Despite Knocks and Shocks, Mahyco Re-Applies for Nod to HTBt Cotton “In Good Faith,” Says Shirish Barwale

Weeds killed by glyphosate in a farm in Maharastra's Yavatmal planted with herbicide-tolerant cotton.

Price and royalty controls remain but Mahyo reapplies for approval of herbicide-tolerant and bollworm resistant genetically-modified (GM) cotton believing that rampant cultivation of unauthorised versions would have caused a change in the government’s attitude to price and trait fee controls, reports Vivian Fernandes. This article was first published in BloombergQuint Prime. 

If genetically modified (GM) herbicide tolerant and insect resistant (HTBt) cotton is approved for environmental release and commercial cultivation, it would once again show that the path for products of agribiotechnology research from lab to farmers’ fields is never straight but marred with litigation, regulatory uncertainty and illegality.

On 27 July, the regulator for GM crop, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) took up for consideration Maharashtra-based seed company, Mahyco’s application for approval of HTBt cotton, which has two genes from two different agrobacteria. One of them, abbreviated as Bt and approved in 2006 as Bollgard II, is toxic to cotton boll borers. It has been stacked with another that neutralises the effect of the herbicide glyphosate. The regulator formed a seven-member committee to study bio-safety data from trials conducted in 2008, 2009 and 2012, and socio-economic findings submitted by the applicant. A member of the committee said a meeting has been held and another would be needed before it conveys its decision to GEAC.

Mahyco had withdrawn the application from GEAC six years ago fearing that the patents it had licensed from the erstwhile Monsanto would not be protected and it would not profit from sub-licensing the technology because of price and royalty controls imposed by the agriculture ministry in 2015.

The trigger was the agriculture ministry’s May 2016 notification that virtually issued a compulsory license on patented Bt cottonseed under the Essential Commodities Act. It said licensors of plant traits could not deny the technology to government-certified seed companies. The notification also put a cap on trait fees that could be charged. In the case of Bollgard II, the fee was reduced by more than 70 percent from Rs 183 including taxes to Rs 49. It would taper by 10 percent annually after the first five years till it became zero.

Five days later the agriculture ministry converted the notification into a draft for consultation following protests by agriculture research companies and the shadow it could cast on the Prime Minister’s visit to the US in June 2016.

Though the notification was kept in abeyance, it had a chilling effect. A news agency (Reuters, Murali, FYI) reported in August 2016 that in a letter of July that year to GEAC, Mahyco had objected to the government’s proposal that would force it to share proprietary GM cotton traits with local seed companies. Quoting the letter, the agency reported Mahyco as writing that the proposal “alarmed us and raised serious concerns about the protection of intellectual property (IP) rights.”

The fear was not overblown. Agribiotech companies could not be sure when the government would change its mind. They were not reassured when in March 2020, the agriculture ministry abolished the trait fee on Bollgard II, causing a huge drop in revenue for Bayer Cropscience.

Finding the business prospects bleak, Mahyco had shifted focus to Africa. By 2018, it had cut its R&D budget in India by 70 percent.In 2019, it got funding from the International Finance Corporation (an affiliate of the World Bank) to expand operations in Africa.

“We have a lot of success in Africa,” Shirish Barwale, MD, Mahyco says citing approval of Bt cowpea, GM maize and Bt cotton in Nigeria, Kenya and Malawi. Governments are supportive, despite pressure from anti-GM activists, he said. “You cannot argue against farmers when they get 3x or 4x rise in production.”

Regulatory uncertainty had stung Mahyco before. In 2010, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had banned the release of its borer resistant Bt brinjal though the GEAC had recommended its commercial release. Using Indian bio-safety data Bangladesh had approved the cultivation of Bt brinjal in 2013.

There is no evidence of the government’s rethinking on GM cottonseed price controls or trait fee fixation that would be compelling for Mahcyo to revisit its decision.

“We have reapplied in good faith,” Barwale said, “motivated by concern for farmers.” From a business perspective, he said, “cotton is not a large part of our revenue. It is about 10-20 percent of our topline. It used to have half at one time when we sold new hybrids with the Bt trait.”

“While there continues to be no clarity still on how IP rights will be enforced or allowed to be monetised, at Mahyco we have reapplied for the deregulation of BGIIRRF in cotton, purely on good faith and pressing farmer need for good quality seed availability,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We are hopeful that the government will realise the importance of encouraging the formal regulated private sector as opposed to the proliferation of illegal, unregulated seed that is currently rampant in cotton in the larger farmer interest.”  BGII refers to Bollgard II, the insect-resistant Bt trait. RRF is Roundup Ready Flex, Roundup being the glyphosate brand that Bayer inherited from Monsanto.

There is rampant brown bag sale of illegal HTBt cottonseed. In 2017, the Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC) of the Department of Biotechnology estimated that 15 percent of the cotton area of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Gujarat and five percent of Punjab’s was planted with illegal HTBt cotton.

In the absence of regulation, there is no guarantee that the herbicide tolerant cottonseed is of a potency that is lethal to weeds. If not, weeds can develop resistance. Trait owners assume technology stewardship to prolong the longevity of the trait. Mahyco says it is persuaded by this urge. Making it legal is therefore important.

Farmers belonging to the Maharashtra-based pro-market and pro-technology Shetkari Sanghatana have been pressing for approval of herbicide tolerant cottonseed. Manual weeding is difficult – and expensive – in the state’s black cotton soil which turns sticky when it rains. There are not enough agricultural workers because of a bunching of demand when weeding has to be done soon after sowing and twice thereafter. Vijay Mahadev Niwal, a large cotton farmer of Vidarbha says he spent Rs 15,000 an acre on weeding this year because of higher rain than normal.

To force the government, Sanghatana members did protest planting of HTBt cotton in the farm of its current president Lalit Bahale at Akola in June 2019. Other members continued the exercise in the presence of TV cameras. Their so-called ‘satyagraha’ has continued every year since then.

There is a precedent for the government acting under pressure. The approval of Bt cotton for cultivation in 2002 was preceded by farmers illegally cultivating the pirated version in Gujarat the year before. The Shetkari Sanghatana had supported them. The GEAC had ordered the crop to be burned, but then Chief Minister Narendra Modi had not risked farmers’ wrath

The other factor that might have weighed in on Mahyco is the 2021 settlement between Bayer and its biggest Bt cottonseed franchisee, the Hyderabad Nuziveedu Seeds which laid at rest their litigation over the patentability of artificially developed plant traits.

While the government continues to assert that traditional (paramparagat) agriculture and zero-budget natural farming are suited for country of smallholder farmers, it seems to have changed its attitude to science based agriculture. Earlier this year, it relaxed the rules for genome editing of plants that did not involve the transfer of transgenes. The spike in edible oil prices owing to the military conflict in Ukraine has driven home the need to reduce dependence on imports. The permission given for the environmental release of GM mustard points to that change in attitude.

Even if GEAC approves, Mahyco will have to reckon with anti-GM activists. Herbicide tolerance is a red rag for them. Though GM mustard is also herbicide tolerant, the government has said it has been approved for pollination control technology and not for weed control. How the Supreme Court rules in an ongoing case on GM mustard will influence Mahyco’s decision. “We have the infrastructure,” says Barwale. “We are keen on India.”

(Top photo of illegal herbicide-tolerant cotton sprayed with glyphosate. The picture shows weeds wilting but cotton plant intact. Photo by Vivian Fernandes).

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