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Bt cotton fiasco — Pushing farmers into a `booby' trap

Devinder Sharma

THE failure of Bt cotton, and that too in its very first year of planting is well-documented. So much so that even a Parliamentary Committee has put its stamp over the scientific blunder. According to an official report of the Andhra Pradesh Government on the performance of Bt cotton in 2002 — the first year of its commercialisation — "in North Telengana region, the net income from Bt varieties was five times less than the yield from local non-Bt varieties.

In Southern Telengana, the income from Monsanto's Bt crop was nearly seven times less than what was obtained from the indigenous non-Bt cotton varieties, demonstrating the resounding failure of the Monsanto variety."

Surprisingly, no uncomfortable questions have been asked, no heads have rolled, and no one has been held accountable. Neither the farmers have been compensated nor has the industry been blacklisted. The seed industry continues on with impunity, supplying what money watchers call, sub-standard seeds. Further, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has allowed the seed companies to incorporate the Bt gene into any cotton variety.

The GEAC has meanwhile turned defunct. The speed at which its chairman has been replaced puts at shame the infamous `revolving door' concept that exists in Europe and the US. Revolving door is a phrase that is used to indicate the ease with which commercial company executives and the bureaucrats switch jobs. All this raises the question: Should the Indian farmer suffer?

Proponents of the biotechnology industry, however, would not accept this. They keep harping about the significant economic returns that the farmer would get by cultivating Bt cotton. They talked of the benefit to the environment offering figures showing reduced pesticide use.

The Department of Biotechnology (as well as Mahyco-Monsanto) had claimed that despite the extravagant price of the modified seed, the net gain to farmers would be in the range of Rs 10,000 from an acre. The DBT secretary had even gone to the extent of claiming that the yield advantage to the growers would be as high as 80 per cent.

The claims of huge crop yield gains fell flat in the very first year of commercial planting. A look at the serious environmental risks that Bt crops entail, that have actually enabled the Dutch Government to apply the precautionary principle.

Like the GEAC, the Dutch have a Committee on Genetic Modification (Cogem) that is responsible for regulating GM crops in the Netherlands. But, unlike GEAC, Cogem recently sponsored a survey by nine prominent Dutch ecologists, who opined that in line with adherence to the precautionary principle, answers to ecological issues too important to be ignored are still lacking. These include outcrossing of transgenes to related plant species, effects on soil ecosystems and, in particular, impact on multiple layers of the food web.

In a paper "Dutch Precaution Keeps Bt Crops at Bay", Dr Mae-Wan Ho and Dr Jo Cummins, say that the plants are the primary producers to be eaten by primary consumers or herbivores which are, in turn, consumed by the secondary consumers, or carnivores. These feeding relationships form an intricate web of inter- and intra-specific interactions. Incorporating Bt transgenes in a plant genome results in the production of delta-endotoxins, thereby reducing feeding by herbivores. But effects on other levels remain largely unknown.

Quoting entomologists Bart Knols and Marcel Dicke of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the authors say that accumulation of toxins in non-target herbivores may affect natural enemies, yielding secondary pests that may require chemical-based interventions to reduce crop losses. Persistence of toxins in the soil may affect soil arthropods, and disturbance of below ground interactions may in turn impact on the above ground food web. Further, how a plant allocates resources towards producing toxin affects its metabolism, and that may impact on herbivores and carnivores. These higher-level disturbances may favour evolution of Bt resistance in pests.

No wonder, pest resistance to Bt has emerged all over the globe. In India, it was observed in the very fist year of planting. Was it faulty approval to a faulty variety? In China, where more than five million hectares is under Bt cotton, farmers have to spray more pesticide to control the third and fourth generations of American bollworm insects. With each passing year, the number of pesticide sprays is doubling. In Australia too, farmers are being advised to use more pesticides to keep the insects at bay. If the pest resistance starts to break down in the second generation itself, where is the gain? What has been the advantage of passing on this risky and expensive technology to farmers, and at what cost? Isn't it a fact that the entire gain has been to the seed industry, which has walked away with huge profits, leaving the farmers and the environment in deep crisis?

As in the Netherlands, farming in India is predominantly small scale. And that raises additional concerns to the interaction between Bt crops and the surrounding natural or semi-natural ecosystems, the magnitude of which will be greater than in countries with large-scale Bt-crop cultivation, such as the US. Subsequently, the Bt pollen may have much larger impact on vulnerable and/or endangered insect species, several of which are already on the verge of extinction and survive only in isolated refuge areas. At the same time, studies have shown that cultivation of GM crops has increased the incidence of some fungus and secondary pests that were not a major problem earlier.

There have been no such studies in India. In fact, there are no serious studies to understand the consequences of the failure of regulatory system that allows unhindered multiplication and selling of seeds of inferior Bt cotton varieties.

In India, as elsewhere, the tests on Bt cotton, GM maize, Bt corn and several other crops now under trials, are actually fixed in a way that everyone thinks would enable the technology to pass them. As the British newspaper, Independent (October 12, 2003) said while commenting on the outcome of the research trials in Britain: "Everyone knew, even then, that the main danger to the environment from GM crops was that they would cross-pollinate with nearby plants. So the trials were deliberately designed not to focus on this... Instead they looked at the effects of using different kinds of weedkillers on the crops. Over the next three years, 283 fields across the UK were divided in half: One side was sown with the GM crops and sprayed with the special weedkillers which they had been bred to resist; the other was seeded with conventional crops, and treated with the usual herbicides... more recently, ministers and the industry have begun to be seized by the dread that it might all go horribly wrong, with ministers stressing that the results of the tests would be just one element in the final verdict. And so it seems to have proved."

Furthermore, the seed industry, the DBT and the plant scientists in India justified the introduction of Bt crops in the name of increasing productivity and thereby domestic production enabling the country to turn into a major exporter.

In reality, the government is busy lowering the Custom duties and tariffs to allow cheaper imports to flood the country. Ironically, while the cotton growers in the central region of the country find no buyers for their harvest, cotton imports are multiplying, more than twice in one year — from 21,000 tonnes in 1999 to 49,0 tonnes in 2000.

With the US, China and European Union refusing to reduce their subsidies to cotton growers, there is no possibility for Indian farmers to find a foot in the international market.

Cotton farmers are, therefore, faced with a two-pronged assault. The seed industry is luring them with expensive seed that is increasingly pushing them into bankruptcy and to the hitherto unknown `biological treadmill', whereas the cumulative impact of the World Trade Organisation is drastically reducing international prices and allowing for cheaper cotton to be dumped. Farmers are getting squeezed in the process. What, then, is their future?

But then, who cares?

(The author is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst.)

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