Taking note of Monsanto’s ‘threat’ to withdraw its genetically modified crop technology from India, following the Centre’s plan to cut the company’s royalty fees, it gives an opportunity to trace Monsanto’s journey in India, and how it came to be known as “seed of suicide”.
1988, Monsanto arrived in the Indian market, bringing in wide-ranging change in the Indian seed sector. The 1988 Seed Policy enforced by the World Bank, demanded deregulation of the seed market by the government. Things started changing with Monsanto’s entry. While on one side joint-ventures and licensing arrangements increased the concentration over the seed sector, seed that had been the farmers’ common resource earlier, became the “intellectual property” of Monsanto. The company began collecting royalties, which increased the costs of seed, bringing in trouble for farmers. Genetically modified hybrid seeds replaced open pollinated cotton seeds. Most importantly, cotton, which had earlier been grown as a mixture with food crops, now had to be grown as a monoculture, that were more vulnerable to disease, drought, pests, and crop failure.
It also began to use public resources to drive its non-renewable hybrids through public-private partnerships (PPP). However, Monsanto’s determined control over the seed sector in India is worrying, and has come under the scanner multiple times. It has been blamed for farmer suicides and agrarian anguish which is driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in parts of India, mainly in the cotton belt.
In 2012, an internal advisory by the agricultural ministry stated that, “Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers.” As Monsanto’s profits grew, farmers’ debt grew side by side. It is in this situation, Monsanto’s seeds came to be known as “seeds of suicide.”
However, Monsanto received a big blow, as cotton farmers across north India, are switching to “desi”, and indigenous variety of cotton, which comes at half the cost, and also allows farmers to save and replant the seed next near. Cotton farmers are disposing of Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt cotton, in a bid to use local variety of seeds. India is world’s biggest producer and second-largest exporter of cotton and this move is spelling trouble for Monsanto’s biggest after USA. According to a Reuters, in India, sales of the seed are down by 15% year on year, worth $75 million. While Monsanto’s genetically modified variety of cottons remains dominant, the Indian government is promoting home-grown varieties, which caused Monsanto, a loss of around 5% in 2016 alone.
The water-intensive crop of Monsanto is resistant to pest such as the bollworm, which is an advantage over the local variety. However, local varieties seeds appear more resistant to whitefly, common in India’s during dry seasons. Experts are of the opinion that, the indigenous cotton seeds developed by the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), which comes under the farm ministry, would catch on over time, as the indigenous cotton looks promising. In Vidharba, community seed banks have been created to help farmers go organic.
Special attention is being given to encourage and educate farmers to produce their own seeds so that they can cultivate the seeds with less production cost. However, if Monsanto’s threat is a worrying note, or a sigh of relief for the seed sector and the agriculture industry, will be proved with time.