Farmers disappointed with HC’s invalidation of Hybrid Cotton
Farmers disappointed with HC’s invalidation of Hybrid Cotton | Credit: Earthamag

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Farmers disappointed with HC’s invalidation of Hybrid Cotton

Jun 28, 2018

The patent denied for genetically modified cotton troubles the farmers. The High Court Of Delhi has not approved the intellectual property rights (IPR) regime for GM technology and the immediate consequence of the denial is felt on farmers growing Herbicide tolerant cotton.

The judgement passed by the Delhi High Court on April 11 has invalidated the Monsanto’s patent on its Bollgard II Bt cotton technology granted by the Indian Patent Office in February 2008. 

The patent is granted for a ‘cry2Ab’ gene isolated from the soil based bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), specifically approving the method of synthesizing the nucleic acid sequence of the Bt bacterium and inserting the same into cotton plant cells.

The High Court intervened and stated that this man-made Bt gene sequence had no “intrinsic worth” on its own. It was shown inert, inanimate and serves no purpose unless incorporated into a plant variety. But the plant variety themselves do not come under the Indian Patents Act but are categorized into the Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights law. The patent on the modified nucleic acid sequence has no meaning unless the gene was inserted into and became part of a plant.

But the judgment from the High Court has brought disappointment to Indian farmers who are eager to plant genetically modified (GM) cotton hybrids, incorporating not just ‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’ Bt genes (which code for proteins toxic to Heliothis bollworm insect pests), but also those plants that favour spraying of herbicides. The technology supplier, Monsanto has another beneficial cotton variety.

The US life sciences major’s Roundup Ready Flex (RRF) cotton contains a ‘cp4-epsps’ gene from another soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens.

The bacterium synthesizes a modified protein that allows the cotton plant to tolerate the usage of glyphosate herbicide. In case of a normal cotton variety, the farmers cannot apply the herbicide glyphosate because the chemical cannot distinguish between weeds and the crop itself and ends up damaging the yield. But RFF cotton has developed a tolerance to glyphosate, thus surviving an herbicide application.

Union Environment Ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in March 2013 has approved the Monsanto for the commercial release of Bollgard II-RRF cotton, comprising of both insect-resistance (from Bt genes) and glyphosate-tolerance (cp4-epsps gene) traits. But the Monsanto application was withdrawn by the company in 2016, including all the dossiers containing the outcomes of the bio-safety tests and trials.

The reason that caused the withdrawal was the notice issued by the Agriculture Ministry to control the prices claimed by the multinational technologies supplying the GM seeds.

The court’s order on the same can be applied to any man-made nucleic acid sequence of a gene and its insertion into a host plant genome using GM/biotechnological tools. This judgement can invalidate nearly 107 patents in India, pertaining to all non-naturally occurring genetic material and production of transgenic plants.

Despite the high court’s ban on using the genetically modified hybrids and herbicide tolerant variety, many farmers, especially in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Maharashtra, have been planting Bollgard II-RRF cotton. Nearly, a tenth of the cotton seeds sold in the market and those sown in fields are hybrid varieties.

The AP government, following the detection of Hybrid varieties in the seeds sown by the farmers, has banned the supply of HT seeds and also prohibited the usage of herbicides.

What we infer from the case:

Two things are obvious from the ban. First, farmers are looking for new technology and GM crops will be beneficial to them whether or not the government and green NGOs approve it. They are even ready to pay a premium of 50 per cent or more for cotton seeds with Bt genes and that can tolerate herbicide. This cuts down the cost of manual labor drastically.

The suppliers of technology including the proprietary new-generation pesticide molecules like Dupont’s Rynaxypyr (‘Coragen’) and Bayer’s Flubendiamide (‘Fame’) are mostly multinationals. The government should ensure that these companies do not charge a bomb and at the same time promote domestic breeding and R&D efforts.

This year, farmers have grown GM cotton without approval from government or technology developers. This may happen in the forthcoming years also.