The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) — an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fount of the Modi government — which lobbied hard and helped skewer agribusiness multinational Monsanto with a price control regimen recently on genetically modified (Bt) cotton seeds is girding up for a long battle ahead.
The move riled Monsanto to an extent that it issued a dire warning: a re-think on its position in India. ET reached out to Monsanto for an engagement on this issue last week but the company says it’s not planning any interaction just yet.
The BKS, along with compatriot, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), is unmindful of Monsanto’s ‘audacious threats’ and is actually laying the ground for a transformative change in Indian agriculture. The larger idea is to foster growth or development that is sustainable, socially responsible and not root for a ‘growth at any cost’ framework.
The attitudinal shift was evident in the recent budget proposals for 2016-17 which, in the agriculture domain, attempted a going back to roots of sorts. Some small, early measures on soil health, organic farming and certification through the Paramaparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana are visible. The revival of indigenous breeds of milch animals has found traction.
These significant wins — curbing corporate monopolistic proclivities through pricing measures and a belated, still subdued, focus on organics — has emboldened the BKS and its ilk to keep pushing for policy changes like never before. As insiders, they have the access, they have the will to catalyse change.
It is now pushing the government to create a network of six new agriculture universities entirely focused on organics implying that the existing research and extension network is compromised. Genetically modified (GM) crops do not figure in its grand plans for the future although the BKS makes it clear that they are not against science, as some would put it, and that they are only keen on a robust regulatory regime to ensure safety and environmental concerns are upheld.
“The government is responding to some of our suggestions, but slowly, gingerly; not at the pace we would like it to,” says Dinesh Kulkarni, the Pune-based organising secretary of the BKS, which claims a nationwide membership of 2.1 million farmers.
Kulkarni is aware that the road ahead is tortuous and that well-entrenched interests of years, within and outside government, is difficult to dismantle. Yet, he believes, low-input sustainable agriculture can make it to policy documents if “we work on the mindsets of bureaucrats and scientists”. Many, he says, are merely misled by multinational propaganda.
Scientists are key to BKS’ strategy and it has been reaching out to them. The debate on genetically modified (GM) crops has often been characterised as a contest between science and Luddite activists, ignoring the fact that the aversion to GM crops also stems from robust science and conscientious scientists.
Even the first-of-its-kind International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD) report produced by over 400 of the world’s best scientists over a three-year period, and ratified by 60 countries, has indicated that GMOs are no solution to the agricultural challenges facing the world. In the same vein, Kulkarni describes the so-called inevitability of GM adoption for food security as ‘false propaganda’ by lobby groups.
The perception that there is a supply-side productivity problem is being increasingly questioned by experts. The UNCTAD, in a recent report — Wake Up Before It Is Too Late — has tried to examine this contentious issue. The growing need for a sustainable ‘ecological intensification’ approach in place of high external-input industrial agriculture is being recognised. It’s borne out by many studies; even organics are good enough to address the food situation.
The Farming Systems Trial (FST) at the Rodale Institute in the US is the longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. Over 35 years of yield data clearly indicate that organic practices match or outperform conventional systems. “We go to government with alternative solutions,” says Kulkarni, indicating that they refrain from raucous attention-seeking protests. “Our style is different.”
It’s apparent that the coalition of Sangh Parivar outfits are making headway given the way they have thrown rings around the powerful Monsanto. The multinational, known for its legendary lobbying prowess, has been bridled on the pricing issue. It didn’t happen overnight.
The BKS looked for weak spots in opponent Monsanto’s armour and accordingly crafted and orchestrated a silent yet effective campaign. At various fora, it systematically chipped at the superior yields argument and also highlighted Indian and foreign studies establishing the connect between farmers suicides and Bt cotton adoption.
“Introduction of Bt cotton in dry, rain-fed areas was a mistake. Farmers have been wiped off,” laments Mauli Tupe, President of the Maharashtra unit of the BKS. “Desi kapaas or indigenous cotton varieties are ideal for regions like Vidarbha and Marathwada.” This region has seen a spate of farmers’ suicides.
The duo explain that better yields have occurred largely in ‘newly’ irrigated lands in Gujarat and that the same results were difficult even in the traditionally irrigated stretches of Punjab, Haryana and parts of Rajasthan. They maintain that the yield argument is “nothing but jugglery”.
Even KR Kranthi, director of the Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), while conceding that in the initial years yield did show a rise due to a rein on bollworm pests, has maintained, in an opinion piece earlier this month, increased yield can also be attributed to several factors: “a 36 per cent spike in fertiliser use; doubling of area under hybrids; increase in irrigated cotton area in Gujarat; effects of seed treatment; introduction of at least six new insecticides to control a variety of sap-sucking insects”.
The BKS, in the recent past, has made at least two presentations to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the regulator for transgenic crops, on this and related issues. Meetings were also held with former GEAC co-chairman CD Mayee. Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, who also hails from Pune as Kulkarni, was also briefed on the finer nuances involving GM crops by BKS and SJM.
So, when an opportunity presented itself to corner Monsanto, BKS naturally seized it. The organisation reveals that sources within the government had let it on that the company had no patent for the BT cotton seeds in India. The BKS worked on this piece of information. “We built on the negative perception of the company that had begun to pervade,” says Kulkarni. Bollgard II, introduced in 2006 was, however, patented in India.
The patenting claim by Monsanto became public last year when ET’s sister publication The Times of India reported on the issue based on RTI filings by activist Vijay Jawandhia in June 2015, indicating that the huge sums mopped up from farmers and seed companies as royalties or fees from 2002, when Bt cotton was introduced till 2006, was an alleged deception.
Ashwani Mahajan of the SJM, on March 17, hinting at the recent threat by Monsanto, told a news agency that the government ought to avoid a Vijay Mallya type of escape and that “Monsanto should not be allowed to quit India without compensating the farmers who suffered severely because of the wrong acts of the company”. The SJM has computed the amount collected by the company from farmers at Rs 6,000 crore.
Even as the farmers’ organisations lobbied for regulation of cotton seed prices, the Competition Commission of India in a February 10, 2016 order made an observation that Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India (MMBL), the Indian unit of Monsanto, was abusing its position as a dominant player in the Bt cotton market and that it is a “fit case for investigation by the director general”. The probe is expected to be completed within 60 days. Over 90 per cent of the cotton acreage in India is of the Bt variety.
This is also relates to a running feud between several members of the National Seeds Association of India (NSAI) and Monsanto over trait value — which is largely a licensing fee paid by the seed companies to Monsanto for using its Bollgard II technology. The NSAI has been bristling for long over what it describes as the company’s restrictive licensing norms and rooted for regulatory oversight. It has welcomed price controls.
All of this was happening as disturbing news from the fields started emerging. In 2015, an insect called the pink bollworm started displaying resistance to Bt. Large tracts of cotton crops are now infected by the pink bollworm prompting Kranthi to indicate that it may well be ‘the end of the road’ for Bt cotton in India and that it’s about time to reconsider the entire gamut of issues governing cotton.
Writing for the Cotton Association of India mouthpiece early this month Kranthi, in his personal capacity, has called for a strong political will to address issues on cotton farming. He wishes to see the emergence of a system of ‘good science sans corporate greed.’ Like Tupe, he too is a votary of desi cotton in rainfed regions and insists traditional varieties can be as profitable to farmers as Bt cotton.
The fraternity has latched on to the pink bollworm misfortune of Monsanto too. The BJP’s Kisan Morcha highlighted the resistance vulnerability of Bt in a representation to the Ministry of Agriculture which in turn reached out to the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotions (DIPP) under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. It led to the recent issuance of a notice to MMBL asking why its patent on Bt cotton should not be revoked.
The Ministry of Agriculture under Radha Mohan Singh has been quietly supportive of farmers’ organisations seeking a relook on India’s stand on Bt and other GM crops.Rajnath Singh, home minister, has been quite vocal about his opposition to GMOs and apparently played a stellar role in orchestrating the Sangh affiliates into a forceful influencer on agriculture issues.
Kulkarni hints that Prime Minister Modi andAmit Shah, president of the BJP are also beginning to see some merit in the arguments of the BKS. Shah apparently grows Bt cotton in his native Gujarat and, in mirth, Kulkarni says that it won’t be long before the pink bollworm gets to him too.
Both Mauli Tupe and Kulkarni are clear that GMOs are an unnecessary technology being imposed on Indian farmers. A few weeks ago, BKS representatives even met with members of the Niti Aayog and pointed out inadequacies in the Aayog’s recent policy brief on agriculture which expectedly promotes GMOs.
The Sangh and its affiliates are strong votaries of swadeshi. Would the BKS change its stance if swadeshi or Indian Bt technology seeds are developed and offered to farmers?
“A knife whether made of gold, whether Indian or foreign, when wielded, will only lead to loss of life,” says Kulkarni.
A tangled legal web
The government, acting on the recommendations made by a nine-member cotton seed price control committee, has capped the maximum price of Bollgard II Bt cotton at Rs 800 for a packet of 450 grams. It was sold for Rs 830 to Rs 1,100 a packet. Royalty or trait fees that seed firms pay to access this technology was also reduced; from Rs 163 to Rs 49 per packet.
Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd (MMBL), a joint venture between Monsanto and Mahyco Seeds, has contested the price control order of December 2015, the basis on which the Ministry of Agriculture, on March 8, announced Bt cotton seed price for the year 2016-17. MMBL has moved the Delhi High Court.
The Karnataka High Court, based on a plea by the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises – Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), on March 21, said that the government can fix prices on seeds but cannot meddle with royalty fees. The fixation of trait value is not be given effect, the court said. The central government, on March 23, told the Delhi High court that Monsanto was trying to approach different legal fora for a favourable order. The Delhi High Court had earlier refrained from a stay on the price control order. The case is scheduled to be heard on April 7.
*This story first appeared on The Economic Times