Feb 14, 2016

India must direct seed companies to withdraw and destroy Bt cotton seed.

Pic: www.hindubusinessline.com

Nestle, the multinational food giant, was forced to recall and destroy 400 million packets of Maggi noodles when the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) found the lead content to be beyond the permissible limits. Later, Indo Nissin Foods was advised to withdraw its instant noodles brand ‘Top Ramen’. Hindustan Unilever too withdrew its Knorr instant noodles pending product approval.

World over food recalls and voluntary withdrawals are a common phenomenon. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been regularly issuing alerts that have forced food companies to withdraw its misbranded and contaminated products. Pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements too have witnessed massive recalls in the past few years. Indian drug maker Ranbaxy was twice forced to withdraw its products from the US market besides being made to pay a penalty of $ 500 million. 

In a first-ever recall of a genetically-modified (GM) food product, the US-based Star Link was forced to recall over 300 of its products that was found to be carrying traces of GM corn which was not approved for human consumption. Taco shells manufactured by Kraft Foods and found to be contaminated with GM corn were also withdrawn with $ 60 million going in settlement. These are only a few of the prominent recalls the world has witnessed. The list is otherwise endless.

More recently, nearly 7 million cars have been recalled in the United States after a defective airbag and propellant device supplied by a Japanese manufacturer Takata, and fitted in cars of nearly two dozen popular brands, were detected. So far there have been two deaths and 139 reported injuries across all brands. According to news reports, some 34 million vehicles in the US are potentially affected. Volkswagen alone had to recall 680,000 vehicles in the US over airbag problems.

In India, the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, provides adequate protection to consumers. It does ensure that a manufacturer does not sell a product that suffers from a major defect, ensures proper service and can be hauled up for excessive pricing, unfair trade practices or restrictive trade practices. But when it comes to seeds, the law is not as clear as it is for any other manufactured product. The existing provisions have been used by farmers at several places to get compensation for lack of germination of the seeds but in several cases the seed companies have managed to wriggle out leaving the state governments to take on the liability.

This brings me to the failure of genetically-modified Bt cotton seeds to control the dreaded pink bollworm pests in cotton. In an affidavit filed on Jan 23 before the New Delhi High Court, the Ministry of Agriculture stated: “Pink boll worm, a major pest of the cotton crop, has already developed resistance in the last 2-3 years; farmers are a worried lot having sown Bt cotton seeds purchased at high prices.”

Seeking a reduction in royalty payments to Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech India Pvt Ltd (MMBL), which has a near monopoly on Bt cotton seeds, what the government is merely seeking is the right to regulate prices for farmers at a time when the efficacy of the crop variety goes down. Even if the royalty amount is reduced it would still make the Bt cotton varieties anyway effective to withstand the insect attack against which it was earlier resistant. Since the efficacy of Bt cotton seeds has come down, and this has been established b the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), and admitted by Monsanto, I wonder why are the seed companies not being asked to withdraw and destroy the Bt cotton seeds, which have lost its ability to control pink boll worm insects? After all, if Nestle can be directed to recall and destroy 400 million packet of Maggi noddles, seed companies selling Bollgard-II seeds (and I am told there are 49 such companies) should also be directed to recall and destroy 50 million seed samples that are sold every year.

Why should an inferior seed be allowed to be sold? Are these farmers not consumers?  

In India, reports say more than 8 million farmers are engaged in cotton cultivation. Nearly 97 per cent of the cotton area in India is under Bt cotton.

Perhaps for this reason, but not as categorical, some States have begun to question the seed companies.  Reports The Times of India (Feb 13, 2016): “State governments have begun to issue notices to domestic trade channel partners of American seed giant Monsanto, citing failure of latter’s GM cotton that was supposed to be pest resistant but is now being attacked by the same pests.” Accordingly, these seed companies, which have come together under the banner National Seed Association of India (NSAI) in turn, are questioning Monsanto, which in turn is blaming farmers for not following the correct farm practices. This tug of war will continue while farmers continue to suffer. Blaming farmers for any seed debacle has been the easiest way to escape responsibility.

In 2009, Monsanto had accepted pink boll resistance to its first-generation Bt cotton – containing one Bt gene. This was replaced by the second-generation called Bollgard-II – containing two Bt genes -- and therefore providing more ‘robust’ protection. The Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research meanwhile detected pink bollworm developing resistance to Bollgard-II in October 2015. When confronted, a spokesperson for Monsanto replied: "the resistance is a natural, evolving process."

It took almost four years for the insects to develop resistance to the first generation Bt cotton after it was commercially released in 2006, says a news report in the Hindu Business Line. In another 5-6 years, the second generation Bollgard-II also developed resistance. The failure of Bt cotton to withstand the fury of insect attack against which it was supposed to be resistant has only aggravated the prevailing farm distress. In such a distressing scenario, when we know hundreds of farmers are committing suicide, and majority of them are from the cotton belt, the question that needs to be asked is why shouldn’t the Bt cotton varieties be withdrawn and destroyed? If the seed variety is not able to provide the same service for which it was originally approved, why shouldn’t the Ministry of Agriculture advise the seed companies to recall the product? 

India must direct companies to withdraw Bt cotton seed. ABPLive.in Feb 13, 2016

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