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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
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