EXCLUSIVE Bayer revives plan to introduce new GM cotton seeds in India

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The logo of Bayer AG is pictured in Wuppertal, Germany February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

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NEW DELHI, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Germany's Bayer (BAYGn.DE) has applied to cultivate its next generation of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds in India, government sources said, reviving plans to bring the high-yielding, herbicide-tolerant variety to the country.

In late 2016, Monsanto withdrew an application seeking approval from New Delhi for the GM variety Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex (RRF), to protest a raft of government measures against the world's biggest seed maker.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018 for $63 billion, has resubmitted the application for Bollgard II RRF, signalling reviving interest from foreign seed, agricultural chemicals and farm technology companies in India, the world's leading producer of cotton, rice, wheat and an array of other farm goods.

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After Monsanto's row with India over pricing and intellectual property rights, other global corporations in the agriculture industry decided to scale back investments and put off plans to introduce new seed varieties and farming technologies in India.

Bayer resubmitted the application seeking cultivation of the Bollgard II RRF variety in December, said the sources, who asked not to be identified in line with official rules.

"Bayer, through its local joint venture partner, has resubmitted the dossier for seeking regulatory approvals to introduce RRF in India," said one of the government sources familiar with the matter.

"Once the regulatory approval process starts, it might take a few years for Bayer to get the final approval."

It was not clear when the approval process would start, the sources said.

"Our efforts are aimed at enhancing crop productivity, contributing towards doubling farmer incomes and making Indian agriculture sustainable and globally competitive," Bayer said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

The GM cotton seed variety could cut the cost of cultivation in India, boost crop yields and act as an antidote to the pink bollworm pest, farm policy experts said.

The pink bollworm pest has of late become a major threat to India's cotton crop. The pest attack has also hit farmers' income, with nearly 20% to 30% of the country's 12 to 13 million hectares of the cotton area infested with pink ballworm, based on estimates from industry bodies and farmers.

DATED TECHNOLOGY

India first allowed GM cotton cultivation in 2002 by approving Monsanto's single gene Bollgard I technology, and Monsanto's GM cotton seed technology soon dominated 90% of India's cotton acreage. Apart from GM cotton, India has not approved any other transgenic crop.

New Delhi approved Monsanto's double gene Bollgard II in 2006, helping to transform India into the world's No.1 cotton producer and second-largest exporter of the fibre as output jumped fourfold. India had previously been a net importer of cotton.

But crop yields have stagnated since then and farmers say the existing variety is losing its effectiveness and becoming more vulnerable to pests such as pink bollworm.

"In the absence of a new variety, Indian farmers are forced to rely on a dated technology," the head of a global seed company said requesting anonymity.

"While India has dragged its feet, other producers have adopted newer cotton seed technologies over the past 15 years."

The other major attraction for farmers is the convenience of weed management, said Bhagirath Choudhary, director of the South Asia Biotech Centre, an organisation for the promotion of biotechnology. Asia Biotech Society lists many government-run scientific research bodies and private companies, including Bayer as its research partners.

"The RRF variety can significantly bring down the cost of cultivation for millions of India's poor, small farmers as the cost of labour for removing unwanted vegetation and picking weeds alone accounts for 65% of the total cost of cotton cultivation in the country," Choudhary said.

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Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj. Editing by Jane Merriman

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