Concerned that whitefly and bollworm attack could harm Bt cotton crop yields, the central government will henceforth promote native cotton varieties in states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, official sources said on last Tuesday.
The sources were tight-lipped on whether the change in stance as regards Bt cotton has something to do with the opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and RSS-affiliated bodies like Swadeshi Jagran Manch.
The decision to encourage cultivation of indigenous cotton was taken by Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh after he and senior ministry officials held a crucial meeting here on Monday, sources said.
"It has been decided that steps ought to be taken to popularise indigenous cotton cultivation. Attacks by whitefly and pink bollworm were noticed last year in cotton farms in Punjab, Rajashtan, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Gujarat," a source in the agriculture ministry said here.
Officials and scientists from Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) and Cotton Corporation of India also attended the meeting presided over by Radha Mohan Singh.
Produced by US multinational Monsanto, Bt cotton is a GM variety of cotton that promises to produce an insecticide to bollworm.
Introduced in 2002-03, Bt cotton now accounts for about 90 percent of the country's cotton cultivation. The country's markets are also overrun by Bt cotton seeds, with native varieties becoming hard to get.
The whitefly attacked the cotton crop last year in Punjab, kicking up a row in the Malwa region - the political hub of Shiromani Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal and his kin.
A series of meetings last year between key BJP leaders, including union ministers, and scientists and experts "failed" to take RSS-affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch on board on GM crops.
"While we are not against economic and agri-reforms per se, the refrain of a section of the government in favour of field trial of GM crops and to consider FDI as panacea to all ailments is not acceptable," a key Swadeshi Jagran Manch functionary told IANS.
Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh had said on March 9 that there had been "no uniformity" in pricing of Bt cotton seeds across the country.
That was also the justification for the central government to issue in 2015 a Cotton Seed Price (Control) Order which fixed a uniform price of Bt cotton seed across the states "for the benefit of farmers".
While the BJP-led NDA government's professed policy is not against Bt Cotton or GM crops, the party's election manifesto in 2014 had said, "GM food will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation".
In October 2014, the BJP government in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state Gujarat decided not to grant a 'no objection certificate' (NOC) for field trials of a GM food crop.
An NOC from a state government is a statutory requirement for conducting open field trials of a GM crop.
Gujarat under Narendra Modi as chief minister was among the first states to issue no objection to allowing field trials of GM crops. Maharashtra also had allowed such trials.
The Congress-led UPA regime and the then Environment Minister Veerappa Moily had approved GM field trials for rice, maize, wheat and chickpea.
As per a revised estimate of the government, cotton output this year is expected to decline to 33.51 million bales in 2015-16 from 35.47 million bales the previous year due to pest attack and deficient monsoon.
One bale weighs 170 kg.