On paper, India looks like a nightmare for introducing patented Bollgard cotton seed. The country has between 4 million and 5 million cotton producers who plant, spray and harvest by hand and carry cotton to the market in oxen carts.
A large grower by Indian standards has about 20 acres of the natural fiber. The majority of cotton producers farm 4- to 5-acre fields.
Preventing seed piracy seems an impossible task given these circumstances, yet when Bollgard cotton is introduced in India this June, it will be one of the few countries in the world where growers are not required to sign grower license agreements.
Before you get on the phone with your local Monsanto representative, you need to know that Bollgard cotton in India will only be available in cotton hybrids.
A hybrid is offspring resulting from a cross of two genetically different varieties and is characterized by a 10 to 20 percent yield increase over the highest-yielding parent.
However, each succeeding generation of the hybrid, known as F2s, F3s, etc., loses a certain percentage of that yield advantage and any transgenic traits such as expression of the Bollgard gene. This makes hybrid technology an almost perfect fit for delivering and protecting patented Bollgard technology.
Prior to the approval, Monsanto completed a six-year assessment process in India, which included comprehensive safety studies, an examination of environmental effects and an assessment of technology stewardship.
Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, a joint venture of Monsanto and the Indian seed company Mahyco, will distribute Bollgard cotton seed as well as sub-license the technology to several other Indian seed companies, all of which are hybrid cotton seed companies. Mahyco is one of the top five cotton seed companies in India.
Indian Bollgard hybrids contain the Cry1Ac protein, the same protein contained in U.S. cotton Bollgard varieties. The common worm pest in India, the American bollworm, or Helicoverpa armigera, is closely related to the cotton bollworm in the United States, Helicoverpa zea.
As with cotton bollworm in the United States, Bollgard does not provide 100 percent control of the American bollworm, so Indian cotton producers will make oversprays of insecticides when necessary.
Indian cotton growers will abide by refuge requirements imposed by the Indian government, the details of which are not yet available, Monsanto says.
Hybrid cotton accounts for half of Indian cotton acreage, which begs the question: If India can have such a large and successful hybrid cotton seed program, why can't the United States? Don't think for a moment that Randy Deaton, Monsanto's global business lead for cotton, hasn't been asked the same question.
A simple answer is that people make better pollinators than honeybees.
“To produce hybrid cotton seed, most methods depend primarily on pollen transfer through honeybees and bees are not very efficient pollinators in cotton,” Deaton said. “Yield reductions of 90 percent on a seed production field could be expected. So that makes the cost of that hybrid seed very expensive. It's very hard to make it work.”
India, however, uses hand labor in its hybrid cotton programs. “There is lots of available labor there and the cost of labor is very low,” Deaton said. “Also Indian growers plant at an extremely low density. We plant 70,000 to 80,000 seeds per acre here. In India, it's about 5,000 to 6,000 seeds per acre.”
U.S. cotton producers may also wonder why Monsanto is distributing the technology to competitors during such a difficult time for U.S. growers — low prices, etc.
Deaton says it's to capture value that otherwise would have been lost. He says this can have both direct and indirect benefits for U.S. growers.
“If we didn't introduce it over there, it would certainly show up in India anyway,” Deaton explained.
“Our goal is to take it there and capture value and develop a sustainable business. Hopefully, in making sure that they pay for the technology, we're keeping the American grower competitive worldwide.
“The profits from this venture come back to the United States and Monsanto,” Deaton added. “We take that money and reinvest it in research. All it does is encourage us to invest more in cotton research to develop new and better products. American growers have always been the first beneficiaries of that effort.”
Approval in India is another step toward global acceptance of biotechnology, also a benefit for U.S. growers, according to Deaton.
“Getting important agricultural countries like China, India and Brazil to accept biotechnology is going to make it much easier for this technology to continue to be used freely in the United States without growers worrying about exports and other issues,” he said.
Monsanto is planning to register Bollgard II in India, “but the country is considerably behind the United States in that process,” Deaton said. The introduction of Bollgard II in India “is a stewardship issue for us because of its insect resistance management value.”
The price of Bollgard to Indian growers has not been set, according to Dave Rhylander, Monsanto's director of marketing for the south. “Bollgard cotton in India will be priced competitively,” he said. An economic analysis developed by Rhylander showed that U.S. growers pay less for the Bollgard technology than any other country. The analysis was adjusted for several factors, including the value of the U.S. dollar.
Bollgard cotton is now approved in the United States, India, Mexico, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, China and Indonesia. Deaton noted, “There are not a lot of additional opportunities left in the world for marketing Bollgard.”
Although the best-yielding hybrids will provide a 10 to 20 percent yield increase over conventional cotton, India is still the lowest per acre producer in the world, Deaton noted. “They have a lot of limiting factors to yield, not the least of which is water. They're very dependent on monsoon and the timing of planting.”
India's cotton industry has begun an independent effort to develop its own Bt cotton program. The amount of Bollgard cotton planted in India this coming season will be limited.
Indian growers use similar chemistries to those used by U.S. growers, including synthetic pyrethroids, organophosphates and carbamates. Insects have shown resistance to those compounds.