Claims and controversies

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

A survey commissioned by Mahyco Monsanto states that Bt cotton is a success in India but other studies slam its performance, leaving the farmer confused.

IN recent times no other farm issue has caused as much confusion and controversy in India as that involving Bt cotton. The latest grist to the mill is a survey commissioned by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), till recently the only company approved to sell genetically modified (GM) seeds in India. The survey was aimed at bringing out the "benefits of Bollgard cotton", better known as Bt cotton. MMB's cotton was approved for commercial cultivation in 2002.

Carried out by A.C. Nielsen-ORG-MARG for the 2003-04 crop season, the survey covered more than 3,000 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. According to the survey report, the lint from Bt cotton fetched higher prices - a premium of 8 per cent on an average; the yield of Bt cotton was 30 per cent higher than that of the conventional varieties; it required fewer pesticide sprayings; it raised the farmer's net profit by Rs.3,126 an acre (Rs.7,737 a hectare); and 90 per cent of the farmers who planted Bollgard cotton intended going back to it.

In 2003, several independent surveys and a report of the Andhra Pradesh government had shown that Bt cotton fetched prices that were lower than several non-Bt varieties. After the 2002-03 season, many an independent survey (Frontline, June 6, 2003) had shown that Bt cotton had not done well and, in some cases, fared poorly when compared to non-Bt cotton varieties. No more encouraging were the reports of some State governments to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex regulatory body for genetic crops in the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.

One reason cited by the company for the poor performance of the MMB Bt cotton varieties was that 2002-03 was a drought year and hence not the best season to judge its performance. But in 2003-04 not only was the monsoon good, the pest attacks were also not severe. According to Union government reports, most cotton varieties did well. This shows that Bt cotton's ability to resist pests (thus reducing the need for pesticides) was not really tested this year. But Bt cotton die-hards say that the seed should be judged not as much for its yield as for its ability to resist the bollworm - its core strength.

As Gene Campaign's Suman Sahai, one of the more prominent voices in the GM debate, asks: "Which, then, is the best year to judge Bt cotton's performance? And who is to be believed?" A Gene Campaign survey in 2003 had showed that Bt cotton's performance was poor.

In contrast, Shanthu Shantharam, president, Biologistics International and a former regulator of GM crops in the United States, says he finds the A.C. Nielsen-ORG-MARG survey quite credible. "Notwithstanding the fact that it was paid for by Monsanto, one should not lose sight of the fact that the A.C. Nielsen ORG-MARG cannot put their credibility on the line without doing an honest job."

According to Shanthu Shantharam, last year Andhra Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra were drought-hit, and the bollworm pressure on cotton was very low. Not just Bt cotton, all varieties failed. Only irrigated cotton performed exceedingly well. To say that the Bt cotton technology failed, is, according to him, an exaggeration. The past year had good rain, bollworm infestation was high, and Bt cotton had worked miracles, as intended, he says.

But the Hyderabad-based Andhra Pradesh Coalition In Defence of Diversity (APCIDD) is unimpressed. According to it, its study in some major cotton-growing districts of Andhra Pradesh exposed the "hollow claims of the industry". Claiming that farmers cultivating Bt cotton suffered losses, APCIDD convener P.V. Satheesh said that nothing much had changed except for the hype by Mahyco Monsanto. Warangal district, which has the largest area under Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh, had good rainfall last season. It rained at the right intervals and in the right quantities through the cotton cultivation period. Yet, Bt cotton's performance was not even a fraction of that promised by the industry. On the major claims of reduced pesticide use, lower costs and higher farmer incomes, Bt cotton had failed to deliver for the second consecutive year, he said.

The APCIDD study was conducted by two agricultural scientists, Dr. Abdul Qayum and Dr. Kiran Sakkhari, who tracked 164 farmers daily, from sowing to harvesting, inAdilabad, Warangal and Kurnool districts. In Warangal, the sample size was nearly 10 per cent of allfarmers who had cultivated Bt cotton in the district. Satheesh alleged that the study done by A.C. Neilsen contacted farmers only through questionnaires after the crop period.

The results of the APCIDD study for 2002-2003 had sparked a media outcry over the disaster wrought by Bt cotton. This made the State government institute its own survey, which found that the cost of cultivation of Bt cotton was high and the net returns were too low compared with the non-Bt varieties.

This even prompted the then State Agriculture Minister, Shobhanadrishwara Rao, to make a public statement asking farmers to stay away from Bt cotton. But, inexplicably, within a month or so the government went back on its statement and invited Monsanto to sell Bt cotton seeds from its own outlets.

"The result is that farmers paid 3.5 times more for Bt seeds but suffered a loss of revenue compared to farmers who cultivated non-Bt cotton," alleged Satheesh. Will the government make good this loss? Or, will it ask the industry to compensate the farmers this loss?

But Rajiv Inamdar of A.C. Nielsen-ORG-MARG said in a press release: "For us, it has been an enlightening experience to see, at first hand, the difference that Bollgard has made in the life of India's cotton farmer."

What does the GEAC say about this? According to Down to Earth (May 15, 2004), the regulatory body is tight-lipped and says that it has only preliminary reports from the States. One such report, which Down to Earth quotes, points out that Bt cotton should be grown only in irrigated areas (and not in drought-prone areas) because in the absence of assured irrigation, farmers would find it very difficult to recover the high cost of the Bt cotton seeds.

But given the contradictory picture put out by those in the opposite camps of the Bt cotton controversy, it is time the government came out with a true and fair report on the subject.

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