Commodity Analysis

‘There’s no incentive for biotech R&D’

Rajalakshmi Nirmal | Updated on May 20, 2018 Published on May 20, 2018

Firms are morally bound to share the benefits of a technology: Rasi Seeds Chairman

With the cotton seed industry turning a battle ground, BusinessLine spoke to M Ramasami, Chairman of the Federation of Seed Industry of India that broke away from the National Seed Association of India (NSAI), to understand the challenges before the industry. He is also Chairman of Rasi Seeds, a Salem-based company that is into crop breeding and has a biotech research and development facility.

What is the implication of the Supreme Court order?

Based on the judgement, the government should have come up with a directive on trait fee, but it hasn’t; it may be waiting for the final settlement of the appeal. So as it stands, we (seed companies) have to pay the royalty for Bt cotton seeds to Monsanto.

But frankly, royalty is not at all the issue. If I am enjoying a technology made by someone else, whether it is patented or not, morally, I am bound to share the benefit, right? But now, with the High Court judgement, we are facing a risk of not being able to protect the technology. Not just Mahyco Monsanto, any technology developer wouldn’t want to be in such a situation.

All transgenic work takes 10-12 years, and during that time, it is not even known if the work will be successful or not; but we invest more and more. And after investing so much money and effort, ultimately, if there is no protection for the technology, why should companies invest money at all?

Why is there a divide between seed producers? Aren’t companies that are against the patenting of seeds worried about a future when they would want to register an IP?

Only a few companies in India are serious about the seeds business, and are involved in creating IPs; others are only breeders. The representation from the National Seed Association of India (NSAI) is targeting only Monsanto. It never speaks about the technology issues. The conflict between the two companies is affecting the whole industry.

Bollgard-II has failed, hasn’t it? It doesn’t offer protection against pink bollworm. So do we need it at all?

The Bollgard-II technology is around 12 years old. Normally, any technology has to be upgraded in 8-10 years. But, because of this controversy, which has been going on for a few years now, the new technology has not been developed. And there has been no incentive for Indian companies to get into this kind of research.

One, mutli-national companies have got deep pockets. Two, if the government doesn’t approve their research here, they just take it to any other country where it is possible; but they do not stop the research. For Indian companies like ours, there is no future. We don’t have deep pockets, and unfortunately, we have conflicts within the industry.

And to answer your question: do we need Bollgard-II technology? See, cotton is affected by three kinds of bollworms. One of them, pink bollworm, has now become resistant to the technology. But that can be easily controlled, provided the farmers take some precautionary measures and spray one-two rounds of pesticides. States such as Gujarat have done it, and farmers are happy. Many other States are also taking control measures.

But once the other two bollworms develop resistance, they cannot be easily controlled. But the Bollgard-II technology still controls these two bollworms. In my view, for another 3-5 years, this technology will be sustainable for the other two bollworms, one of which is American bollworm. The two worms do a lot of damage and require 15-20 rounds of spraying, even after which it can be hard to control.

Do we have the technology to domestically produce GM cotton? Or do we have to continue sourcing from Monsanto?

Currently, it is available only with Monsanto. But there are a few companies in India that are making an attempt. But it will take at least 3-5 years for them to come out with the technology. So till such a time, we should either get the seeds from outside or try to live without the new technologies.

Are there more global players in GM cotton, whom India can look at?

There are some other companies, too, but Monsanto is the dominant player.

Does the farmer have to buy new Bt cotton seeds every year? Can’t she reuse?

Different countries adopt different IP models. In the US and Brazil, the developer of a seed variety can only produce and sell it. They don’t allow the farmers to save and use it. In our case, we give the farmer the freedom to reuse the seed. But the only problem is that we have adopted hybrid varieties of cotton, which cannot be reused. If farmers reuse them, they may not get the same yield — it is not because of the technology, but because we use hybrid varieties. Hybrids are a cross between two genetically different seeds, and the next generation will have a higher yield than their parents.

So seed companies source Bt cotton from Monsanto and make it into a hybrid variety, am I right?

We source only the technology from Monsanto. All the varieties and hybrids are developed by Indian companies.

There is a mis-understanding that farmers use Monsanto seeds; it is not so. Monsanto has inserted the (Bt) technology into the seed’s DNA. We transfer it to our varieties through crossing.

There was a scare that Monsanto may withdraw from India. If such a situation emerges, does India have a plan B?

No research company will work in a country where patents are not respected. If that situation comes, they will not bring any new technology. Whatever technology Monsanto has already given, is already saturated in the country with 95 per cent of the area under Bollgard-II. It can’t withdraw that; the seeds are developed by Indian companies. We will keep producing and selling them. We source it only once from Monsanto. But because it spends so much money and has the rights, we keep paying for the technology.

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