Earlier this month, the government cut royalties that local seed companies pay to Monsanto , for the second time in two years. This follows previous attempts to defang Monsanto. In February, for instance, the anti-trust regulator, the Competition Commission of India, decided to probe into anti-competitive practices by Monsanto. At the centre of all this is the pink bollworm infestation plaguing cotton farmers. Even though Bollgard 2, or BG-2, Monsanto’s second generation insecticidal technology for cotton, was supposed to protect crops against the pink bollworm, the pest has grown resistant to the toxins produced by this trait. As a result, farmers now spend more on pesticides to control infestations. This, along with the high cost of Bt seeds, is driving farmers to indigence.
One solution suggested by the National Seed Association of India is for the government to encourage a move back to Bollgard, the first iteration of Bt cotton, as Monsanto hasn’t patented BG in India. Both BG, which has a single bacterial gene called CryA1C, and BG-2, which has CryA1C and Cry2AB2, are designed to protect against pink bollworm. BG began failing against the pest in 2009, while BG-2 began failing in 2014.
Interestingly, none of the other 14 Bt cotton-growing countries have seen this resistance. China still successfully controls pink bollworm with first-generation Bt cotton. The U.S. and Australia are moving on to third-generation BG-3 without having faced this problem. Why did India suffer this unique misfortune?
A unique problem
Cotton researchers broadly agree on the reason: the pink bollworm grew resistant because India restricted itself to cultivating long-duration hybrids since the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002. Hybrids are crosses between two crops that often see higher yields than their parents, in a genetic phenomenon called heterosis. All other Bt cotton-growing countries mainly grow open-pollinated cotton varieties rather than hybrids.
A couple of factors led to India’s unique trajectory. First, when Monsanto licensed its BG and BG-2 traits to Indian seed companies, the agreement restricted the introduction of these traits to hybrids only. Second, hybrids are financially more attractive to Indian seed companies because they offer a “value capture mechanism”. India is the only country whose intellectual property laws have never prevented its farmers from either saving or selling seeds, says K.V. Prabhu, chairperson of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority of India. Other countries restrict saving and selling of seeds in various degrees. Over 70 countries that are members of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, for example, allow farmers to reuse seeds from a protected plant variety, but not to sell them. In the U.S., where plant varieties are patented, the patented seeds cannot even be reused. Without such protections, several seed companies in India prefer hybrids because unlike open-pollinated varieties, hybrids lose their genetic stability when their seeds are replanted. This compels farmers to repurchase seeds each year, protecting corporate revenues.
When Monsanto introduced Bt cotton in India, the technology was so popular that cotton farmers shifted to it en masse. But because there was no open-pollinated Bt option, they were also forced to shift en masse to hybrids. From 2002 to 2011, the area under cotton hybrids rose from 2% in north India and 40% elsewhere to 96% across the country. This shift had consequences, says Keshav Raj Kranthi, former director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research and currently at the International Cotton Advisory Committee in Washington, DC. Not only are hybrids expensive, they are also bigger and bushier, forcing farmers to cultivate them at low densities — 11,000 to 16,000 crops per hectare. This is suboptimal — countries like the U.S. and Brazil plant cotton at 80,000 to 100,000 per hectare. What’s more, to make up for the low densities, Indian farmers grow them longer so that they produce enough cotton.
Mr. Kranthi also says that the introduction of the Bt gene into only one parent of Indian hybrids, as is the practice, is itself a problem. The resulting hybrids are hemizygous, which means that they express only one copy of the Bt gene. So, they produce cotton bolls that have some seeds toxic to the pink bollworm and some that are not. This can be contrasted with the homozygous seeds of open-pollinated varieties in the U.S., China or Australia, which have 100% toxic seeds. The problem with hemizygous hybrids is that they allow pink bollworms to survive on toxin-free seeds when they are vulnerable newborns. This is only a hypothesis, but other pink bollworm experts say it’s reasonable. Bruce Tabashnik, at the University of Arizona, who studies pest resistance, adds that experiments are needed to confirm this.
When all these factors combine with the pink bollworm’s biology, this creates a perfect storm of conditions for resistance. The pest does its most damage in the latter half of the cotton-growing season and does not consume any other crop that grows then. So, the long duration of Indian cotton crops, between 160 and 300 days, allows this pest to thrive and evolve resistance more quickly than it can for short-duration crops. Contrast this with other cotton-growing countries which strictly terminate the crop within 160 days.
Mr. Kranthi says the only solution to the problem is to move swiftly to short-duration varieties. This is where Monsanto’s first-generation Bollgard comes in. Seed companies cannot develop open-pollinated varieties with BG-2, but they can with BG, since Monsanto didn’t patent BG in India.
Step forward or two steps back?
However, not everybody agrees with this strategy. Govind Gujar, who retired as the head of entomology at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, says moving back to BG is a bad idea because the problem was not with the BG trait but with long-duration cotton. And even if BG-2 doesn’t fend off the pink bollworm, it still protects against other pests like the tobacco cutworm and the American bollworm. The presence of two Bt genes in BG-2 means it will be more effective than BG in delaying resistance against these pests. He asks: “When the whole world is moving to BG-3, why do we want to go back in time?”
The more critical question is, even if the government incentivises a return to BG, will all seed companies stop making BG-2 seeds? Some, like the Hyderabad-based Nuziveedu Seeds, say they will. But others, like the Aurangabad-based Ajeet Seeds, prefer BG-2 because of the superior stacked gene technology. If India cultivates both BG and BG-2, simultaneously, that can accelerate resistance among pests, studies predict. This could trigger the emergence of new cotton pests. India erred by not clamping down on long-duration crops when Bt cotton was first introduced. At least now it must base its policy on sound science and implement it stringently.