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Bayer Reenergizes Plan to Plant New GM Cotton Seeds in India

According to farm policy experts, the GM cotton seed variety could reduce cultivation costs in India, increase crop yields, and act as an antidote to the pink bollworm pest.

Shivam Dwivedi
Picture of Cotton Bulbs
Picture of Cotton Bulbs

According to government sources, Germany's Bayer has applied to cultivate its next generation of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds in India, reviving plans to bring the high-yielding, herbicide-tolerant variety to the country.

Monsanto withdrew an application for approval from New Delhi for the GM variety Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex (RRF) in late 2016, in response to a slew of government measures targeting the world's largest seed company.

Bayer, which paid $63 billion for Monsanto in 2018, has resubmitted the application for Bollgard II RRF, indicating renewed interest from foreign seed, agricultural chemicals, and farm technology companies in India.

Following Monsanto's dispute with India overpricing and intellectual property rights, other global agricultural corporations decided to scale back investments and postpone plans to introduce new seed varieties and farming technologies in India.

Seeking Re-Approval

According to the sources, who asked not to be identified in accordance with official rules, Bayer resubmitted the application for the cultivation of the Bollgard II RRF variety in December.

"Bayer has resubmitted the dossier for seeking regulatory approvals to introduce RRF in India through its local joint venture partner," said one government source familiar with the matter. Once the regulatory approval process begins, Bayer may take several years to receive final approval."

It was not clear when the approval process would start, the sources said.

"Our efforts are aimed at increasing crop productivity, doubling farmer incomes, and making Indian agriculture sustainable and globally competitive," Bayer said in a statement.

According to farm policy experts, the GM cotton seed variety could reduce cultivation costs in India, increase crop yields, and act as an antidote to the pink bollworm pest.

Pink bollworm has recently emerged as a major threat to India's cotton crop. According to estimates from industry bodies and farmers, the pest attack has also reduced farmers' income, with nearly 20% to 30% of the country's 12 to 13 million hectares of the cotton area infested with pink bollworm.

Dated Technology

In 2002, India approved Monsanto's single gene Bollgard I technology, and Monsanto's GM cotton seed technology quickly dominated 90 percent of India's cotton acreage. Apart from GM cotton, no other transgenic crop has been approved in India.

In 2006, New Delhi approved Monsanto's double gene Bollgard II, which helped India become the world's leading cotton producer and second-largest exporter of fibre as output quadrupled. Previously, India was a net importer of cotton.

Crop yields, however, have remained stagnant since then, and farmers claim that the existing variety is losing effectiveness and becoming more vulnerable to pests such as pink bollworms.

"In the absence of a new variety, Indian farmers are forced to rely on dated technology," a global seed company executive said on condition of anonymity. "While India has been slow to adopt newer cotton seed technologies, other producers have done so over the last 15 years."

The ease of weed management is another major draw for farmers, according to Bhagirath Choudhary, director of the South Asia Biotech Centre, a biotechnology promotion organization. Asia Biotech Society's research partners include many government-run scientific research organizations and private companies, including Bayer.

"The RRF variety has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of cultivation for millions of India's poor, small farmers because the cost of labour for removing unwanted vegetation and picking weeds alone accounts for 65% of the total cost of cotton cultivation in the country," Choudhary said.

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