MUMBAI • Many Indian farmers are openly sowing an unapproved variety of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds developed by Monsanto, as the government sits on the sidelines for fear of antagonising a big voting bloc ahead of an election next year.
India approved the first GM cotton seed strain in 2002 and an upgraded variety in 2006, helping transform the country into the world's top producer and second-largest exporter of the fibre. But newer strains are not available after Monsanto in 2016 withdrew an application seeking approval for the latest variety due to a royalty dispute with the government.
The herbicide-tolerant variety, lab-altered to help farmers save costs on weed management, has, however, seeped into the country's farms since then. The authorities say they are still investigating how that happened.
The federal environment ministry said last year planting the seeds violated the Environment Protection Act, and farmers who did so were risking potential jail terms. But many farmers are desperate to boost their incomes after poor yields over the past few years and are willing to ignore the warnings.
A government official in New Delhi said it was difficult to keep farmers away from something that they saw benefit in. "If you don't allow them to plant legally, illegal planting will happen," the official said, requesting anonymity, adding that Monsanto had yet to reapply for approval to sell its latest variety of GM cotton in India.
A Monsanto India spokesman said the company was confident that the government would prosecute those involved in the illegal trade of the unapproved seeds.
Except for GM cotton, India has not approved any other transgenic crop on concerns over their safety, and large foreign companies have been increasingly unhappy at what they say is the infringement of their intellectual property by widespread planting of unapproved seeds.
Farmers say they prefer Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready Flex (RRF) strain of cotton seeds as they can cut input costs by as much as 10,000 rupees (S$200) an acre compared with other varieties.
Last year, just before cotton harvesting, the authorities found plantations of unapproved seeds in key producing states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west of the country and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the south.
In February, the authorities in Telangana told two local companies that cotton seeds they sold to farmers may have contained traces of Monsanto's RRF strain, though the companies denied that.
This year, various states have formed inspection teams to curb the sale of such seeds, though farmers have built a parallel network to distribute them without getting caught, said the director of Maharashtra's agriculture department M.S. Gholap.