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Bt cotton in the time of Cancun

Bt cotton in the time of Cancun
Suman Sahai

One of the important details of the failed Cancun meeting was the African
protest against the huge American subsidies on cotton that put the African
cotton farmers out of business. The rejection by the US of the African
demand was bad enough, it was accompanied by the insensitive American
counter that the Africans should diversify their agriculture and invest in
processing (set up textile mills) to cope with the situation. This spurning
of the African demand was one of the key reasons why the Africa group led by
Kenya walked out of the Green Room discussions, triggering the collapse of
fifth ministerial of the WTO. The cotton issue did not receive much
attention in the Indian media since this was an African story and our issues
were different. However, the cotton issue is of central importance to us as
a cotton producing country and one that is adopting a controversial new
technology, Bt cotton, allegedly to alter the method of cotton production in
India.

Bt cotton, India's first ever GM crop has been closely watched. A lot has
been written about the failure of Monsanto's Bt cotton in the six states it
was grown. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has been
questioned on why it sanctioned a cotton variety that was known to be a poor
performer. Two misguided scientists from an American university, Matin Qaim
and David Zilberman published a methodologically flawed, widely criticised
paper stating that Monsanto's Bt cotton nearly doubled cotton yields in
India. Monsanto has been flooding the market with its own version of the
performance of Bt cotton (flying in the face of all existing evidence) and
there is the runaway variety of Navbharat Seed Company, the illegal
Navbharat 151, spawning ever new generations of mutant Bt cottons. Amidst
this happening scenario, I would like to take the reader back to one of the
first questions posed by Gene Campaign when the release of Bt cotton, pushed
(not so discreetly either) by the Department of Biotechnology, looked
imminent.

At the time Gene Campaign had questioned the wisdom of promoting Bt cotton
in the agricultural system of small farmers in India for a variety of
reasons, including the fact that the market for cotton in India was unstable
and diminishing. What, Gene Campaign asked, was the point of promoting the
allegedly superior Bt cotton which was supposed to increase cotton yields,
when farmers were unable to sell what they were producing today. Having
travelled extensively through Vidarbha and the cotton belt in Maharashtra
and seeing mounds of cotton dumped in the open, with no takers, the question
seemed obvious. Maharshtra has a compulsory procurement scheme for cotton
whereby the government is committed to pay the cotton farmers a minimum
price for the cotton produced, since there are few buyers in the open
market. This compulsory procurement scheme has been in existence for nearly
fifty years. The last few years, the Maharashtra government, teetering on
the edge of bankruptcy, has found it near impossible to fulfil its
commitment, causing heartburn and distress among farmers.

On the other hand, India, which has traditionally been an exporter of cotton
and was one until recently, is now the third largest importer in the world.
The highly subsidised cotton from the US and China is being imported into
India, putting the cotton farmer in India out of business and driving him to
suicide. US cotton imports into India more than doubled in just one year,
from about 21, 000 thousand tonnes in 1999 to nearly 49,000 tonnes in 2000.
Cotton is an important beneficiary of the massive agricultural subsidies of
the US, which makes the American cotton price unrealistically low and
impossible to compete with, as the Africans know and as we do too but
mysteriously choose to ignore while promoting Bt cotton. China is the other
major player in cotton. It subsidises its cotton production to the tune of
$1.2 billion, its subsidies being second only to the US and it is a major
exporter of cotton to India.

Alarmingly, the international situation with respect to cotton does not look
good either. There is a glut in the market largely because of heavily
subsidised, cheap American cotton having flooded the market. According to
the International Cotton Advisory Committee, there are huge unused stocks of
cotton left over from earlier production because of a slump in global
demand. This slump in global demand is likely to continue and perhaps
worsen because of the increasing availability of synthetic fibres at
decreasing rates. In the upper consumer bracket, there is the offer of a
range of new fibres like micro fibre and technologically structured fabrics,
which are durable, fashionable and friendly to the skin.

So where does India's Bt cotton fit into this scenario? Both the US and
China, which grow massively subsidised cotton, dump their unnaturally priced
cotton onto the world market. And India mindlessly imports this cheap cotton
from the US and China, on the one hand and promotes Bt cotton for its small
farmers on the other. The problem is that India does not support its cotton
farmer at all, casting him more or less to the American and Chinese wolves.
India does not provide credit; it does not provide insurance, or
compensation at the time of crop failure. It does not take action against
the producers of spurious pesticides; a principal reason identified for the
suicide deaths in Andhra Pradesh. India has not taken any action against
fly by night operators who supply spurious seeds, causing farmers to have
poor crops. In brief, the cotton farmer is left to fend for himself.

When Monsanto's Bt cotton failed in Kharif 2002, the government took no
action to bring the culprits to book. The Indian law now has a clause for
compensation for spurious seeds, thanks to the efforts of civil society
groups. According to the Plant Variety Protection and Farmers' Rights Act,
2001, Clause 39(2) of the act states that: " Where any propagating material
of a variety registered under this Act has been sold to a farmer or a group
of farmers or any organization of farmers, the breeder of such variety shall
disclose to the farmer or the group of farmers or the organization of
farmers, as the case may be, the expected performance under given
conditions, and if such propagating material fails to provide such
performance under such given conditions, the farmer or the group of farmers
or the organization of farmers, as the case may be, may claim compensation
in the prescribed manner before the Authority.."

Despite this provision, Monsanto goes unpunished and the burden of the
failed Bt crop is placed squarely on the farmer. Putting aside the poor
Monsanto variety for now, let us assume that better Bt cotton varieties will
come on the market since these are in the pipeline. The question really to
ask is whether introducing Bt cotton is a sensible strategy at all, given
the unfocussed, ad hoc policy with respect to cotton in India, the depressed
global demand and the mass

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