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7-Business: Dealers make a fortune selling spurious Bt cotton seeds in India

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TITLE:  Dealers make a fortune selling spurious Bt cotton seeds
SOURCE: The Financial Express, India, by Ashok B. Sharma
DATE:   29 Aug 2005

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Dealers make a fortune selling spurious Bt cotton seeds

BHATINDA, AUG 28: Flouting regulatory norms, dealers have made a killing
by massive sales of spurious Bt cotton seeds in the Punjab.

These seeds are sown in large tracts without any refuge area. The
farmers, not knowing the consequences of a likely fallout to soil and the
environment, have been practically overtaken by the hype generated. In
fact, Bt cotton--whether genuine or illegal--has come to be known to them
as "better cotton".

According to state government sources, the area under cotton has
increased to 650,000 hectare, out of which about 75% of the area is under
spurious Bt cotton. The officially approved varieties of Bt cotton occupy
an area ranging from 120,000-2,00,000 ha.

The territory manager of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd, Baljinder
Singh, said Bt cotton seeds are priced between Rs 1,400 and Rs 1,650 a
packet. One packet, which contains 450g of seeds, is sufficient for
cultivation in an acre.

"We also provide 120g of non-Bt seeds to the farmers for cultivation in
the refuge area," he said.

MM Biotech's senior manager of public relations, Ms Sarita Behl, said:
"Despite the prices of approved Bt seeds being higher than non-Bt ones,
farmers opted for approved Bt varieties on their own, knowing full well
it would perform better."

In fact, the Punjab government has authorised a state cooperative,
Markfed, to market approved Bt cotton seeds. A massive campaign was
launched by the state government urging farmers to buy Bt cotton seeds
from Markfed.

State chief minister Amrinder Singh openly urged farmers to adopt this
"new technology". Authorised dealers of concerned seed companies also
sold approved Bt cotton. But in spite of consistent effort, many farmers
have opted for spurious Bt cotton seeds.

This correspondent, in the course of his field visit, tried to find out
the reasons for farmers opting for spurious seeds. A farmer who had sown
spurious Bt cotton seeds in village Behman Diwana, about 10km from
Bhatinda township, said: "We purchased this variety of Bt cotton from a
local dealer at Rs 800 per packet (a price much lower than approved
varieties). We purchased it since he told us it contains Bt genes. We
believe any variety which contains Bt genes in any form will perform better."

Another farmer said the price of such unapproved seeds ranged between Rs
800 and Rs 1,200 a packet.

The local dealers seem to have taken advantage of the hype generated by
the state government and companies like Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, Rasi
Seed and Ankur Seeds. Some suspect that these spurious seeds may contain
Bt genes or they may be non-Bt hybrids sold as Bt seeds. But whatever may
be the case, the sale of spurious Bt cotton seeds has surpassed the sale
of approved Bt cotton varieties. Local dealers have made a real killing.

Cotton was sown around April 20 in Bhatinda district and in many parts of
the Punjab. The cotton plant is now in the flowering stage. Early stages
of fruiting were also noticed in some plants. Incidence of pests seems to
be lower as the relative atmospheric humidity is lower owing to prolonged
dry weather. June, the first month of the monsoon season, was almost dry
throughout the country. The monsoon revived in June 27, resulting in good
rains till August 3. Thereafter, a dry spell has lingered.

"It is too early to estimate the performance of Bt cotton at this stage.
Owing to low levels of humidity, the incidence of pests is lower not only
in cotton fields, but also in paddy fields," said Umendra Dutt of the
Kheti Virasat Mission. Mr Dutt also said the organisation will come out
with a study on performance of Bt cotton in the Punjab at the end of the
season. He alleged proliferation of both approved and unapproved Bt
varieties is damaging the soil.

However, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech and Rasi Seed, which sold their approved
Bt cotton seeds in the Punjab, claim "practically no incidence of
American bollworm, pink bollworm and spotted bollworm in Bt cotton fields
due to the technology involved."

Rasi Seed advisor Joginder Singh was clear. He said Bt technology is not
a magic wand against all pests. Bt technology is successful in
controlling three types of bollworm. "It does not mean the farmer need
not apply sprays of chemical pesticides to control other pests".

He said Rasi Seed has selected right varieties for insertion of Bt genes.
These varieties are resistant to other pests also.

However, in the Bt cotton field of Jagsir Singh of village Behman Diwana,
this correspondent noticed a larva of American bollworm on the leaf of a
plant. After bringing it to the notice of Dr Singh, he said: "This larva
would soon die out as the Bt gene is active in the plant."

Like Jagsir Singh, other farmers like Jarnail Singh and Charanjit Singh
of the same village, and Gurmail Singh of Tungwali, have sown RCH-134 Bt
of Rasi Seed. All these farmers have so far applied two-three sprays of
pesticides at different intervals to control different pests. In Punjab,
approved Bt cotton varieties are: RCH-134 Bt and RCH-317 Bt of Rasi Seed;
MRC-6304 Bt and MRC-6301 Bt of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech; and Ankur-651 and
Ankur-2534 of Ankur Seeds. This is the first year of commercial sowing of
approved Bt cotton varieties in Punjab.

(Travel for the story was sponsored by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech)


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