Illegal cotton seed sales thriving in India, putting seed industry, farmers at risk
Ram Kaundinya, Director General of Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII), is an expert in the field of management, especially in the business of agriculture. He has a total corporate experience of 35 years at very senior positions. He is an author, strategic management consultant, teacher and a policy analyst in India. He worked for 22 years in agro-chemical industry including 14 years at Hoechst India and 8 years at Cyanamid India, the last assignment being the managing director of Cyanamid India.
He worked for 13 years in the seed industry including 5 years as the MD of Emergent Genetics and 8 years as the global CEO of Advanta Seeds. He was the Chairman of the Crop Life India, an association of crop protection chemical industry for 2 years. He was also the chairman of the agriculture group of the Biotech industry association called ABLE AG for four years. He is at present the Director General of Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII). In an interview to Bizz Buzz, he spoke on the state of agri business, the ills plaguing it for long and the solutions thereof.
Please throw light on the state of illegal HtBt cotton seeds in India
What we call as illegal seeds are seeds which are containing unapproved genetically modified (GM) traits. GM traits have to be approved by the government through Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) and so far only one trait is approved, which is called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton. But what the illegal seeds which are carrying the Bt have some other unapproved traits, which could be some other insect resistant traits. These illegal seeds, as we call them, are being produced by operators mostly in Gujarat, and they're being sold in Maharashtra, Gujarat, parts of Telangana and Andhra. But the majority of the acreage is coming in Maharashtra and Gujarat. This year, we are expecting that it will cover almost 20 per cent of the cotton area in the country. Last year it was around 16 per cent - 17 per cent and there was a sudden spurt last year, previously it was not so high. I think now because farmers need a solution for their weed problems, they're buying it they also need a solution to their insect problems.
That's why they're buying even at a very high price.
This has the three-four implications: First one is that it reduces the business of the legal companies that is from an industry point of view that is the loss of business for the good companies who are following the law. Second one is that government is losing revenue, because on this there is no tax nothing and then third is that the farmers are paying very high price almost 500 crores, last year extra money was paid by the farmers for these packets. Compared to normal price, if you can see they are being sold at double the price.
They almost find it across say the loss for the farmers. But bigger loss is that if there is a quality complaint on the seeds, there's nobody they can go to because they bought it illegally under the counter below the counter or somebody comes to the village and sells it. There is no accountability for the quality of this material. The Final One is the environmental impact because you're released or you're using unreleased unapproved traits, they are coming to the environment. The whole point of GM regulations is to prevent the release of unapproved traits into the environment. That is what the SEC does. This is the problem and these are the problems which we are facing with these illegal sales.
Where are these illegal sales rampant in the country?
They're produced mostly in Gujarat and used mostly in Gujarat and Maharashtra. The farmers association also is openly saying that people will use these illegally because their demand for legal seeds is not being met; they say the government has been very slow or almost it has been at a standstill for the last ten or more than ten years, the GM approval. The GM is not getting approved, but farmers needs are growing. The labour shortage is very high in cost and has really shot up so they need a solution for their weeds.
How are they being distributed?
There is an informal channel in villages. In some places, the dealers don't sell them officially, but they sell it through the backdoor.
What is the course of action by FSII to end this menace?
There are law enforcement authorities who control it, but that is not being done properly. We took it up with the states to follow the procedures, like in Netherlands with the center that law enforcement authorities must clamp down on such illegal operators. The best way to clamp down is when it is under production in the field. But once it comes into the market, it is very difficult to control. We have taken this up with the government, central government and also state governments.
We said - We can control it when it is in the production pits. Production is planted in May. After planting is done the plant starts growing. They can even take a small plant leaf and test in the field itself and then give it to the field inspectors who can test it. At that stage, they can remove the crop if it contains those genes. At that stage if removed the crop and a farmer will not lose much money because all the farmers who are growing the seeds are growing because some company have given them the program to grow the seeds. Then the farmers will get money if they grow and handle the seeds. But if the plants are removed, then the farmers will lose money. So that's why the plants are removed as early as possible, then they can replant something else they can plan to plant a normal crop. That's why we say that it must be done at that stage. We say that the pits must be distributed. Our third recommendation is that if they approve the legal ones very quickly, because that is the positive way of controlling this. Once the legal stuff comes into the market, farmers will not buy illegal stuff at high prices.
What kind of support do you require from the government?
Number one, they must recognise the research-based seed industry. So, seed industry has got 450 companies. All are not being recognized. Only 70 or 80 companies have been recognized. So those who are investing in research must have some recognition from the government. They must understand as to what are the requirements for the research companies. Without research you can't get any products, you can't flight climate change and you can't fight pests and diseases. Research has to be recognized and be supported by the government. Number two, those who are investing in research must be able to protect their intellectual property once you have invested so much money you must get some protection for whatever number of years, 5 years, 10 years. There must be some protection for those investments, intellectual properties in particular. Third is there must a strategy to introduce new technologies in the country in a smooth way. In a seamless way, that will call for a lot of understanding between the Centre and the States and also between different political parties.
So they must come to an understanding about the National Agricultural Technology Policy. They must understand and then say that "we use GM, we use gene editing and we use organic products". Fourth is, there must be a seed act. There is a seed act in the Parliament which has not yet been approved. We want the act to be approved as early as possible. So that will bring more discipline into the market. So far there is no registration system for seeds. If I develop a seed variety I can sell it, there is no registration for it. The new act will bring that any new seed variety must be registered after testing the government.
ICAR will test them. That must come, so that market is not flooded with low quality varieties and then farmers are cheated. So a new seed act must come and there must be an aligned approach between Centre and States and implementation of seed act. If the seed act is passed by the Centre, it should be implemented by the states. Sometimes there is not a lot of uniformity across states. Fifth one is that we must direct India as an export hub for seeds where the market possibility of Rs10,000 crore exports has to be developed by this decade.
So the Government of India, in fact Telangana and Andhra are the largest seed-producing states. Hyderabad is the largest in seed processing sometimes. So these states must come together to create an export-oriented infrastructure. The Telangana government recently opened a quality lab in Rajendra Nagar, which is a very good thing. That lab will help because any expert will have to get it certified from the lab so that it can be accepted internationally. Like that various other things are there, where the infrastructure must be put in place. There are about five recommendations to the government and we need some action.