Maharashtra govt forms SIT to probe sale of illegal Bt cotton seeds

The Maharashtra government has formed a special investigation team (SIT) to probe companies that have sold unapproved Bt cotton seeds with a Herbicide Tolerant (HT) transgenic gene. The state government issued a resolution to this effect on 7 February.

Sanjay Barve, commissioner of the state intelligence department, is head of the SIT while Subhash Nagre, joint director for agriculture in the Amravati division, is the member-secretary.

The SIT is to submit its report and recommendations by 7 March, but has been allowed to seek an extension if needed, Barve confirmed to Mint. It has been asked to identify the causes that led to rampant sale of seeds with the HT transgenic gene along with approved Bt cotton seeds and recommend measures to prevent similar violations in future.

The resolution specifically mentions Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd, Monsanto Holdings Pvt. Ltd, and Monsanto India Ltd and asks the SIT to probe the “role and participation of these entities in unauthorized production, storage and sale of Bt cotton seeds with HT transgenic gene”.

Mahyco Monsanto Biotech is a joint venture between Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd and Monsanto Investment India Pvt. Ltd. It sells the Bollgard and Bollgard II technologies to seed companies which then sell Bt seeds to farmers.

The government has also asked the SIT to investigate the role of other companies.

In India, Bt cotton seeds of Bollgard I (since 2002) with Cry1Ac gene and Bollgard II (since 2006) with Cry2Ab gene are approved for sale on a commercial scale.

The Maharashtra government resolution says the Union government’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has not yet approved the HT transgenic gene and this makes the production, storage, and sale of Bt seeds with the HT transgenic gene illegal.

The resolution says sale of the HT transgenic gene is a violation of the Seeds Act of 1966 as well as the Environment Protection Act of 1986. It also cites a report submitted by the Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) which says that Bt cotton seeds sold by five brands in Maharashtra have been found to contain HT transgenic traits.

The CICR report points at the involvement of several “rackets” illegally selling these seeds in Maharashtra and other cotton-growing states. In October 2017, the Nagpur district police filed a criminal complaint against the five brands.

Given the multi-state operations of entities selling Bt seeds with the HT transgenic gene, the state government wrote to the centre in November 2017, recommending a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Bijay Kumar, principal secretary, Maharashtra agriculture department, told Mint that the centre in October 2017 formed a field inspection and scientific evaluation committee to look into the same issues. “The centre on 10 January asked the state government to form its own SIT to investigate the same,” Kumar said.

He further said the state government’s preliminary estimates suggested that between 3.5 to 4 million packets of Bt seeds with HT transgenic traits have been sold in Maharashtra alone. “If nearly 3.5 to 4 million packets of the total 16 million packets sold in the 2017 kharif season contained the unapproved gene, then it is a serious violation done on a large scale,” said Kumar.

The issue of illegal Bt cotton seeds was highlighted in October last year when more than 40 farmers and farm labourers in the Vidarbha region, which accounts for nearly 35% of Maharashtra’s total cotton cultivation, died of pesticide poisoning. Farm activists and political parties blame pesticide and seed companies selling both Bollgard II seeds and those selling seeds with the HT transgenic gene for the abnormal growth of cotton plants and an unprecedented pink bollworm attack that is believed to have damaged the cotton crop on nearly 50% of the state’s total 4.2 million hectares under cotton in 2017.

The state government had formed an SIT to probe these deaths and submitted its report in January, blaming farmers and farm labourers for unregulated and unskilled spraying of pesticides.

A spokesperson for Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt Ltd, or MMB, said the company was “very encouraged by the formation of the SIT to comprehensively investigate and curb the proliferation of illegal herbicide tolerant cotton seeds”. The spokesperson said in an emailed response that in December 2017, MMB had written to the Maharashtra government seeking action against production and sale of HT seeds.

“The illegal cotton seeds planted include Monsanto’s proprietary herbicide tolerant technology Bollgard II® Roundup Ready Flex® (BGII-RRF). These illegal seeds are sold without regulatory and environmental approvals, or verification of gene expression. This activity makes farmers vulnerable to exploitation by opportunistic companies seeking to benefit from such proliferation and undermines our endeavour to steward technologies in compliance with the laws in India”, the spokesperson said.

He added that MMB had conducted all research and regulatory trials strictly in accordance with guidelines laid down under the Indian laws and strongly believes introduction of technologies must be in line with the nation’s environmental normslivemint