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Bt cotton fiasco: A scientific fairytale

Devinder Sharma

IN THE mid-1980s, a World Bank team was travelling through parts of the frontline agricultural State of Haryana, assessing the impact of its `dream' project — Training and Visit (T&V) System — of farm extension. That was the time when `T&V' was the buzzword and the World Bank had doled out millions of dollars to promote the new farm technology dissemination system to take the latest technology from the agricultural laboratories to the land.

The Indian Express, among the largest selling dailies in India, deputed me to accompany the team. As the Agriculture Correspondent of the newspaper, I was obviously very keen to follow the outcome of the famed programme. The team travelled through some of the dry and semi-arid regions of the State. At most places, farmers were collected to enable the World Bank team to interact with them. The bank's team would ask the same question — whether the programme had benefited them — to farmers wherever they went. And I remember vividly that at most places the farmers would say that the programme had not made any difference to their lives. But what they said was in Hindi, and the project staff translating it for the benefit of the bank's team would invariably turn it around saying: "Sir, he says that the programme has changed his life for the better."

No wonder, the World Bank gave a favourable report. It is, however, another matter that the T&V System now is all but forgotten.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex body responsible for granting commercial approval to genetically modified crops, too had conducted a similar survey to assess the impact of the transgenic crop in its very first year of planting. A team comprising four experts, who were either part of the government's approval process or represented Andhra Pradesh had toured Nalgonda, Karimnagar and Warangal districts. The team members, all wearing `bollgard' caps and accompanied by company officials from Mahyco-Monsanto, actually saw the standing crop in ten acres and submitted their favourable report, as expected. Another team comprising representatives from three NGOs — Centre for Resource Education, Sarvadaya Youth Organisation and Greenpeace India — trailed the expert team. They interviewed the same farmers who were earlier visited by the expert team, and their testimony before the video camera exposes the rot in scientific assessment and analysis.

The Minister for Environment and Forests, Mr T. R. Baalu, was quick to make a statement in Parliament on December 16, 2002, stating that "studies conducted by an expert team from his Ministry has shown `satisfactory performance' of Bt Cotton in the first year of its planting.'' Times have not changed, for someone who still believes in `good science', despite global efforts being made to replace it with the industrial prescription of `sound science', the scientific paper: "Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries" (Science, February 7, 2003, Vol. 299), a paper jointly written by David Zilberman of the University of California, Berkeley, US, and Matin Qaim of the University of Bonn, Germany, actually ends up doing a great disservice to good science. The title of the paper itself is deceptive. The authors have merely tried to look into the yield performance of Bt cotton, which in no way is representative of the entire range of genetically-altered crops. But we cannot blame the authors for a faulty and misrepresentative title. This is the prerogative of the editors. It also makes a tactical error in treating savings in crop losses as yield increase.

Interestingly, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) — the umbrella organisation governing the world's second biggest agricultural research infrastructure in India — had earlier objected to Mahyco-Monsanto's repeated claims that Bt cotton increases yields. Bt cotton for all practical purposes acts like a pesticide, and pesticides do not rise yields. They merely reduce crop losses. But, then, for an industry under tremendous pressure for public acceptance of its risky technology, playing the yield card was a simple way to hoodwink the masses. In fact, the reality is that none of the genetically modified crops has broken the yield barrier that was established by the high-yielding varieties, which ushered in the famed Green Revolution. It is true that the potential of GM crops in developing countries is limited without a substantial yield effect, especially in regions with strong population growth. After all, despite the hype that economists such as Per Pinstrup-Andersen have created about the Bt cotton success, the fact remains that there is a negligible increase in yield differences vis-a-vis the non-Bt cotton hybrids in China.

Showing a quantum jump in `yield' (not reducing the crop losses) was, therefore, what Mahyco-Monsanto wanted to establish for India. And it is here that the authors fell in a well laid-out trap. The data that Mahyco-Monsanto supplied for this paper is based on field trials carried out by the company on 395 farms in seven States. The authors say "in addition to regular trial records, more comprehensive information was collected for157 farms on agronomic aspects and farm and household characteristics". They conclude that a cross-check of summary statistics showed that these 157 sites are fairly representative of the total 395 trial locations.

The media gloated over the research findings. The international media, which was worried about news reports of Bt cotton failure coming from various parts of the country, actually mistook this `research' to be for 2002. News reports give an impression as if the study is for the crop season that has just ended. In reality, the analysis is based on the data that Mahyco-Monsanto had collected in the final year of field-testing in 2001, a year before the crop was commercialised. This was the data that the company had presented before the GEAC. This was the data that still remains hidden from the public gaze in India. And this is the data which have no relevance to the crop harvest in 2002-03.

Matin Qaim and David Zilberman would have done a yeomen service to the biotechnology industry if they had also incorporated the results of the field trials conducted a year earlier in 2000. That was the year when Bt cotton crop was sown two months late and still the company claimed that it gave a yield advantage of 50 per cent. This was essentially because the bollworm attack is the heaviest in the first two months of crop sowing and by sowing late the crop had escaped the insect attack. When asked why was not the government advising the farmers to sow the crop two months late if the yields can go up so dramatically, the GEAC had remained silent.

The fact remains that such a claim was completely incorrect and cannot be substantiated in repeat trials. In any case, the outcome of the research trials was certainly known given the fact that the company had paid all expenses for the field trials. Bt cotton trials and the entire process of monitoring, evaluation and approval has remained shrouded in mystery. The data has been kept classified as if it is country's nuclear deterrent ability that is not to be disclosed.

A look at the pest and the pesticides equation. The authors say that "under Indian conditions, bollworm have a high destructive capacity that is not well controlled in conventional cotton". This is a strange observation.

The authors should tell us in which country they find the bollworms to be less destructive? Is the insect less destructive in the US, China or Australia where Bt cotton is being cultivated on a large scale? In any case, American bollworm is a polyphagus insect and feeds on over 90 crops and has a life-cycle, which sustains on numerous crops. The insect is perhaps the world's most destructive pest. Behind the references quoted to establish the point that the insect pest damage is substantially lower in China, remains hidden the dubious fact that pesticides use and abuse has created a much bigger crisis on the farm front in China on account of exposure and the resulting health impact.

In the early 1990s, China Daily had reported that in one year alone, over 10,000 farmers and farm workers had died from pesticides poisoning. I wonder what they were doing with pesticides if the soil and environment conditions were not so conducive for pest attack. Indian farmers are often indebted and credit constrained and do not have access to chemicals at the right point in time. Pesticides are not the only external input that is important for cotton. Water consumption is another issue, which is being deliberately ignored in the debate on Bt cotton's economics.

While the Bt cotton fraud is all too apparent, a look at another crisis in the making. The GEAC had only approved Bt cotton hybrids for the central and southern States.

For Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, which together have a third of the country's cotton area under cultivation, field trials have been held in the previous crop season.

Interestingly, the ICAR had asked for three years of research trials before any recommendation can be made. But the Agriculture Minister, Mr Ajit Singh, was so keen that he directed the ICAR to forgo the scientific regulations and increase the number of trials so that the approval can be granted on the basis of just one year's data. The ICAR accepted the directive and the field trial data has just been compiled. A year earlier, some adaptive research trials were also conducted, which came in handy to justify the final outcome.

The Punjab Agricultural University conducted field trials in 2002 using Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt hybrids.Best results were given by the local non-Bt cotton with yield levels of 24 quintals per hectare. Also, what was observed is that Bt cotton has less fibre length as a result of which the market is not very excited.

Farmers are, therefore, getting low price, an estimated Rs 300-400 less on every quintal (100 kg). In addition, boll shedding is more in Bt hybrids and the insect resistance remains for about 90 days after which the total pest attack multiplies.

And yet, it is an open secret that PAU has recommended (to the GEAC) the Bt cotton varieties for approval. No wonder, agricultural scientists keep their eyes closed. After all, the resource-starved PAU is looking for joint collaboration with Mahyco-Monsanto. They desperately need funds for research and their own survival. It is the farmer who must pay the actual cost of all these unwanted experimentation, more often than not taking the fatal route to escape the growing indebtedness from cotton failure over the years.

(The author is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Responses can be emailed at dsharma@ndf.vsnl.net.in)

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