India farmers risk arrest for sowing unapproved Monsanto cotton seeds

A farm worker sprays pesticides on genetically modified cotton crops in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. The federal environment ministry said last year planting the genetically modified seeds violated the Environment Protection Act, and farmers who did so were risking potential jail terms. (Reuters)
Updated 12 June 2018
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India farmers risk arrest for sowing unapproved Monsanto cotton seeds

MUMBAI: Many Indian farmers are openly sowing an unapproved variety of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds developed by Monsanto, as the government sits on the sidelines for fear of antagonizing a big voting bloc ahead of an election next year.
India approved the first GM cotton seed trait in 2002 and an upgraded variety in 2006, helping transform the country into the world’s top producer and second-largest exporter of the fiber. But newer traits are not available after Monsanto in 2016 withdrew an application seeking approval for the latest variety due to a royalty dispute with the government.
The herbicide-tolerant variety, lab-altered to help farmers save costs on weed management, has, however, seeped into the country’s farms since then. Authorities say they are still investigating how that happened.
“I will only use these seeds or nothing at all,” said Rambhau Shinde, a farmer who has been cultivating cotton for nearly four decades in the western state of Maharashtra.
The federal environment ministry said last year planting the seeds violated the Environment Protection Act, and farmers who did so were risking potential jail terms. But many farmers are desperate to boost their incomes after poor yields over the past few years and are willing to ignore the warnings.
A government official in New Delhi, who deals with matters related to GM crops, said it was difficult to keep farmers away from something that they saw benefit in.
“If you don’t allow them to plant legally, illegal planting will happen,” the official said, requesting anonymity, adding that Monsanto had yet to reapply for an approval to sell its latest variety of GM cotton in India.
A Monsanto India spokesman said the company was confident that the government would prosecute those involved in the illegal trade of the unapproved seeds.
Except for GM cotton, India has not approved any other transgenic crop on concerns over their safety, and large foreign companies have been increasingly unhappy at what they say is the infringement of their intellectual property by widespread planting of unapproved seeds.
Farmers say they prefer Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready Flex (RRF) strain of cotton seeds as they can cut input costs by as much as 10,000 rupees ($150) an acre compared with other varieties.
Cotton growers are also getting support from farmers’ unions, who are already at loggerheads with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government amid a fall in prices of many agricultural commodities.
Without new varieties of seeds, they fear being outplayed by other major cotton producers and exporters such as the United States, Brazil and Australia, said Anil Ghanwat, the president of a farmers’ organization in Maharashtra.
“The government is asking us to carry a sword to fight the enemy with AK-56 rifles,” said Ghanwat, who has urged farmers to sow the unapproved GM seed. “We will protect them if government authorities try to destroy the crop or harass them with legal cases.”
Last year, just before cotton harvesting, authorities found plantations of unapproved seeds in key producing states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the south.
In February, authorities in Telangana told two local companies that cotton seeds they sold to farmers may have contained traces of Monsanto’s RRF strain, though the companies denied that.
This year various states have formed inspection teams to curb the sale of such seeds, though farmers have built a parallel network to distribute them without getting caught, said M.S. Gholap, director at Maharashtra’s agriculture department.
The seeds were being produced secretly, mainly in Gujarat and Telangana, and then smuggled to other states, Gholap said.
Maharashtra has seized unapproved seeds worth 12 million rupees ($178,000) in the past two months, enough to cultivate 10,000 hectares, said Gholap.
Farmers are paying as much as a 30 percent premium for the unapproved seeds in Maharashtra and Gujarat compared with seeds of older strains.
The proliferation of unapproved seeds could force the government to grant approval to the new seed technology, as happened in 2002 when New Delhi legalized planting of the Bt Cotton GM strain, said C D Mayee, head of South Asia Biotechnology Center, a New Delhi-based non-profit organization.
The strong demand for the illegal seeds has alarmed some federal government officials.
“Once farmers realize laws are toothless, then they could cultivate GM soybean, corn and other crops,” said one official, who asked not to be identified. “It would have serious impact on our biodiversity.”


UK Prime Minister Johnson: don’t expect Brexit breakthrough in New York

Updated 1 min 2 sec ago

UK Prime Minister Johnson: don’t expect Brexit breakthrough in New York

  • Boris Johnson to hold talks with several European leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York
  • Britain is leaving the European Union at the end of October
NEW YORK: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday cautioned against the likelihood of making a Brexit breakthrough at talks on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Johnson, who has vowed to take Britain out of the European Union at the end of October with or without a deal, is due to hold talks with several European leaders in New York including Germany’s Angela Merkel and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
He will also discuss progress on reaching a Brexit deal with European Council President Donald Tusk.
“I would caution you all not to think that this is going to be the moment,” he told reporters on the plane on the way to New York. “I don’t wish to elevate excessively the belief that there will be a New York breakthrough.”
Johnson said that while a “great deal” of progress had been made since he took office in July as EU leaders now acknowledged the Withdrawal Agreement reached with his predecessor needed to be changed, there were “clearly still gaps and still difficulties.”
He wants to remove the so-called backstop, an insurance policy aimed at avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland by having Britain follow the bloc’s rules on trade, state aid, labor and environmental standards so no checks are necessary.
Last week Britain shared technical documents with Brussels setting out its ideas for dealing with the contentious issue of the backstop, although these were not the formal legal proposals Brussels has asked for.
Johnson has said he wants to secure an amended deal at an EU summit on Oct. 17-18, and said “a large number of the important players,” including Britain, Germany, France and Ireland wanted to reach an agreement.
“We have seen interest in the idea of treating the island of Ireland as a single zone for sanitary and phytosanitary purposes that is also encouraging,” he said. “However, there are clearly still gaps and still difficulties.”
Johnson said it was important the United Kingdom “whole and entire” was able to diverge from EU law in future.
“The problem with ... the current backstop is that it would prevent the UK from diverging over a huge range of industrial standards and others,” he said. “We may want to regulate differently but clearly there is also a strong incentive to keep goods moving fluidly and we think we can do both.”