Maharashtra sends mixed signals on GM crops

Mixed signals are being sent by the Maharashtra government on genetically modified (GM) crops with a showcause notice issued to Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (Mahyco) in May for cheating and criminal breach of trust. Earlier this year the state agriculture commissioner had proceeded against another company, Bayer BioScience, for its poor quality seeds and now a case is pending in the Bombay high court after the company went in appeal.

While Maharashtra has not shown any aversion to transgenic crop varieties and has encouraged Bt cotton, the state agriculture minister Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil has threatened to cancel the license of Mahyco if the company failed to comply with the law. In a related matter, since a year, the state government is dragging its feet on issuing a no objection certificate (NOC) for field trials in GM crops in the cases of nine applications. Now the chief minister is planning to write to the Centre, specifically to the minister for science and technology and the environment minister saying that there is no provision for a state government to issue an NOC in the case of field trials under the Environment Protection Act or the Rules prescribed under it, and the Centre should not insist on this NOC. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had written to the companies last year saying that some governments had opposed GM crops and to avoid disruption of ongoing field trials, the companies and organisations were directed not to go ahead with trials unless the state issued an NOC.

As a result applications from the Rubber Research Institute of India for GM rubber, and companies like Bayer, Syngenta, Mahyco, Dow, Bayer, and Metahelix apart from the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) to conduct field trials on cotton, corn, rice and rubber are pending. The Rubber Research Institute was keen on trials in Maharashtra since Kerala has banned them in GM crops.

In March, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar had told the Rajya Sabha that Bt cotton had doubled cotton production in the country to 340 lakh bales from 164 lakh bales in 2004-05. He also referred to the loss in yield of farmers from Dhule district and Khargone district in Madhya Pradesh after using hybrid cotton seeds produced and marketed by Bayer Bio-Science Pvt Ltd.

Despite the spread of Bt cotton, the State government has realised the need for cotton varieties which can grow well in scarcity conditions. The vice chancellors of all agricultural universities in the State have been directed to focus on research of cotton varieties which will withstand drought and increase productivity, state agriculture commissioner Umakant Dangat confirmed to The Hindu. The State is not against GM crops and there is no thought of banning GM field trials, he clarified. He said while the area under Bt cotton had increased, there was no increase in productivity and the cost of production was also not reducing. There was a need to encourage local varieties of cotton and revive them as they were good for dryland cultivation. Bt cotton was using more and more pesticides and fertilisers and needed vast quantities of water. In Maharashtra only three to four per cent of the cotton growing area was under irrigation, over 95 per cent was grown on rainfed areas, Mr Dangat said.

In January the government took another company, Bayer Bio Science, to task for failing to provide good quality Bt cotton seeds in Dhule district. Mr Dangat said that 143 farmers in Dhule who bought the seeds, suffered crop losses and demanded a compensation of Rs 45 lakhs. The agriculture department conducted an inquiry and refuted the company’s claim that the seeds were less susceptible to pests as stated on the label. The company appealed before the agriculture commissioner but the order to pay compensation to the aggrieved farmers was passed. However, Bayer went to court which asked the company to deposit Rs 30 lakhs before taking cognizance of its petition appealing against the government order, Mr Dangat said.

A statement from Bayer BioScience, a business unit of Bayer CropScience said, “SurPass cottonseed hybrids of Bayer have been setting new trends in sustainable cotton crop production. Besides good seed, good crop management and a favourable climatic condition is very critical for good yields. Our field teams constantly work with farmers to impart extension and education on agronomic practices in order to help them to raise good crop. The yields below expectations in a few pockets are due to a combination of inadequate crop management and adverse environmental conditions. We are in the process of contesting the unjustifiable claims through a legal course.”

While Mahyco has refuted the show cause notice and claimed that it did not perpetrate any fraud, the hearing is now complete. The matter will be decided soon, official sources said. In its reply to the notice of June 15, Mahyco said it had submitted district wise and product wise sales plan in January and again in March. There is no question of violation of the license agreement and the company had complied with all rules and had not violated the Maharashtra Cotton seeds (Regulation of Supply, distribution, Sale and Fixation of Sale Price) Act. After a case of criminal breach of trust was filed in Beed, the company approached the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court for quashing of the first information report (FIR) and anticipatory bail. Mahyco said that the anticipatory bail was granted and the court stayed the operation of the FIR.

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