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BT Cotton Disappointing Indian Farmers

Monsanto's Gene-altered Crops Finding Resistance In India

By S. SRINIVASAN | Associated Press 02/10/2003


ENAKENAKONDA, India - Here, under a blazing sun in a southern Indian
cotton field 9,000 miles from U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto Co.'s
headquarters, Chikkappa Nilakanti has literally sown seeds of
discontent.

Nilakanti is one of 55,000 farmers in India who recently planted cotton
genetically engineered by Monsanto to fight pests without pesticides.

India permitted the crop into the country last year after a raucous
four-year battle and that decision is still being hotly contested in a
country that has always been skeptical of biotechnology.

Even now, no edible biotechnology crops are legally grown for
consumption in India, the world's second-most populous country.

Nilakanti's small plot of land and thousands like it throughout India
have become yet another front line in the global battle over
biotechnology, which is demonized as the near-exclusive domain of the
United States.

Still, slumping U.S. biotechnology companies are aggressively pressing
to sell their wares in new places overseas, including pressuring the
Bush administration to force open European markets.

St. Louis-based Monsanto is looking to shake off a yearlong profit slide
sparked by patent expirations, increased worldwide concern over
biotechnology and a drought at home. The company forced its longtime
chief executive to step down last month and promised angry stockholders
it would do better this year. And so it is pinning some of its
turnaround hopes on emerging international markets, including India.

India's cotton industry is notoriously inefficient: It has the most land
under cotton cultivation but is only the third-largest producer of
cotton. Consequently, Monsanto's promise of improving yields by as much
as 60 percent resonated with the government.

Monsanto's cotton seed is spliced with genetic material taken from
bacterium called bacillus thuringiensis and commonly referred to as BT.
The bacterium harms bollworms but not people.

The biotech seed costs three times as much as the natural stuff, but
Monsanto and its Indian partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co., promise
that the cotton crop, brand name Bollgard, will increase farmers' yields
and cut costs because fewer chemical pesticides are needed.

But Nilakanti and pockets of other Indian cotton farmers who planted the
biotech cotton seed complained that the pricey technology was a bad
investment because their yields have not improved. The ruinous boll
weevils have not disappeared.

Nilakanti paid about $33 for a 450-gram packet of BT seeds, nearly four
times the cost of traditional seeds.

Standing in his field, Nilakanti watched boll weevils pop up their heads
as if in a greeting and then resume their business of eating away his
cotton crop.

"BT bedaappa," Nilakanti said in his native tongue, Kannada. "I do not
want BT."

Meanwhile, the same anti-biotechnology activists who fought to keep
biotech cotton out of India have continued with their vocal campaign.

A survey conducted by an anti-biotechnology advocacy group, Research
Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, called Monsanto's
technology a failure, saying it has left "farmers in a great economic
and livelihood crisis," and led to the emergence of "new pests and
diseases."

Government and company officials dispute those findings and argue that
the complaining farmers are in the minority. Even more gene-altered
cotton is expected to be planted this year.

"BT cotton has done very well in all the five states where it was
planted," said Ranjana Smatecek, Monsanto India's public affairs
director.

Smatecek said Monsanto's genetically engineered cotton doesn't repel all
bollworms but does reduce the amount of pesticide needed to control the
pest. He said it's not surprising that farmers are finding bollworms on
some of their engineered crops, because it takes up to three days for
the insects to die.

Environment minister T.R. Baalu told Indian Parliament that Monsanto's
cotton had performed "satisfactorily."

In the Feb. 7 issue of the journal Science, two Western professors
published a paper supporting the government's position. David Zilberman
of the University of California, Berkeley and Matin Qaim of the
University of Bonn said they found that BT dramatically increased yields
and significantly reduced pesticide use.

The study's authors argue that BT cotton and similar technologies
involving genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, hold particular
promise for poor farmers in developing nations.

"It would be a shame," Zilberman said, "if anti-GMO fears kept important
technology away from those who stand to benefit the most from it."

---

EDITOR'S NOTE: AP biotechnology writer Paul Elias in San Francisco
contributed to this report.


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