GM Crops

Delaying Pink Bollworm Resistance: ICAR Opposes Blending of Bt Cotton with Non-Similar Seeds

Bollgard II seed pack at the Farm Shoppe at Gondal market yard in Rajkot. Copyright Vivian Fernandes

Government approval for blending Bt cottonseed with non-Bt cottonseed to delay bollworm resistance to the genetically-engineered insecticidal technology has run into the ICAR wall.


Rajesh Kumar Singh in his office. Photo by Vivian Fernandes

Joint Secretary (Seed) Rajesh Kumar Singh said the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) was agreeable provided both the seeds were similar (isogenic) except for the Bt gene, so that the current 90 percent genetic purity standard was maintained.  ICAR is technical adviser to the agriculture ministry.

A meeting was held last October to discuss pink bollworm resistance to Mahyco Monsanto Biotech’s (MMBL) Bollgard II technology with Singh in the chair. According to the minutes, ‘the concept of Refugia-in-Bag (RIB) for Bt cottonseed was accepted.’ RIB is jargon for blending. A committee was formed to prepare seed quality or genetic purity standards.

Currently, non-Bt cottonseed is supplied with every 450 gram package of Bt cottonseed, for farmers to plant in a fifth of the area around fields for bollworms to feed on them, so they do not develop resistance through natural selection.

Farmers have disregarded this precaution and have been throwing away non-Bt cottonseed. Unscrupulous seed companies have also been selling non-Bt cottonseed of doubtful quality. Farmers have been planting pigeonpea or tur instead, as it is paying. But pigeonpea does not host the pink bollworm though it provides refuge to American and spotted bollworms.

Along with blending, the proposal is to reduce refuge requirement to five percent from the current 20 percent.

Seed companies had said at the meeting that it would take two-three years to develop isogenic Bt cottonseed. Till such time, non-Bt cottonseed of any hybrid which has agronomic compatibility with Bt cottonseed should be allowed, they said.

An executive with a seed company said it was scrupulously supplying isogenic non-Bt cottonseed. If the ‘refuge’ seeds were different, farmers would identify the plants from their architecture and uproot them, he said.

But another executive, who coordinates cottonseed trade, said farmers in Gujarat had ‘learnt the lesson’ following the loss of crop to pink bollworm and would grow pest refuge plants as there is no alternative to Bollagard II at the moment.

‘Now we are proposing that Dy Director General (Crop Science) ICAR have a dialogue with industry and come up with the solution’ Commisioner (Seed) R K Trivedi said.

At a workshop on refuge strategies for Bt cotton in Delhi last December, J S Sandhu, DDG (Crop Science), ICAR had told industry ‘we are with you in implementing refuge strategy.’  He referred to spurious seeds and said ‘quality control is an issue,’ but ‘we want the technology to survive for a longer time.’

K R Kranthi, Director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, (CICR) has conveyed to the agriculture ministry that prolonging the life of the cotton crop for four or five pickings was encouraging bollworm infestation.  Curtailing crop duration and even persuading farmers to skip cotton for one season and grow pulses and oilseeds instead would help.

The central government can issue advisories but states would have to implement the decision.

Execution of advisories would depend on the willingness and vulnerability of state governments. Punjab, for instance, does not allow kharif rice showing before 10 June to conserve groundwater. It also punishes paddy straw burning. It has been lax in enforcing these laws because of farmer anger over cotton crop devastation caused by white flies last year, and a blasphemy issue.

If ICAR is brought around, the dilution of seed purity standards can be done with an executive order by the agriculture secretary. It does not need an amendment of law. Singh has told Trivedi to arrange another meeting with ICAR quickly to sort out the issue. But it is doubtful whether approval for blending will happen before the next sowing season.


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