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The Southern India Mills’ Association

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After Monsanto patent ruling, Indian farmers hope for next-generation genetically modified seeds

A court ruling in India this week that upheld a MonsantoNSE -0.22 % patent on genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds has raised hopes among farmers that the company would now launch its next-generation seeds, the application for which it pulled two years ago.

India approved Monsanto’s GM cotton seed trait in 2002 and an upgraded variety in 2006, helping transform the country into the world’s top producer and second-largest exporter of the fibre. But newer traits have not been available since the company withdrew an application in 2016 seeking approval for the latest variety due to a royalty dispute with the government and worries over patent claims.

Nevertheless, the new herbicide-tolerant variety seeped into Indian farms and many cotton growers openly sowed them last year, prompting a government investigation that is ongoing. Monsanto has said local seed companies have illegally attempted to “incorporate unauthorised and unapproved herbicide-tolerant technologies into their seeds”.

“We don’t understand legal issues but we want new technologies,” Shrikant Kale, a cotton grower in Yavatmal district in the western state of Maharashtra, said by phone. “If the court verdict helps seed companies in bringing new technology, then it would be good for us as well.”

Nearly a dozen other farmers in three Maharashtra districts said they planted the illegal cotton variety in June after buying seeds from the grey market, and that they would be happy to use it legally if Monsanto launched it.

“Illegal sales mean that there’s always a risk of buying spurious seeds and we buy such smuggled seeds as there is no alternative,” said Vijay Niwal, another cotton farmer in Maharashtra.

“We don’t mind paying a few hundred rupees more for seeds if they help us in saving thousands of rupees on managing weeds.”

Monsanto owner BayerNSE -0.07 % welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision, saying it “prima facie validates our patent” and that it was confident of “defending any challenge to our patent by presenting solid scientific evidence”.

Monsanto did not immediately comment on future plans, including any launch of its new seeds.

But two industry sources aware of the company’s plans said that a dispute over royalties paid by local companies that licence its technology remained a hurdle to seeking fresh approval to sell a new variety of cotton seeds. India’s agriculture ministry has twice slashed royalties in the past two years, apart from cutting cotton seed prices.