to licence technology to any seed company that approaches it. If licence is not given within 30 days, it is ‘deemed to have been given.’ It also required seed company to pay royalty to TP but capped it at 10% of MRP for the first five years to be reduced by 10% from sixth year. It prescribed a 10-year life ‘uniformly’ for every GM trait.   

Following protests, though May, 2016 order was withdrawn but the ministry remains obsessed with a perception that MMBL is out their to exploit its monopoly to the detriment of farmers and seed companies. The perception is myopic and seriously flawed. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton is genetically tweaked to kill bollworms that ravage cotton crops. It offers the possibility of substantially enhancing the return by saving on pesticide use on one hand and increasing yield on the other. At the price paid for Bt cotton seed including royalty, farmers get handsome returns.

Since, Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002, its use has increased manifold with area under coverage leapfrogging from a mere 50,000 hectare to around 11.5 million hectare currently. Millions of farmers have adopted Bt cotton on their own volition. All this would have been unthinkable if the access to the technology was restricted or price exploitative.

Even patents granted to the biotech traits under Indian Patent Act (2005) which could have led the GMTP exploit monopoly are redundant. This is because the seed is the only carrier of biotech traits and protection of transgenic variety under the Plant Variety Protection & Farmers’ Rights Act, 2002, overrides the Patent Act. More than 40 seed companies are licensed to use the current Bt technology thereby enabling 98% coverage of cotton area under it.

A company spends millions in discovery, development and commercialisation of a new trait. It needs a reasonable opportunity to recuperate the investment. True, while, fixing the royalty, it should also keep in mind paying capacity of farmers (it would be ignoring this basics at its own peril) but, any external diktat by government in this regard is completely un-called for. 

The GMTP also performs the critical role of stewardship – ensuring proper and scientific use of the trait, getting the best out of technology and prevent its misuse. If, licensing is made free for all overriding even the choice of innovator (as contemplated under the May, 2016 Order), it will be impossible to prevent misuse of the technology.

Any state intervention (in pricing or deciding the terms of licensing) will stymie commercialisation of new traits currently under development, such as resistance to drought, salinity tolerance and nitrogen-use efficiency etc. It will also act as a strong dis-incentive to companies from investing in research and stewardship. Hence, government must keep away and let market forces work.

There may be lingering fear due to just one GMTP (Monsanto) being out there. But, the answer to that is not controls. It lies in enabling many entities to come up with alternative solutions. That in turn, requires putting in place a regulatory environment in which they get an opportunity to undertake research and conduct trials. Unfortunately, this is where state efforts are woefully lacking.

The National Biotechnology Development Strategy 2015-2025 (unveiled by the PM on December 30, 2015) had languished for almost a decade. That apart, even field trials for various GM crops (including by public research institutions) have been held hostage to widespread propaganda against this technology based on misconceptions and myths.

Bt brinjal
Whatever limited efforts made during early 2000s came to a grinding halt in 2010 when then environment minister Jairam Ramesh put an embargo on commercialisation of Bt brinjal followed by suspension of all trials on GM crops. The recommendations of Parliament’s standing committee and a technical committee set up by the Supreme Court opposing such trials only compounded the woes.

The Narendra Modi government resurrected interest in GM crops with Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee approving trials for a dozen of them last year. But this is being resisted at the state level even as Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have refused to grant no-objection certificates which is mandatory for conducting such tests.  

The NBDS aims at increasing the turnover from current $7 billion to $100 bn by 2025. The strategy focuses on R&D to make affordable products for Indian and global markets and seeks to forge global and public-private partnership. In the agri-segment, it proposes to set up a Transnational Centre for Agri-Biotech with state agricultural universities. In short, grandiose plan is to make India a world-class manufacturing hub.

Clearly, the intent of the government is to give a big push to agri-biotech by promoting research, development and commercialisation of GM crops especially in PPP mode. But, the mindset of the key ministry (agriculture) is completely out of sync. All its interventions (moving one step ahead of obtrusive state controls) tantamount to laying a complete siege on technology providers. Modi should goad the agriculture ministry to rescind all its retrograde moves and tell states to follow suit.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based policy analyst)
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