In a tiny hamlet at the heart of the cotton belt in northern India, Ramandeep Mann planted Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt cotton seed for more than a decade, but that changed after a whitefly blight last year.
Mann’s 25-acre farm in Punjab’s Bhatinda district now boasts “desi,” or indigenous, cotton shrubs that promise good yields and pest resistance at a fraction of the cost.
Mann is not alone.
Thousands of cotton farmers across the north of India, the world’s biggest producer and second-largest exporter of the fiber, have switched to the new local variety, spelling trouble for Monsanto, the Creve Coeur-based seed giant, 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,” says 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 percent decline in cotton acreage in India this year as farmers switch to crops like pulses and lentils in the aftermath of the whitefly blight.