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Bt cotton bitter harvest

By Mihir Shah & Debashis Banerji

The Bt cotton story in India had all the makings of a terrible tragedy, even before official permission was granted for its cultivation. FIRST REPORTS from Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, one of the cotton headquarters of India, endowed with fertile black cotton soil, speak of a 100 per cent failure of the Bt cotton crop. Farmers are up in arms demanding compensation from the company that supplied these seeds. While other cotton varieties have also been adversely affected by the drought, they report a failure rate of only around 20 per cent.

This is a performance that has shocked even the worst critics of genetically-modified (GM) crops. We do not expect such a complete disaster to be repeated everywhere. But the Bt cotton story in India had all the makings of a terrible tragedy, even before official permission was granted for its cultivation in March 2002. The tragedy began unfolding in Gujarat where over ten thousand acres of Bt cotton were planted illegally last year. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, whose permission is required for cultivation of any GM crop, ordered the destruction of this illegal Bt cotton. But the decision was never implemented. In March this year, three hybrid Bt cotton seeds supplied by the Mumbai-based company, Mahyco, were approved by the GEAC for cultivation in central and south India. The U.S. multinational Monsanto has a 27 per cent stake in Mahyco.

Bt cotton seeds have been genetically engineered to produce a toxin that can kill the bollworm, a major headache for cotton farmers. They are ineffective against other pests and even according to their suppliers do not have any mechanism to raise yields. The idea is that they would raise the net incomes of farmers since they are expected to reduce spending on pesticides. But a simple calculation shows that the economics does not quite work out. Seeds currently being used by farmers cost an average of Rs. 325 per hectare. The pesticide cost is around Rs. 400 per hectare.

The Bt cotton seeds are about four times as expensive as existing seeds, i.e., Rs. 1,300 per hectare. Some pesticide has to be used even with Bt seeds, particularly because 20 per cent of Bt cotton fields need to be covered with non-Bt seeds (to ensure that pest resistance to Bt cotton does not rapidly develop). Even if Bt seeds are presumed to lead to a dramatic reduction in pesticide costs to say Rs.150 per hectare, the total cost of seeds and pesticides would still be double in the Bt case Rs. 1,450 compared to Rs. 725 per hectare for seeds currently in use. The mandatory requirement of growing non-Bt cotton in each Bt cotton plot is based on "resistance management plans" devised in the U.S., where farmers have huge land holdings. The idea is that the surviving resistant insects to the Bt crop will intermate with susceptible ones on the non-Bt crop. But Indian cotton farmers with much smaller land holdings have found it quite impossible to set aside land for these "refugia".

Their inability to do so will only accelerate the development of pest resistance to Bt cotton. There are also a large number of technical specifications for refugia management with which Indian farmers have not even been made remotely familiar. This is obviously not a technology meant for the poor, dryland small farmers of India. Inquiries in the field reveal that the attraction for Bt cotton had much to do with the kind of hype that surrounded its sale. Farmers worried about the cost were falsely promised dramatic increases in yield.

Coercion was also employed availability of credit and other inputs was linked to purchase of Bt. But, most farmers remained unconvinced because of the high price. And this is where the tragedy got really compounded. Much to the consternation of Mahyco-Monsanto, illegal Bt seeds from last year's Gujarat harvest (that the Government failed to destroy) began flooding the market.

A large number of illegal dealers started offering Bt cotton much cheaper, at anywhere between Rs. 100 and Rs. 800 per hectare. In Gujarat last year these seeds were covertly sold under the brand name "Navbharat 151" by the Navbharat Seeds Company. This year, with Bt cotton having being cleared by the Government, and with no action against Navbharat, the seeds obtained from last year's harvest, were openly sold as "Maxi 151" by a Vadodara-based company describing itself as "B.T. Cotton Trial Farm". Its proprietor, Piyush Patel, published huge ads in prominent Gujarati dailies not only extolling the higher yields of "his" Bt cotton, but also claiming its superiority over that supplied by "big companies" (which he described as a "terminator seed"). Following several representations to the GEAC, Mr. Patel was finally arrested in May 2002. But much damage had already been done. Many illegal F2 and even F3 (second and third generation) seeds are reported to have been sold to cotton farmers of Punjab and Haryana, where Bt cotton has yet to be approved.

They have also found their way into Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. A khadi institute in Gujarat that apparently used last year's Bt seeds, reported uncommon itching and rashes among users of cloth produced from this cotton. As this illegal trade of bogus operators spread, the Government largely remained a silent spectator.

The irony is that those who set so much store by Bt cotton are also passively watching their magic product being made a complete mockery of! We are more concerned that farmers are being taken for a ride. We have consistently argued that any new technology must be introduced only after farmers and consumers have complete information on all its aspects. So that they can make an informed choice. Such a choice has been denied to our people, who are being forced to learn the hard way. Why can't a large number of public debates be organised in our cotton growing areas, with the participation of the Government, companies, scientists, farmers and consumers?

Where this has been done, as in Chitradurga in Karnataka and Medak in Andhra Pradesh, farmers have overwhelmingly rejected GM crops. But the Government has still not placed in the public domain, data generated by Bt cotton trials in India. Ridiculously, the monitoring and regulation of Bt cotton has been entrusted to the very same company that is producing and selling it. Meanwhile, evidence against Bt cotton continues to accumulate worldwide. A study by the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences under the Chinese State Environmental Protection Agency reveals that Bt cotton is harming natural parasitic enemies of the bollworm and seems to be encouraging other pests. The Chinese experience needs to be taken seriously since Bt cotton accounts for more than 1.5 million hectares (35 per cent of total cotton acreage) in that country. The study finds the diversity index of the insect community in Bt fields much lower than in conventional cotton farms in China.

It also finds that the populations of pests other than bollworm have increased in Bt cotton fields and some have even replaced it as the primary pest. It would be pertinent to remember that since Bt cotton was developed in the U.S. to tackle only one main pest, the bollworm, its applicability to regions of the world with higher pest diversity was always suspect from the word go. (The writers are scientists in the field of alternatives to genetically-modified agriculture.)

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