Thousands of cotton farmers across the north of India have switched to a new local variety of cotton that promises good yields and pest resistance at a fraction of the cost, spelling trouble for Monsanto, in its most important cotton market outside the Americas.
The Indian government is actively promoting the new homegrown seeds, having already capped prices and royalties that the world's largest seed company is able to charge. "Despite the whitefly attack, farmers in northern India are still interested in cotton, but they are moving to the desi variety," confirmed Textile Commissioner Kavita Gupta.
Official estimates peg the area planted with the new variety at 178,608 acres in northern India, up from roughly 7,413 acres last year. That is still a tiny percentage overall, and most farmers in the key producing states of Gujarat and Maharashtra are sticking to Monsanto's GM cotton, which has been instrumental in making India a cotton powerhouse. And the impact of whitefly, a pest that thrives in dry weather, may not be as big this year, as monsoon rains are likely to be plentiful. Experts said two straight droughts fanned last year's infestation. But the new seed is still a setback for Monsanto, which has also been hit by a roughly 10% decline in cotton acreage in India this year as farmers switch to crops like pulses and lentils in the aftermath of the whitefly blight.
Seed sales slide
Monsanto's Bt cotton sales in India have fallen 15% so far in 2016, said Kalyan Goswami, executive director of the National Seed Association of India. The firm, which last year sold some 41 million packets of Bt seeds in India, could stand to lose up to US$ 75 million due to lower sales and the steep cut in royalties enforced by the government earlier in 2016, according to calculations. Some experts were optimistic the indigenous cotton seeds developed by the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), which comes under the farm ministry, would catch on over time. "Just wait for the crucial three to four years to see a complete, natural turnaround. By then most farmers will give up Bt cotton and go for the indigenous variety," said Keshav Raj Kranthi, head of CICR. Kranthi said planting a hectare with the Indian variety cost less than half what the farmers paid to sow Bt cotton over the same area, and the crop yield was almost as high. Unlike genetically modified seeds, farmers could also store and replant the local seeds the following year, he added.
Some experts voiced caution over the new variety, however. "By all accounts, the indigenous cotton looks pretty promising, but it will be put to test this year," said Devinder Sharma, an independent food and trade policy analyst. "It's a potential game changer, but it has to succeed first."