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Herbicide resistant BT Cotton behind farmer deaths in Maharashtra?

Ashwin Aghor | Updated on: 3 November 2017, 13:24 IST
Indian farmers plough a field in preparation for sowing cotton seeds in Nani Kisol village, around 70 km from Ahmedabad (AFP PHOTO / Sam PANTHAKY)

It was recently revealed that the cotton seeds sowed in Maharashtra, and six other states, had traces of unapproved Roundup Ready Flex (RR Flex) also known as Herbicide Tolerant (HT) BT. This chemical is the alleged root cause of more than 30 deaths in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has now written to the central government to initiate a CBI inquiry into the matter.

In a series of tweets, Fadnavis said –

Interestingly, the report mentioned by the CM does not blame the HTBT variety for the deaths caused due to the pesticide spraying.

The report, dated 20 October 2017, states –

“As the news of farmers and farm labours affected due to insecticide poisoning in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra appears in news media on 27 September 2017, ICAR-CICR sent its team of four scientists by 28 September 2017 to understand the ground fact and to collect information from affected areas of Yavatmal. In fact, ICAR-CICR team was on the field prior to new in the media, visited the affected areas Maregaon district Yavatmal on 26 September 2017 and also on earlier dates, to assess the infestation of pink bollworm in farmers fields.”

It further says that a majority of the cases of poisoning were associated with the use of insecticides like – “Monocrotophos – 36% SL, Profenophos 40%+Cypermethrin 4% EC (Profex Super), Fipronil 40%+Imidacloprid 40% WG (Police) and Difenthiuron 50% WP (Polo).”

It is pertinent to mention that CIB has approved about 88 insecticides alone and 17 in combinations, four fungicides alone and two in combinations and 11 herbicides/weedicides which have label claim for the control of specific pest, disease and weeds, respectively in cotton, with a special emphasis on “a mixture of Fipronil 40%+ Imidacloprid 40% (Police)” which is not recommended on cotton.

Mounting deaths

In all 36 farmers have died due to poisoning over last as many days, in Yavatmal district.

Apart from the deaths, over 1,800 farmers have been affected due to the pesticide spraying, which began in August this year. Many have lost their eyesight. Around 800 farmers were admitted to civil hospital in Yavatmal after they complained of blurred vision, nausea, skin rashes, headaches, and dizziness.

The HTBT Cotton variety was developed by Monsanto Mahyco Biotech, a joint venture company of Monsanto and Mahyco. The approval for the same was pending with the state government for more than a decade. However, the company withdrew the application last year. Sources said that the illegal sale of HTBT cotton seeds picked up after that.

According to information, around 35 lakh packets of HT BT Cotton seeds were sold illegally in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Odisha, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh along with Maharashtra.

“I welcome the decision of state government to ask CBI inquiry into the illegal sale of 35 lakh packets of HTBT cotton seeds,” said Kishor Tiwari, chairman of Vasnatrao Naik Farm Self Reliance Mission.

Tiwari also alleged that 40 lakh packets of HTBT seeds worth Rs 472 crore were sold and have been sowed over around 8.5 lakh hectares of land in the country.

“It is shocking that such a huge quantity of HTBT cotton seeds was sold illegally in the state. This matter needs to be investigated thoroughly and culprits punished,” Tiwari said.

He said that it is the responsibility of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of Government of India, hence the CBI must step in to investigate the matter. He also alleged that officials from agriculture department and police were hand-in-glove in this matter.

“It has been observed that use of HTBT seeds have increased since last three years since there is a huge demand for these seeds from the farmers who cannot afford to deploy farm labours to remove weeds in the field. However, this has adversely affected the health of farmers as well as the soil,” Tiwari said.

He said that these seeds are sold in plain white bags right under the nose of agriculture and police officials. Tiwari said that HTBT seeds were directly connected to the deaths due to pesticide spraying as the cotton plants grew more than average and attracted huge pests which needed to be handled by these pesticides.

Illegal sales

President and founder director of South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC) CD Mayee said, “HTBT seeds cannot be sold in India as the government has not approved it yet. But they are being sold illegally in the country. Moreover, in most of the seeds claimed to be HTBT, are actually spurious without BT trait. This is the reason for pest infestation and subsequent heavy pesticide spraying.”

He said that SABC had tested these seeds for the presence of HT, glyphosate-tolerant gene. The matter was reported to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of the central government on 5 September this year, he added.

Vandana Shiva, the founder of Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, said –

“Monsanto illegally introduced the BT variety in India. The company initially claimed that BT varieties will never need pesticides. But now it has been proved wrong. This means Monsanto mislead the farmers to boost sales. Monsanto came to India in 1998, after the BT variety had completely failed in Texas in 1996. The company had to pay huge compensations to farmers in Texas. Since the technology has failed, farmers need to use pesticides.”

She said that HTBT variety will kill all other vegetation including other crops and fodder over time. It has been established, even by WHO, that HTBT is carcinogenic, which even the UN also has agreed to. Around 100 cancer patients are fighting a legal battle against Monsanto in the USA.

“Even Sri Lanka has banned Monsanto after 40,000 people died of kidney failure due to HTBT. It has now established that it leads to organ failure. There is growing pressure to ban HTBT in Europe as well,” Shiva said.

When contacted, Monsanto spokesperson said -

“We have learnt about illegal Roundup Ready Flex (RRF) herbicide-tolerant cotton being planted by farmers in key cotton growing states across India. It is a matter of grave concern that some seed companies while suppressing their real intent of profiteering, are attempting to illegally incorporate unauthorized and unapproved herbicide-tolerant technologies into their seeds. The commercial release of GM technologies in India without the requisite regulatory approvals may not only pose tremendous risks for the country’s farmers, it may also be in violation of applicable laws of the land.”

As early as September 2008, Monsanto had informed the country’s regulatory body – Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) – about seeds being illegally produced and sold by spurious and dubious seed producers to farmers without any approvals from central or state regulatory agencies, in complete violation of applicable laws.

Monsanto said that over the years, they have kept the regulators and key stakeholders apprised of the illegal usage of unapproved technology.

“Even as late as August 2017, we have sought their intervention on the gross misuse of patented and regulated technologies which may pose numerous other challenges to India’s cotton ecosystem,” the Monsanto spokesperson said.

Roundup Ready Flex, is proprietary to Monsanto and patented in India under the Patents Act, 1970. Even while the necessary applications seeking permissions for environmental release were being reviewed by the GEAC, this request was withdrawn due to the prevailing uncertain operating environment in May 2016.

First published: 3 November 2017, 13:24 IST