Bt cotton, again

Print edition : May 21, 2004

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee approves a fourth Bt cotton variety for commercial cultivation even as crops raised earlier using other varieties have been disappointing.

THE Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India's regulatory authority for transgenic products, has approved yet another transgenic Bt cotton, RCH 2, for commercial cultivation in the central and southern parts of the country.

A Bt cotton crop.-

Developed by Rassi Seeds, a sub-licensee of the American multinational Monsanto, RCH 2 is the fourth Bt cotton seed variety to be released for commercial cultivation. The varieties Bt Mech 12, Bt Mech 162 and Bt Mech 184, all developed by Monsanto in collaboration with the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), its Indian partner, were approved by the GEAC in March 2002.

Said GEAC Chairperson Bina Chotray: "We have given conditional approval for the commercial cultivation of the Bt cotton seed RCH 2 in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for three years. As in the case of the other three varieties of Bt cotton approved earlier, the performance of RCH 2 will be reviewed within three years for further any extension of the approval."

On April 22, the GEAC, which functions under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, approved large-scale field trials and production of seeds of 12 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids developed by Raasi Seeds, Ankur Seeds, (another sub-licensee of Monsanto, and Mahyco). These Bt cotton hybrids contain the Bt cry 1 ac gene developed by Monsanto.

Raasi Seeds has been allowed to conduct trials of RCH 118 Bt and RCH 559 Bt in Central India, RCH 368 Bt in South India and RCH 317 Bt in North India. Ankur Seeds has been allowed to conduct trials of Ankur 651 Bt and Ankur 2534 Bt in North India and Ankur 651 Bt and Ankur 09 Bt in Central India. Mahyco has been given the go-ahead for trials of MRC 6301 Bt and MRC 6160 Bt in Central India and MRC 6301 Bt and MRC 6322 Bt in South India.

The three Bt cotton varieties approved in March 2002 are grown in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. But in the first year of commercial cultivation, 2002-03, reports from different parts of the country indicated a "failed" or "unsatisfactory" harvest of the first round of commercial transgenic Bt cotton crop. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture asked the Centre to re-evaluate the economic viability of Bt cotton. Meanwhile, the GEAC rejected the use of the Mech 915 Bt cotton seed in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

The 55,000 farmers who sowed cotton seed on over 42,000 hectares across the country last year were an unhappy lot. This was corroborated by studies conducted by the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, as also by independent agencies. Following widespread complaints of failure of Bt cotton in Madhya Pradesh early last year, the GEAC commissioned a seven-member team of scientists to evaluate the performance of the crop. The study showed that Bt cotton failed in Madhya Pradesh "due to wilting and large-scale drying of the crop at the peak bolling stage, accompanied by leaf-dropping and shedding, as also forced bursting of immaculate bolls". According to the study, non-Bt plants performed much better.

A six-member panel set up by the Gujarat government under S.K. Sangami Joint Director, Agriculture (Oilseeds), to evaluate the performance of Bt cotton in the State said that "it is unfit for cultivation and should be banned in the State".

The Andhra Pradesh government set up a team under Dr. Abdul Qayoom, former Joint Director of Agriculture, to evaluate the performance of Bt cotton after Agriculture Minister Vadde Sobhandreswara Rao announced in the Assembly that "the overall information is that farmers have not experienced positive and encouraging results" and hence they had to be compensated. The study showed that "Bt cotton has totally failed" as crop yields were lower than those in the case of non-Bt cotton, besides the staple being shorter and of lower weight. In several villages in Andhra Pradesh, the majority of farmers reported Bt cotton yields of 15 quintals a hectare against 35 quintals a hectare of common hybrid varieties. (The company has said that it will compensate farmers only for the failure of the seeds to germinate and for the absence of the genetic purity promised, and not for yield losses.)

Transgenic Bollgard cotton seeds, which are easy to identify thanks to their blue colour.-GAMMA

In Karnataka, studies by Greenpeace India showed that not only were Bt yields lower than yields in the case of other hybrid varieties, but input costs were much higher and crop quality quite poor.

A Bt cotton evaluation study carried out in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh by Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based agricultural policy think tank, reported complete failure of the crop in both the States. The study showed that 60 per cent of the farmers did not recover costs.

A study conducted in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), yielded similar results.

According to the study, not only did the Bt seed not protect the plant from bollworm attack, but the plant was subject to a 250-300 per cent increase in attacks by non-target pests such as Jassids. Bt plants also fell prey to a fungal disease, fusarium. Apart from low yield, the fibre harvested was very short and fetched poor prices. Compared to non-Bt varieties, Bt seeds are more expensive and the Bt crop needs more fertilizers and water. The study concluded that Bt cotton was not suited for Indian conditions.

Despite the abysmal record of Bt cotton last year, the Union government has gone ahead and approved the commercial cultivation of the fourth Bt cotton variety, RCH 2.

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