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Indian Farmers Denounce
Failure of GE Cotton Crop

Inter Press Service
September 6, 2002
Farmers Want Compensation after Ruined
Genetically Modified (GM) Crops
By Ranjit Devraj
New Delhi, India


Farmers in India's cotton-growing central and western regions, who were
anxious to get genetically engineered cotton seed not so long ago, are now
even more anxious about getting compensation from the government for a
disastrous failure of this year's crops.

Although the genetically engineered 'Bt cotton' seed was supplied by U.S.
seed giant Monsanto through its Indian subsidiary Maharashtra Hybrid Seed
Co (MAHYCO), farmers and activists are demanding compensation from the
government because it granted the approvals for the seed earlier this year.
Bt cotton seeds are spliced with toxic genes taken from the soil bacterium
bacillus thuringiensis, which is capable of killing of the American bollworm
pest. However, its resistance to other pests and suitability to Indian
climatic factors have never been adequately tested, environmentalists say.

"The seeds of Bt cotton supplied by MAHYCO-Monsanto company failed
to give suitable results. The crops in 30,000 hectares all over Vidarbha (farming
region in western Maharashtra state) has been spoiled completely by
root-rot," said Kishore Tiwari, president of the influential Vidarbha Jan
Andolan Samiti (People's Movement in Vidarbha).

Tiwari attributed the failure to "wrong selection of Bt genes developed in
America and brought to India". He estimated the financial loss to farmers in
the Vidarbha region at over $ 100 million and expected the government to
make good.

"We have served a legal notice on the Ministry of Agriculture and if the
government does not take cognisance of it, we plan to file a public interest
litigation in the Mumbai High Court," Tiwari said.

Monsanto spokeswoman Ranjana Smetacek told IPS that wilting and root-rot
were not specific to any particular variety of cotton and has equally
affected genetically engineered Bt cotton and ordinary varieties sown
side-by-side.

Smetacek attributed root-rot to waterlogging caused by sudden heavy rainfall
following a prolonged dry spell, and said her company planned to release
shortly an advertisement advising farmers to drain off excess water from
their fields.

Monsanto's explanation was supported by a scientist from the government's
Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) located in Nagpur, a major city
in central India.

"The wilting is not pathogenic and occurs normally when cotton hybrids in
the field are exposed to prolonged dry spell followed by heavy showers,"
said C D Mayee, a scientist at the CICR following surveys in the affected
Yavatmal district.

Mayee told IPS that Bt cotton varieties '162' and '184', grown at
experimental farms at Saoner and Katol villages 65 kilometers west of
Nagpur, were showing no signs of root-rot. But he admitted that the '162'
varieties were sensitive to water stagnation. Apart form these two
varieties, Monsanto has introduced a third into India.

According to Mayee, it was too early to talk about cotton crop failures in
Maharashtra state since the main harvesting season begins in November. He
described reports of extensive crop damage in local newspapers this month
as "unscientific".

Last month, similar reports of cotton crop failures came from adjoining
central Madhya Pradesh state. But Mayee said he could not comment on
crop failures there because his institute had carried out no studies in that
state and had no data to go by.

Reports of cotton crop failure in Madhya Pradesh were coming in well before
the arrival of this year's delayed monsoons and were attributed to droughts
rather than to waterlogging, and they spoke of the particular vulnerability
of Bt cotton varieties.

Mihir Shah, director of the Baba Amte Centre for People's Empowerment
and Debashish Banerji of the Samaj Pragati Sahyog (Nature and Society
Cooperative), commented in an article in the 'Hindu' newspaper on Aug. 24
that the cotton crop failures in Madhya Pradesh have "shocked even the worst
critics of genetically modified crops".

Shah and Banerji, who are themselves based in Madhya Pradesh
and scientifically qualified, said that the Bt cotton story in India "had
all the makings of a terrible tragedy" that began unfolding in Gujarat state
last year. There, 10,000 acres were sown illegally with Bt cotton, with
farmers not caring to wait for government approval.

In fact, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the federal
Ministry of Environment and Forests ordered the destruction of the illegally
grown crops in Gujarat. But that decision was never implemented and in March
this year, the body cleared Bt cotton for commercial farming against the
advice of leading environmentalists.

"The GEAC is solely responsible for hastily pushing in the untested
technology despite being warned time and again of the scandal in the name of
science," said Devinder Sharma, internationally known campaigner against GM
crops and director of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security (FBFS),
a collective of scientists, farmers, economists and policy makers.
Sharma is among those who are demanding that the chairman of the GEAC be
held accountable for the present disaster. "This should act as deterrent
against the illegal experimentation that goes on unchecked in this country
in the name of improving farmers' lot. After all, how many more farmers need
to be sacrificed at the altar of agricultural development?"

Sharma pointed out that Indian government agencies had always cited the
introduction of Bt cotton in neighboring China as a reason why it should
also be introduced in this country. But, he added, they were silent about
recent reports from that country indicating that the crop was
environmentally harmful.

The Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences reported earlier this year
that Bt cotton, which makes up 35 percent of China's cotton crop, harms
natural parasitic enemies of the bollworm and seems to encourage other
pests.

According to the report, the diversity index of the insect community in Bt
cotton fields was lower than in conventional cotton fields, while the pest
dominant concentration index is higher. Bt cotton did not resist bollworm
after being planted eight to 10 years continuously, suggesting the build-up
of resistance.

Official secrecy has shrouded the entry of Monsanto into India, a recurring
theme with Sharma and other environmentalists.

Shortly before he resigned as union health minister in June, C P Thakur
complained that the Health Ministry was never consulted on the introduction
of GM crops.

"Genetically-modified products could have long-term environmental and health
effects. It is essential that the Health Ministry is involved more in such
decisions," said Thakur, a successful doctor and researcher in his own
right.

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