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Bt Cotton Seed Patent of Monsanto in Trouble

Chander Mohan
Chander Mohan

The uses of the cotton fiber and its seeds are widespread, ranging from clothing, upholstery, cosmetics, packaging to cottonseed-oil, paper, electrical equipment, and livestock feed. Cotton is a crop of very high economic value because of its widespread demand in the textile industry, representing 38 percent of the fiber market.

The largest producer of cotton is China, followed by USA and India. For such an important cash crop, the loss of hundreds of acres worth of harvest due to attack by pests proves to be a big loss to farmers as well as the industry. It also leads to waste of precious resources like soil, water and labor. 

India's total cotton production ranks 3rd internationally behind China and the U.S., the acreage under cotton cultivation in India is about 25 percent  of all agricultural land, the highest of any country. One main reason is that the production of cotton per hectare is very low, and India ranks 70th in the world in the kg/hectare production of cotton. The reduced productivity of Indian cotton is often attributed to intense and diverse pest pressure and the lack of irrigation infrastructure. The hope was that the introduction of Bt Cotton would largely take care of the main pest problems and reduce the use of pesticides.

The use of BT cotton in India has raised a lot of controversy even before its official introduction in India. It all began when Monsanto partnered up with an Indian seed company MAHYCO in 1993 in a bid to introduce Bt cotton seeds in India. After a slow start with the Government of India's Department of Biotechnology, a 50-50 joint venture called MAHYCO-Monsanto Biotech (MMB) was formed in 1998. They managed to acquire permission for field testing of Bt cotton seeds countrywide, and in 2001, they finally approached the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee) for the commercial release of Bt cotton varieties. GEAC withheld large scale cultivation and MMB was told to do more field trials for another year.

Bt cotton is an insect-resistant transgenic crop designed to combat the ballworm. Bt cotton was created by genetically altering the cotton genome to express a microbial protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. In short, the transgene inserted into the plant's genome produces toxin crystals that the plant would not normally produce which, when ingested by a certain population of organisms, dissolves the gut lining, leading to the organism's death.

Monsanto wanted to charge a higher trait fee under the sub-licence given to the Indian companies to use its Bt Cotton  seed technology. Both sides had challenged the single judge’s order before the division bench.The Delhi High Court dismissed the US-based agro major Monsanto Technology’s plea to enforce the patent for its BT cotton seeds in India. A Bench of Justice S Ravindra Bhat and Justice Yogesh Khanna partially allowed the counter-claims of three Indian seed companies that Monsanto did not have a patent for its BT cotton seeds, a genetically modified variant that resists bollworms. Monsanto has expressed its disappointment over the high court order.

The court also upheld the decision of a single judge on the issue of trait fee payable to Monsanto by the three Indian companies — Nuziveedu Seeds, Prabhat Agri Biotech and Pravardhan Seeds  — under a sub-licence. The single judge had said the three companies would pay trait fees to Monsanto according to government-set rates.

Reacting to the judgment, a spokesperson for Monsanto India in a statement said: “As a company focused on bringing relevant innovation to India’s farmers, MMB (Mahyco Monsanto Biotech) is very disappointed with today’s order by the Delhi High Court. Over the years MMB has conducted its business in adherence with all applicable laws of India and all our patents were granted after due review under these laws. Today’s order will have wide-ranging, negative implications for biotech-based innovation across many sectors within India, and is inconsistent with other international markets where agricultural innovation has flourished.”
Kalyan Goswami, Director General, National Seed Association of India (NSAI), said the judgment upheld the efforts made by intelligentsia to protect rights of farmers and food security of Nation by making appropriate provisions of 3(j) in the Patent act. Right-wing group Swadeshi Jagran Manch also hailed the verdict.

After the verdict was pronounced, Monsanto sought that the decision be kept in abeyance for a few weeks so that it could file an appeal in the Supreme Court. The high court declined to keep the operation of its decision in Bench, but granted the US company a certificate of fitness to file an appeal in the apex court.

While Bt seeds have been successfully used by some farmers in India, others have been caught into vicious debt traps and low yielding harvests, as described above. This led to some poor marginal farmers committing suicide over the losses they have incurred. The farmer suicides happened in large numbers around 2004-2006 in the areas that cultivated cotton and a lot of these farmers drank the pesticides they sprayed on their crops out of despair.

Because of all the complicating socio-economic factors in a developing country like India, including trade laws, seed prices, counterfeit seeds, and high interest, as well as the high pest pressures that already exist, it is difficult to determine the role that the introduction of Bt cotton played. There are no reliable data sets available of the number of farmers that have committed suicide that were or were not using Bt seed. The low acceptance level of GM technology by the public makes it more difficult to tease out the many factors, since Bt has already been publically blamed as the cause. More thorough and unbiased ground-level research will have to be done to get a clear picture of whether Bt technology has really caused all the adverse effects on the lives of farmers or if surrounding social, political, and economic factors are responsible.

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