Agriculture PolicyBriefing

Distributing Seed for Monsoon Sowing in the Time of Novel Coronavirus

Cottonseed packing at Rasi Seeds plant in Salem. Photo courtesy Rasi Seed, 31 March, 2020

Restrictions on the transportation of seed and the movement of workers to factories after the lockdown was announced have had the seed industry and farmers worried that the disruption caused by Covid-19 infection would be compounded by a disruption of Kharif sowing. This article was written on 25 March. Since then, transport restrictions have eased but lorries are held up at checkpoints, reports Vivian Fernandes. Rasi Seeds hired a 25-wagon goods train to move three lakh packets of cottonseed to Bhatinda. The train was supposed to reach the destination on 1 April. It would have taken more than 30 lorries to transport the same quantity of seed. Another train-load will leave Salem on 2 April. But workers are not reporting to plants, Rasi Seeds said, because of restrictions imposed by village administrations and also a fear among workers that if they work in proximity to others they might get sickened. (This article was first published in the Financial Express).

Rasi Seeds began despatching cottonseed to Bhatinda, Hissar and Sri Ganganagar on 20 March for distribution to hundreds of its dealers in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Timely availability of seed is essential for cotton planting which happens around 15 April. If planted beyond the first week of May yield begins to decline. As of 25 March, only four trucks had reached their destinations. Sixteen were on the way, but nine of them were stuck in Tamil Nadu. M. Ramasami founder and chairman of the company based in Salem district of Tamil Nadu is worried that the lockdown of cities and restrictions on transportation to minimize Covid-19 infections will cripple the seed industry, affect Kharif output and hurt farmers’ income if they were unable to obtain seed for sowing when the monsoon commences. “Seeds are covered by the Essential Commodities Act,” he said,” and their supply should be seen as an essential service.”

Cottonseed packaging at Rasi Seeds.

Rasi Seeds says it is the largest supplier of genetically-modified Bt cottonseed with a third of the market share. There are about 40 other sellers who buy the bollworm-killing Bt trait from a subsidiary of Monsanto (now part of Bayer CropScience) for a fee. Though the trait is common to all, what differentiates their seeds are superior genetics that combines high yield with resistance to say, sucking pests, and adaptation to various agro-climatic zones in the country.  

Farmers under contract to Rasi grow cottonseed on 12,000 acres, says Ramasami. The procured seed is currently being processed at its four plants in Attur taluk of Salem district within a radius of 50 km. First, the cotton is ginned to separate lint from seed. Rasi has 64 ginning machines at its four plants. The fine coating of cotton fibre left o the ginned seed is made brittle with chlorine gas and removed. The seeds are sorted by size and weight and those that are too small or underweight are discarded. These are all mechanical operations. To meet the legally-prescribed germination parameters, the seeds are visually inspected to remove those that have been bored by insects like the pink bollworm. This is a tedious and time-consuming job. Women workers inspect about 80-100 kg per day of cottonseed in this manner. The seeds are treated with fungicide and insecticide, put in packages of 450 grams and despatched across the country once the samples get phytosanitary certification from government-approved laboratories.

The nature of the activity is such that the employees, mostly women, work in clusters. At Rasi’s Attur plants, about a thousand are employed across three shifts. Rasi has two other plants in Salem for processing seeds of maize and open pollinating rice.  At a bigger facility near Hyderabad, of 2.25 lakh sq ft, rice, maize and bajra hybrid seeds are processed. But cottonseed lines are the most labour intensive. Maintaining physical distance of at least one metre between workers to prevent novel coronavirus infection is difficult but necessary. Ramasami says workers at his plants wear surgical masks. Soap and water are provided for hand washing. The masks do not block viruses but arrest cough droplets. The employees are aware, he says, and if a person shows up symptoms of infection, they are isolated.

On the day the Prime Minister announced a 21-day lockdown, the Tamil Nadu government issued additional guidelines saying that various activities related to seed processing and packaging should happen without hassle and there should be no let-up in the flow of seed to farmers for Kharif sowing. Being exempt from the lockdown, seed companies should take precautionary measures including maintaining physical distance of at least three feet between workers, frequent hand washing and disinfection of premises and transport vehicles with Lysol spray, the guidelines said. The truck transport unions were directed to ensure that those engaged in loading, unloading and driving followed the safety measures.

But the police and district administrations were preventing the movement of people and vehicles resulting in plants remaining inoperative.

Cottonseed packaging at Rasi Seeds.

India plants 11 million hectares of cotton in the monsoon season. A little less than 50 million packets of cottonseed, of 450 grams priced at Rs 730 each are sold every year before the rains commence.  Moving so much seed around the country is a task in itself. There are other seeds also that have to be made available before the monsoon season: maize, soybean, wheat, rice, chickpea, jowar and bajra.

e have taken special efforts to create awareness about safe practices, apart from providing safety gear to employees in the processing units, says Usha Barwale Zehr, Director and Chief Technology Officer of Mahyco, a seed company based at Jalna in Maharashtra. The company introduced the Bt cotton trait in India through a joint venture with Monsanto in 2002 and had also obtained regulatory approval for Bt brinjal, before a moratorium on its cultivation was imposed by the then environment minister in 2010.  Zehr says its seed processing units have mechanized operations in most places, including packaging of some products. Where greater manpower is needed and the teams have to work in close proximity, safety measures have been taken and these are evaluated daily.

The spokesperson of the Hyderabad-based Shriram Bioseed said it had automated lines.

But clustering of workers and laxity in observing safety standards are a real risk, and not just at small units.  

The Federation of Seed Industries of India has written to union and state agriculture ministers to treat seed processing and distribution as essential services and allow unrestricted passage to vehicles carrying the seeds. The 40 members of the federation have 60 percent share of the private seed industry. It wants special green lanes for seamless movement of seed and open access to warehouses.  

The federation cites China, Thailand and the Philippines as examples of countries that have given priority for seeds among goods for transportation. The industry body has also asked for government-approved laboratories that do sample checking and give phytosanitary permits to remain open with minimal staff. Its members, it says, have been told to abide by government health advisories.

The International Seed Federation has asked governments not to close their borders to seed imports and exports as there is no evidence, it says, of seeds being a route of transmission of Covid-19 infection, citing the World Health Organisation. Transmission via surfaces that have been contaminated is possible, though this will be for short periods due to the low stability of coronaviruses in the environment.

Cottonseed packaging at Rasi Seeds.

Anil Ghanvat, President of the Maharashtra-based Shetkari Sanghatana, says farmers in the state are despairing at losses caused by the closure of agriculture produce markets. Last year’s Kharif season was a washout because of prolonged and heavy rains. The rabi harvest was good but prices have slumped because of disruption caused by the coronavirus. Farmers are biding time for the viral threat to recede. The Sanghatana, founded by the late Sharad Joshi, is unlike other farmers’ unions in that it advocates open markets, freedom of access to technology, and minimal government interference in agri-produce markets. Gunvant Patil, the former President of the Sanghatana, says the government will have to address the issue of seed availability once it comes to grips with the pandemic. He does not rule out pressure being applied by the farmers’ union on the government if special measures are not taken to make up for lost time.

No government would want a shortage of food, feed and fibre. But policing thousands of transport crews and ensuring that they are not themselves infected and pass on the infection to others will be a tall ask. There is a real danger of the restrictions imposed to slowdown Covid-19 infections blowing up into shortages of food and feed.  

(All photos on this page courtesy of Rasi Seeds). 

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