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Global spread

Print edition : Mar 12, 2010

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Genetically modified papaya at a test site at the Agricultural Research and Development Centre in Khon Kaen, Thailand. A May 2005 photo.-MICHAEL MATHES/AFP

Genetically modified papaya at a test site at the Agricultural Research and Development Centre in Khon Kaen, Thailand. A May 2005 photo.-MICHAEL MATHES/AFP

Notwithstanding the opposition to genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops from many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activist and civil society groups worldwide, past years have only witnessed a steady growth of their commercialisation and acceptance globally. According to data from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), as of 2008 as many as 25 countries had adopted biotech crops, a steady increase from six in 1996, the first year of commercialisation of a GM crop. Significantly, 15 of these are developing countries, including three (South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt) in Africa.

Even though most of Europe has been historically opposed to GM crops, as of 2008, seven countries in the European Union cultivated GM crops, chiefly maize protected against the European corn borer, and 10 E.U. countries import GM crop products. In June 2009, in fact, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared that the GM maize is as safe as conventional maize for all uses, including cultivation, across the entire E.U. The organisation has projected that by 2015, the end of the second decade of commercialisation, this number will go up to 40. The current global value of the biotech crop market is stated to be $7.5 billion.

Admittedly, the ISAAA is an industry-backed organisation and, therefore, with an obvious bias in favour of biotech crops. However, its data are accepted as reliable both by promoters and opponents of GM crops. According to ISAAA data up to 2008, the total cultivated area under GM crops is 125 million hectares, with India occupying the fourth place after the United States, Argentina and Brazil. Between 1996 and 2008, there has been an unprecedented, 74-fold increase, making GM crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history. India has now narrowly displaced Canada following an impressive 23 per cent growth rate between 2007 and 2008.

In terms of trait hectares, the global coverage is 166 mha. The term trait hectare refers to an area under a biotech crop with stacked traits by inserting more than one gene for enhanced impact of a single benefit or for conferring multiple benefits, say pest resistance and herbicide tolerance in a single crop. According to the ISAAA, the area under stacked traits was becoming an increasing feature and was seen to be growing faster than single traits, with 27 mha of trait hectares being added in 2008 alone, roughly the same as what was added in 2007. In the Indian context, the Monsanto/Mahycos Bollgard II Bt cotton (Cry 1 Ac + Cry 2 Ab), as against single Cry 1 Ac gene Bt cotton Bollgard I, is an example of a stacked trait, but for the single benefit of protection from the American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera). According to C.D. Mayee, Chairman of the Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB) and former Co-Chairman of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Indian agricultural scientists have now developed the capability to stack triple traits in cotton.

Two-thirds of the 25 biotech crop-growing countries planted GM maize (same as 2007), 10 countries planted GM soybean (up from nine), 10 countries planted GM cotton (up from nine) and three countries GM canola (up from two). GM soybean continued to be the dominant GM crop in 2008, occupying 65.8 mha (53 per cent of global area), followed by GM maize (37.3 mha or 30 per cent), GM cotton (15.5 mha or 12 per cent) and GM canola (5.9 mha or 5 per cent). According to the ISAAA, herbicide tolerance (HT) has consistently been the dominant trait right from 1996.

In 2008, HT deployed in soybean, maize, canola, cotton and alfalfa occupied 79 mha (63 per cent). Between 2007 and 2008, stacked trait crops grew by 23 per cent compared with 9 per cent for HT and 6 per cent for insect resistance. This rapid increase in the adoption of GM crops would not have occurred if these crops had not delivered significant economic benefits to both small and large farmers, particularly in developing countries.

The total number of farmers benefiting from biotech crops in these 25 countries, according to the ISAAA, is 13.3 million, over 90 per cent of which are small and resource-poor farmers from developing countries. Of these, most were Bt cotton farmers from China (7.1 million) and India (5 million). The largest increase recorded in 2008 was in India where an additional 1.2 million took to Bt cotton. The acceptance and adoption of Bt technology by Indian cotton farmers have been extremely rapid. Bt cotton technology was first approved in 2002 (Frontline, April 26, 2002) by the GEAC for commercial cultivation in cotton-growing regions of central and southern India in the form of three hybrids developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) Ltd. using the Coker 312 Bt (Cry 1 Ac) seed from its collaborator Monsanto in 1996.

Two years later, the GEAC approved another hybrid of Rasi Seeds for cultivation in central and southern India. In 2005, as many as 16 hybrids were approved, taking the total to 20 Bt hybrids with six for northern, 12 for central and nine for southern India, thus making the technology available to the entire country.

More and more companies became sub-licencees of the technology to acquire the rights to incorporate the Cry 1 Ac gene into their hybrids. By 2006, the total number of hybrids reached 58, with an additional approval of 38 more hybrids from 15 companies. These also included the commercial release of two new Cry 1 Ac-based events or cotton lines, one from China and one of JK Seeds. By 2007, an estimated total of 162 Bt hybrids were released for commercial cultivation by 28 companies, including one double trait stack Bt hybrid Bollgard II of Mahyco/Monsanto.

By the end of 2008, the total number increased to 280 and by August 2009 the number increased to 619 hybrids and one Bt variety. (In a true variety the farmer can save the seeds produced for subsequent generations as against a hybrid whose seeds do not have the same vigour as the parent lines and the farmer is forced to go back to the company for seeds for the next season.) This Bt variety, called Bt-Bikaneri Narma, was recently approved by the GEAC. This entirely indigenous Bt cotton variety has been developed by the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad, in collaboration with the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi.

The area under Bt cotton increased from 29,307 ha in 2002 to 6.3 mha by 2007 and 6.9 mha in 2008. Bt cotton in 2008 accounted for nearly 74 per cent of the total cotton area, up from 66.3 per cent in 2007. In 2009, it is estimated to be 7.6 mha, or 82 per cent of the total. During the decade before 2002, cotton production was in a state of crisis owing to insecticide-resistant bollworm and the consequent low and stagnant productivity of 15-17 million bales (1 bale = 170 kg of lint). This scenario has changed substantively after the introduction of Bt technology. Over the past five years, there has been a significant increase in the production, and in 2007 India accounted for 20.5 per cent of global production, up from 14 per cent in 2002. In 2007-08, the production recorded an all-time high of 31.5 million bales, taking India to the second rank in world cotton production after China. In terms of national productivity, this works out (for 9.5 mha of cotton) to 560 kg of lint/ha.

According to ISAAA estimates, the crop yield of small Indian farmers increased by 31 per cent, pesticide application decreased by 39 per cent and profitability increased by 88 per cent, equivalent to $250/ha. A recent socio-economic study carried out by the Agro-Economic Research Centre (AERC) of Andhra University on behalf of the State government found that the yield (of seed) of Bt cotton vs non-Bt cotton was 3,341 kg/ha against 2,290 kg/ha in Guntur district. In Warangal district, the corresponding figures are 2,380 kg/ha and 1,623 kg/ha. It may be recalled that the maximum controversy around Bt cotton occurred in Andhra Pradesh during the initial phases of its introduction. The reduction in pesticide consumption is one of the factors leading to higher profitability. In the last few years, reduction in pesticide use on cotton has been 30-50 per cent of what was before.

Recently, N. Chandrasekhara Rao of the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad, and S. Mahendra Dev of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices of the Union Agriculture Ministry, carried out a similar study on the economic impact of the adoption of Bt cotton in four districts of Andhra Pradesh one each from four agro-climatic zones using a stratified random sampling technique and came to the following conclusions: There was a 42 per cent increase in yield after the adoption of Bt cotton in 2006-07 for the non-adopters of 2004-05. The adoption reduced the use of chemical insecticides to an extent of 56 per cent compared with 18 per cent in 2004-05. This, the authors point out, was the result of increased awareness among the farmers compared with the initial stages of adoption when they were found to be spraying large quantities of insecticides out of anxiety. The farmers gained an average farm business income (FBI) of about Rs.23,712/ha.

A recent study by R. Ramakumar and his colleagues at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, on agrarian change in rural Maharashtra, based on a survey of Dongargaon in Akola district, found the FBI from Bt cotton to be Rs.21,082/ha compared with Rs.3,492/ha for non-Bt cotton, and Bt cotton to have a higher profitability rate. A UAS-Dharwad study has found that cultivation of Bt cotton considerably reduced the frequent health concerns of farmers, such as giddiness, nausea and itching caused by pesticide spraying in non-Bt cotton fields.

According to similar studies conducted by the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy, for small farmers in China cultivating Bt cotton, the yield increased, on the average, by 9.6 per cent, pesticide use fell by 60 per cent and income increased by a substantial $220/ha. In this context, the finding by Kong-Ming Wu and others from China, which was published as a research paper in the journal Science, is significant. Analysis of the population dynamics of H. armigera over a 10-year period (1997 to 2007) in six provinces in China where Bt cotton is being grown, indicated that a marked decrease in regional outbreaks of this pest in multiple crops was associated with the planting of Bt cotton. Wu and company found up to a 10-fold suppression of cotton bollworm manifestations in crops other than cotton, which are also hosts of cotton bollworm. These crops included maize, soybean, wheat, peanuts and vegetables, among other crops, which occupy a larger combined area of 22 mha as compared with 3 mha of cotton.

Our data suggest that Bt cotton not only controls H. armigera on transgenic cotton designed to resist this pest but also may reduce its presence on other host crops and may decrease the need for insecticide sprays in general, the paper said. This could be of relevance to small and medium cotton farmers in India who practise similar cropping systems besides adopting Bt cotton, to control bollworm. Similar studies in India may be helpful to validate this finding in the Indian context.

With cotton farmers switching to Bt technology in increasing numbers, given the evident economic benefits from its adoption, the controversies around Bt cotton, evident in the initial years of its introduction, have now largely subsided. While in terms of technology, Bt brinjal is the same in fact, a great deal easier for implanting the Bt gene, according to Bt brinjal developers it would be the first GM food crop in India meant for consumption by people, cooked or otherwise. The issues with regard to health effects and biosafety of such GM food on humans are well understood and protocols of the necessary biosafety tests for full-risk assessment are well-evolved. But being an edible GM crop, there are new concerns and new misconceptions about the technology. It has understandably raised a debate and controversy in the country in spite of the widespread consumption of GM food crops over the last decade and more in other parts of the world. Countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia were waiting for the Indian decision on Bt brinjal to follow suit.

But with Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh deciding to overrule the verdict of the statutory regulatory technical body, the issue has been rendered more political than scientific.

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