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Indian Cotton farmers opt for double-gene Bt technology

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Monday, July 26, 2010
By Harish Damodaran
New Delhi -- The widespread acceptability of Bt technology among India's cotton farmers is a recognised reality today.

This year, out of the total projected cotton area of 260-265 lakh acres (1 lakh = 100,000) , about 225 lakh acres would be sown under Bt hybrids/varieties. Considering that the latter figure stood at a mere 72,000 acres in 2002, it represents perhaps the most rapid rate of diffusion for any technology after the mobile phone.

But even this tells only a part of the story. Equally remarkable, though not as well known, is the way farmers have graduated from the first-generation ‘single-gene' Bt hybrids to adopting more advanced ‘double-gene' versions of the same technology.

Till 2005, the Bt cotton hybrids grown in the country predominantly incorporated the US life sciences major Monsanto's proprietary ‘Bollgard-I' (BG-I) technology. These genetically modified plants harboured a foreign ‘cry1Ac' gene isolated from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, that produced proteins toxic against the American bollworm, spotted bollworm and pink bollworm.

From 2006 onwards, farmers began planting seeds based on Monsanto's second-generation Bollgard-II (BG-II) gene construct that deployed a stacked combination of two Bt genes, cry1Ac and cry2Ab. The new Bt technology, it was claimed, not only offered enhanced protection against the three bollworm insect pests (due to better protein expression from the action of dual genes), but even control over beet and fall armyworms.

In 2006, only 2.35 lakh acres were planted under BG-II Bt hybrids, as opposed to 84.62 lakh acres under BG-I.

Last year, BG-II coverage, at 114.2 lakh acres, exceeded the 78.20 lakh acres of BG-I. This year, BG-II sowing is expected to further go up to 160 lakh acres, while decreasing to 50 lakh acres for BG-I. In addition, there would be 15 lakh acres under alternate Bt gene constructs of JK Agri-Genetics, Nath Biogene and the Central Institute for Cotton Research.

“The trend on the ground is clear: Farmers are making a shift to double-gene Bt technology”, said Mr Jagresh Rana, Director of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Ltd (MMB). MMB, the licensor for Bollgard technology, is a 50:50 joint venture between Monsanto and its 25 per cent-owned local partner, Mahyco.

Conscious shift

How much of the shift to double-gene technology is conscious, stemming from genuine awareness among farmers about the additional benefits from its use? “Well, farmers definitely know the difference between planting single-gene and double gene-based Bt hybrids. At the same time, the shift has also taken place because the price difference between the two technologies is not very significant. And that has to do with State Government policies”, noted Dr Paresh Verma, Director (Research), Shriram Bioseed Genetics India Ltd.

The Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat Governments have fixed a maximum retail price (MRP) of Rs 650 for every packet of Bt cotton seeds bearing single gene trait, with this being Rs 750 a packet in the case of BG-II technology.

In Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, the MRPs have been similarly set at Rs 750 for BG-I and Rs 925 for BG-II packets, each containing 450 gm of Bt cotton seeds.

Indian farmers currently obtain an average 6.5 quintals of kapas (seed-cotton) on every acre. At Rs 3,000 a quintal, this translates into revenues of Rs 19,500. On the other hand, farmers plant 1.3-1.5 packets in an acre. At the prevailing MRPs, the additional cost of shifting from BG-I to BG-II would be hardly Rs 200 an acre or one per cent of the gross revenue.

According to Dr M Ramasami, Managing Director of Rasi Seeds Pvt. Ltd, the favourable economics of adopting BG-II technology has forced seed companies to slash prices of single-gene Bt packets to even below the Government-fixed MRP levels in some cases. “There are sales happening at Rs 500-550 a packet, as companies are resorting to somehow liquidate inventories by offering more discounts to the distribution channel”, he added. .