Seeds of controversy

Print edition : June 17, 2005

RCH-20 Bt cotton being harvested at a farm near Salem, Tamil Nadu. For the South Zone, the GEAC has allowed the commercialisation of the hybrid seed developed by a sub-licensee of Monsanto. - SHAJU JOHN

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has attracted severe criticism by granting approval to six new Bt cotton hybrids and extending the approval for seeds already under cultivation.

YET again a controversy has been set off by the Ministry of Environment and Forests' (MoEF) Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the regulator in India for transgenic products, by approving certain varieties of Bt cotton hybrids for the next season.

Bt cotton is a variety of cotton genetically modified to contain a gene (cry1Ac) of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is foreign to its genome and is a naturally occurring soil bacterium used to control Lepidopteran insects because of a toxin it produces. The U.S.-registered multinational corporation, Monsanto, first developed Bt cotton.

The Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) Monsanto Biotech India Ltd. or MMB, until recently the sole licensee/patent holder of Bt cotton seeds in the country, claims that the seeds have the strength to fight bollworms within the plant, reduce the use of insecticides and give higher yield than other cotton varieties. Bt cotton is the only government-approved, genetically modified (GM) crop in India, though clearances have been given for only specific varieties of it. The Central government had permitted for three years the Bt cotton varieties MECH-162, MECH-12 and MECH-184 developed by MMB for commercial cultivation in India in March 2002. The permission expired on March 30, 2005.

Since mid-April 2005, the GEAC has approved six new Bt cotton hybrids for commercial cultivation in northern India; more varieties will be granted permission in the near future. But the GEAC is still undecided about granting extensions for the varieties already under cultivation, because of crop failures that have destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of farmers across the country, particularly in Andhra Pradesh.

Adverse reports about the three cotton hybrid crops have come in not only from leading voluntary agencies but also from the Government of Andhra Pradesh. In fact, local authorities in Warangal district have been demanding that MMB compensate the Andhra Pradesh farmers after crop losses last year drove scores of them to suicide.

On May 3, the GEAC renewed permission for MMB to market MECH-12 Bt, MECH-162 Bt and MECH-184 Bt in the Central Zone (Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra) for another two years. It approved cultivation of MECH-162 Bt and MECH-184 Bt in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, but not of MECH-12 Bt. According to an MoEF spokesperson, "the decision was taken on the basis of reports received from the State governments".

"It was a very difficult decision," said a senior GEAC member. "The decision not to allow the three hybrids in Andhra Pradesh was taken on receiving adverse reports from the State government as well as some 20 farmers' organisations in the State. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have sent mixed reports. The Gujarat government has not sent any reports so far."

THE GEAC had allowed commercialisation of the GM hybrids - which incorporate the cry1Ac gene derived from Bacillus thuringiensis - in the Central and South Zones for three seasons ending March 2005. While the GEAC renewed the permission for the North Zone, it deferred the decision for the South and Central Zones following protests by civil society groups and academics. However, for certain States of these zones, the GEAC allowed the commercialisation of two hybrids - RCH-144 Bt for the Central and RCH-20 Bt for the South - developed by Rassi Seeds Ltd., a sub-licensee of Monsanto.

The GEAC also approved large-scale field trials of three transgenic varieties - KCH-1947 of J.K. Agri, NEC-ER Bt of Nath Seeds and 02-50 VIP of Syngenta Seeds - in North India.

Four varieties developed by Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd, three each of Mahyco and Rassi Seeds and two of Ankur Seeds were not approved in the absence of adequate reports from the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC). The GEAC, according to officials, is holding "final-level internal discussions" on the commercialisation of some varieties of Bt cotton hybrids.

In another set of new varieties, the GEAC approved six Bt cotton hybrids for commercial cultivation in the North. For Central India, five new hybrids have been approved for commercial cultivation - RCH-144 Bt and RCH-118 (of Rassi Seeds), MRC-6301 Bt (Mahyco) and Ankur-681 and Ankur-09 (Ankur Seeds).

For the South, Mahyco's MRC-6322 Bt and MRC-6918 Bt and Rassi's RCH-20 Bt and RCH-368 Bt have been approved. The GEAC also approved 20 large-scale field trials for different types of Bt cotton in South and Central India, while 12 transgenic varieties are in the pipeline for commercial cultivation.

According to a recent study by a team of government cotton experts, cotton hybrids are susceptible to diseases such as bacterial blight, alternaria leaf spot and grey mildew. The All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project (AICCIP) corroborates, in its 2004-05 annual report, the arguments made in different studies by civil society organisations and independent scientific bodies about the failure of Bt cotton in the 2004 season. It also justifies the demand of Andhra Pradesh Bt cotton growers for compensation for crop loss.

The report discusses the Bt cotton trials conducted in the Central and South Zones to assess the incidence of these diseases on Bt and non-Bt cotton crops. Three AICCIP teams studied the breeding, entomology and pathology of Bt cotton. The results revealed that both Bt and non-Bt cotton hybrids are equally susceptible to the three diseases and that the presence of Bt gene does not have any impact on the incidence of the disease.

The AICCIP report added: "The outbreak of the diseases in the Central and South Zones was significant, especially in certain Bt hybrids. They caused critical damage at the peak boll formation stage." According to the AICCIP report, all cotton hybrids - Bt or non-Bt - had the same yields in the South Zone. However, farmers practising integrated pest management (IPM) reported a higher net income with a near halving of pesticide use.

In Andhra Pradesh, farmer leader Malla Reddy of the AP Rythu Sangam, wrote to the GEAC not to approve the extension for the "three failed Bt cotton hybrids", while S. Jaipal Reddy of the Federation of Farmers Association (FFA) demanded an immediate extension of the approval period. This, say experts, is because the FFA has entered into a partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and floated the Farmer-Industry Alliance.

Says P. Chengal Reddy of the Farmer-Industry Alliance: "The GEAC should have allowed commercial cultivation of these Bt cotton hybrids in Andhra Pradesh. Farmers have already booked orders for 300,000 bags of Bt cotton seeds with local dealers."

However, the GEAC approved four new Bt cotton hybrids for commercial cultivation in South India, including Andhra Pradesh. "This has been done to give a choice to Andhra Pradesh farmers," said a GEAC member.

Farmers' groups and civil society organisations across the country have expressed deep concern over the GEAC approving new biotech cotton hybrids for cultivation in new areas when the extension of the approval period for three hybrid varieties under cultivation has become controversial. They stepped up the protests during the Global Week of Action, which was recently observed worldwide.

Packed Bt cotton seeds of Monsanto-Mahyco.-

Scientific studies by some civil society groups proved that the Bt cotton crops had failed in South India. The Secunderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) conducted a study under the leadership of Dr. G.V. Ramanjaneyulu and entomologist Dr. S.M.A. Ali, which detailed the failure of Bt cotton in Warangal and Medak districts of Andhra Pradesh. A similar study by Dr. Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari on behalf of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity and the Permaculture Association of India totted up the heavy losses on account of Bt cotton cultivation. The three-year study (2002-05), in collaboration with grassroots researchers, revealed the following:

* Lower yields: While the three-year average yield from Bt cotton for small farmers was 650 kg per acre, it was 535 kg under rain-fed conditions in 2005. The same farmers got 150 kg more yield from non-Bt hybrids under the same conditions as the Bt cotton. Thus the non-Bt yield is nearly 30 per cent more than the Bt yield and it is also 10 per cent less expensive.

* No reduction in pesticide use: On an average, Bt farmers used pesticides worth Rs.2,571 an acre for the three years; it was Rs.2,766 for non-Bt farmers.

* No higher profit: The three-year average revealed that the non-Bt farmers earned 60 per cent more an acre than Bt farmers.

* No reduction in the cost of cultivation: Farmers not only had to spend three to four times more for the Mahyco-Monsanto Bollgard seeds, but also had to take extra care to manure, irrigate and look after the Bt crop. Thus, many farmers, especially in the rain-fed areas, spent at least Rs.2,000 more an acre compared to the non-Bt hybrids. On an average, the Bt farmers incurred 12 per cent more in cultivation costs than non-Bt farmers.

* Environmental impact: A special kind of root rot was being spread by Bollgard, or Bt, cotton and farmers could not grow other crops after Bt because it affected the soil.

Studies by Gene Campaign, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and Greenpeace India have highlighted the failure of Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Eminent scientist and Padma Bhushan recipient Dr. Pushp M. Bhargava has gone on record that Bt cotton has failed to live up to expectations.

But a contrary view came from one survey, by Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) done on behalf of Monsanto India, which attests to the success of Bt cotton cultivation. Based on this study, MMB claimed that Bollgardcotton had helped farmers earn an "additional income of Rs.770 crores during 2004".

According to the study, the average per acre spending on pesticides by farmers across the country was just about a fifth for Bt hybrids compared to non-Bt hybrids. The overall average savings in spending on pesticides was Rs.1,200 an acre; the average yield was 8.02 quintals an acre compared to 5.07 quintals; and the average profit per acre was Rs.9,610 (after accounting for seed prices) and Rs.3,660 respectively. But this study was refuted by the CSA point by point.

During a two-day international consultation on Bt cotton organised by DDS and Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) in Hyderabad, farmers' groups and civil society organisations from Bangladesh, Canada, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali, Nepal, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Thailand expressed concerns over the deliberate thrusting of transgenic technology on farmers at the cost of genetic pollution, environmental degradation and health hazards. Local farmers' groups from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra narrated how they incurred losses on account of Bt cotton cultivation.

The Bt cotton controversy is not peculiar to India. Farmers in Indonesia have used Bt cotton and given it up; in Mali, they are dead against their entry; in Thailand civil society groups have unearthed political conspiracies around it and disallowed its entry. According to farmers in Andhra Pradesh, though the issue is about the technology itself, the GEAC, by giving approval for the cultivation of some varieties of Bt cotton in some States, appears to be turning the matter into one of seed varieties.

Activists feel that the only solution to the vexed problem is to legislate and provide a firm policy on agricultural biotechnology before allowing further cultivation of transgenics such as Bt cotton. Says Gene Campaign's Suman Sahai: "It is time to examine whether it is possible to implement technology for genetic engineering in India with its requirements for segregation, labelling and identity preservation of GM varieties, given the impact it has on India's small farmers."

In 2001, the Indian government issued a new seeds policy, which stated that GM seeds would have to adhere to norms such as environmental health and biodiversity safety before their commercial release. Transgenic seed varieties would be imported only after clearance from the GEAC and would be tested to determine their agronomic value by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

But Suman Sahai says this is not enough. "There are grave doubts about the competence and independence of the structures for regulation, and monitoring of GM crops and it is regrettable that neither farmers nor the public has been taken into confidence." For now, she says, it is vital that the GEAC and government agencies show more transparency in their functioning and take the public into confidence on how they grant approvals. She says: "For years, environmentalists and independent scientists have been asking the government to share information on approvals and field trial data, which even ordinary citizens have the right to demand. However, we have always been denied that right."

The MoEF, under which the GEAC functions, should therefore bare the details about the approvals and put to rest the claims and counter-claims about the worth of the hybrid seeds.

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