Shady seeds

Illegal Bt cotton traders nabbed

By Ramya Viswanath
Published: Sunday 15 February 2004

in what is perhaps the first-of-its-kind crackdown on a transaction pertaining to illegally developed genetically modified (gm) seeds, three traders from Madhya Pradesh (mp) were arrested in Shahpur taluk of Karnataka's Gulbarga district. They were allegedly buying spuriously produced Bt cotton seeds from local trader Vijay Kumar. But Kumar, the proprietor of a company called Amarashwara Agro Traders and also the main accused, managed to give the police the slip.

Bt cotton is the only gm crop permitted for commercial cultivation in India. It is licensed to the international agri-business company, Monsanto, and its Indian partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (mahyco). The two have been permitted to market its seeds on a trial basis.

There are conflicting reports about how the police learnt of the matter. Gulbarga's superintendent of police, K Ramchandra Rao, says officials of Monsanto in Delhi and mahyco in Mumbai provided them the tip-off. On the basis of this information, the police arrested the three traders and 28 farmers who were visiting the area to assess the quality of Bt cotton crop.

But Monsanto and mahyco officials in Delhi and Mumbai denied this when Down To Earth contacted them. The first information report (fir) at the police station mentions that the complainant was a local farmer. The traders have been booked under sections 473 and 482 of the Indian Penal Code (ipc), read with section 34 of the ipc and clause 15 of the Environmental Protection Act.

"They confessed that they were in Gulbarga to strike a deal with Kumar for the marketing and sale of Bt cotton in mp. However, it appears that the farmers didn't know the implications of using illegal Bt cotton seeds," says Rao. Gulbarga is a predominantly cotton growing area with 17,000 hectares under commercial cotton cultivation.

According to the police, Kumar duplicated mahyco-Monsanto's transgenic cotton seeds by acquiring the Bt gene from his father-in-law. The latter grows legally acquired Bt cotton in Jevargi taluk of the district. But the police have not been able to ascertain how many farmers of Shahpur have grown cotton using these seeds. For this, samples collected from the fields would have to be sent to the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi, for testing.

Meanwhile, A Hanumanthaiah, joint director, department of agriculture, Gulbarga, alleges that the police did not consult them. H M Purushotamappa, Karnataka's additional director of crop development and planning, concurs, adding that seeds need not be sent to New Delhi as tests can be conducted in authorised laboratories located in Davangere and Dharward.

There has also been no formal communication from the state government to either of the central regulatory agencies -- the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Union ministry of environment and forests and the seeds department of the Union ministry of agriculture. D Prakash, additional superintendent of police, Gulbarga, says that any further progress in the case will only be possible if Kumar is caught with the illegal seeds.

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