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Indian state warns local firms over spread of unauthorised Monsanto GM cotton

By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI, Feb 14 (Reuters) - A top Indian cotton-growing
state has told two local companies that seeds they sold to
farmers may have contained traces of an unapproved GM strain
from Monsanto, according to government notices seen by Reuters
that warn of action against the firms.

U.S. agrochemicals company Monsanto Co told Reuters
late last year that local seed companies have attempted to
"incorporate unauthorised and unapproved herbicide-tolerant
technologies into their seeds" for profit, leading to the
proliferation of illegal seeds, according its own internal
investigation and that by the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

Indian seed firms deny this. The authorities say they are
still investigating how the strain has seeped into Indian
agriculture.

The southern state of Andhra Pradesh last year launched an
investigation after finding nearly 15 percent of its cotton
acreage was planted with an unapproved variety of genetically
modified seeds developed by Monsanto, which dominates India's
cotton seed market.

A panel of officials inspected some seed production plots
and commercial cotton fields and collected "leaf samples" that
tested positive for the Monsanto's Roundup Ready Flex (RRF)
strain, which is engineered to tolerate common weedkillers.

Farmers told the officials the seeds that produced the
positive tests were from brands marketed by Kaveri Seed Co Ltd
and Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd (NSL), according to "show
cause" notices sent to the Indian companies on Jan. 29 by the
office of the state's commissioner of agriculture.

The notices, which were reviewed by Reuters, do not refer to
any other evidence linking the seeds to the two companies. Both
companies deny any wrongdoing.

Using unapproved GM strains is illegal and the state earlier
said criminal charges can be brought against those found guilty
under India's Environment Protection Act.

"Any Genetically Modified Crop in India should be released
for commercial crop use only after approval of Genetic
Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC)," the notices read,
referring to a committee of experts under the federal
environment ministry.

They asked the companies to explain within five days why
their cotton seed licences "should not be suspended/cancelled".

Contacted by Reuters, Kaveri Seed and NSL said the seeds
were not sold through their dealers or distributors. The state
authorities should not have issued the notices without further
supporting evidence, they said.

NSL later said a court in the southern city of Hyderabad had
stayed, or suspended, the notice on Wednesday. Reuters could not
immediately confirm that with the court. An official in the
state agriculture commissioner's office, which sent the notice,
said it was not aware of any case filed by NSL.

Spokesmen for the Andhra Pradesh government and the federal
environment ministry in New Delhi declined to comment on the
investigation or the companies' responses.

India approved the first GM cotton seed trait in 2003 and an
upgraded variety in 2006, helping transform the country into the
world's top producer and second-largest exporter of the fibre.

But India has not approved any other GM crops on concerns
over their safety, and large foreign companies have been
increasingly unhappy at what they say is the infringement of
their intellectual property by widespread planting of unapproved
seeds. (http://reut.rs/2BVrQsC)

Authorities in the southwestern state of Maharashtra are
also investigating illegal cotton planting.

Monsanto said using its unapproved technology in seeds could
leave Indian farmers "vulnerable to exploitation by
opportunistic companies", because they could lose their crops if
found to have knowingly planted such seeds.

"We appreciate the efforts being taken by the authorities to
curb the sale of illegal and unapproved seeds," said a Monsanto
India spokesman. "We will continue to extend our cooperation in
the investigation and efforts to halt the sale of such
unapproved products."

Monsanto pulled an application seeking approval in India for
the RRF variety in 2016 following a dispute over how much the
company should charge in royalties to license its technology to
local firms. (http://reut.rs/2jbDq80)

FINDINGS DISPUTED

Kaveri Seed and NSL are among India's top 10 seed companies,
according to market estimates, and both had agreements with
Monsanto to license its GM cotton technology.

NSL said the Andhra Pradesh investigating committee should
not have issued the "show cause" notice - an official demand
that the company explain its actions - based solely on what
farmers had told them.

"Under the law, the samples have to be drawn in our presence
and after ascertaining the source of the seeds purchased by the
farmer," NSL company secretary Narne Murali Krishna said in an
emailed statement. "The farmer might have grown a crop from
anybody's seeds."

NSL said Monsanto and its Indian partner had failed to
prevent the spread of seeds used in its trial. Monsanto denied
that and said it fully complied with Indian regulations.

NSL had replied to the notice and was confident that it
would, as a result, be withdrawn by the state's agriculture
department, Krishna said, declining to share the content of the
company's reply.

None of the seed samples collected from NSL warehouses and
distributors by government officials tested positive for the
herbicide-tolerant traits of Monsanto's strain, he said.
Government officials declined to comment on the matter.

Kaveri Seed has also replied to the show cause notice, said
G. V. Bhaskar Rao, its chairman and managing director.

"Sending notices based on the statements made by a few
farmers is unprofessional," Rao told Reuters. "We are not at all
producing anything which has any trace of RRF and authorities
are always welcome to come and check samples at our seed
production centres."

A senior Andhra Pradesh official, who did not wish to be
identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media,
said interviewing farmers was the only way the committee could
trace the source of illegal seeds.

"Since planting is over and we can now only collect leaf
samples, we will have to rely on farmers to trace the origin of
seeds," he said.

Monsanto, which is being bought by Germany's Bayer
for $66 billion, has been at loggerheads with local
seed firms, including NSL, and India's government over how much
it can charge for its GM cotton seeds, costing it tens of
millions of dollars in lost revenue a year.
(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj in NEW DELHI; Additional
reporting by Rajendra Jadhav in MUMBAI; Editing by Krishna N.
Das and Alex Richardson)

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