Fatal feed

Print edition : May 04, 2007

Genetically modified cotton figures in a new controversy in Andhra Pradesh as livestock die after grazing on Bt cotton fields.

K. VENKATESHWARLU in Hyderabad

Cattle grazing on residual Bt cotton crop in Talamadugu village, Adilabad district, Andhra Pradesh.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

CONTROVERSY continues to plague Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh. After field trials, crop failures and price wars, Mahyco-Monsanto's genetically modified cotton is at the centre of a row over livestock morbidity. Questions concerning bio-safety arose after high sheep and goat mortality rates were reported over the past two months in Adilabad and Khammam districts, where the animals grazed on Bt cotton fields.

Animal deaths after grazing in Bt cotton fields occurred first in Warangal district in 2005. Despite complaints made by local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to the Department of Animal Husbandry, Ministry of Agriculture, the government took little interest in the issue. After further reports of animal deaths in the district from February to March 2006, a fact-finding team consisting of the Andhra Pradesh Shepherds Union and two NGOs, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) and Anthra, visited three villages of three mandals (taluks) in Warangal district. The team estimated that a total of 1,800 sheep and goats had perished after grazing on Bt cotton residues.

At a conservative estimate of Rs.1,500 an animal, the shepherds' losses amount to Rs.1.80 crore. In drought-hit areas such as Warangal, these hardy animals are often the shepherds' only source of income. About 300 people from various districts protested in Hyderabad against the government's inaction, during the recent budget Assembly session. P. Jamalaiah, president of the Shepherds Union, who led the demonstration, alleged that the livestock deaths were owing to "poisoning from Bt cotton" and castigated the government's indifference.

According to Kavitha Kuruganti, consultant, CSA, the fact-finding investigations began with the post-mortem register notings observed by the Shepherds Union. Eleven sheep and goats from 11 different blocks of the district were brought to the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (ADDL), Warangal. Their case histories revealed that problems had begun after grazing on Bt cotton. After assessments were completed, the reports were sent to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Union Environment Ministry Department of Biotechnology (DBT), and the Animal Husbandry Department of Andhra Pradesh's Ministry of Agriculture, and others.

In January 2007, reports of livestock mortality came in from villages in Parvatagiri and Lingala Ghanpur mandals of Warangal district. In early March this year, reports of another 200 sheep and goat deaths came from Adilabad. Animal Husbandry Department officials admitted for the first time that the dead animals showed "complex, mixed symptoms, which cannot be attributed to any known diseases" and that an "as-yet unidentified toxin in Bt cotton could be the cause". The department issued an advisory in Adilabad district requesting shepherds and farmers not to graze their animals in Bt cotton fields. After a field visit, the CSA dispatched a petition to the GEAC on March 9. Initial reports from the Veterinary Biological Research Institute (VBRI) at the end of March suggest that the deaths could be due to hydrocyanic acid (HCN) and nitrates in Bt cotton.

On March 21, the death of 150 sheep was reported from Geesukonda and Khammam in Warangal. A plethora of representations to the authorities and protest demonstrations followed. This time round Lakshmi Rajam, Additional Director (Health), Animal Husbandry Department, assured the NGOs that she would write to the Ministry of Agriculture requesting the suspension of the sale of Bt cotton seeds until the matter was investigated fully. However, when the issue of livestock deaths was raised by legislators in the State Assembly in March, Animal Husbandry Minister G. Surya Rao said that no such reports had been brought to his attention. This was despite the fact that officials of his department had not only confirmed the deaths but also sent samples for analysis to the VBRI. When the issue was raised in Parliament on August 14, 2006, Union Minister of State for Agriculture Kantilal Bhuria admitted that the Andhra Pradesh government had reported the death of 132 sheep after they grazed in Bt cotton fields in Warangal.

The GEAC's response to the deaths in Warangal was belated. It said that it had debated the issue "at length" and dismissed the CSA's reports as "exaggerated" and "based more on hearsay than scientific facts". It pointed out that Bt cotton had been released for commercial cultivation only after the evaluation of its bio-safety data, including feeding studies. A 90-day animal feeding study conducted at the Industrial Toxicological Research Centre in Lucknow, and feeding studies at G.B. Pant University of Agriculture, Pantnagar, on lactating cows, and on fish at the Avian Research Institute indicated no toxic effect, it said.

The GEAC went on to cite the acute oral toxicity study of Bt protein in mice conducted at the Agriculture Group/Environmental Health Laboratory, United States. The study concludes that there was no treatment-related adverse finding in any of the mice groups that were administered the Cry1Ac (Bt) protein orally at dosages up to 4,200 mg/kg. Further, studies showed that an intake of 4,300 mg Cry1Ac/kg bodyweight had no ill effect on the mice. The GEAC said that assuming a similar upper safety limit for goats, in order to have an intake of 4,300 mg of Cry1Ac/ kg of bodyweight, a goat with a weight of 15 kg would have to eat 24,339 kg of leaf or 50,300 kg of boll rind, which is not feasible.

The GEAC, however, recommended that the DBT sponsor a study to assess the problem in Warangal district with the help of the local veterinary hospital, "so that the allegation made by the NGOs can be brought to [its] logical conclusion". The GEAC agreed that in future leaf toxicity studies needed to be included in bio-safety studies and said they would refer the matter to the State Department of Agriculture for a "factual report".

The statements of Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (India) on the livestock deaths quote extensively from the GEAC report. This has raised concerns in some NGOs that the GEAC and biotech companies are working together without addressing public apprehensions on the safety of Bt cotton.

Many NGOs disagree with the GEAC and the company's observations. They point out that it was unfortunate that the GEAC investigated only Cry1Ac and its toxicity, while the fact-finding team of the CSA reported the apparent toxicity of the Bt cotton plant and not just the Bt protein.

"It is not as though the regulators do not know the difference. They behaved as though their business was only to discount such reports as exaggerated rather than immediately get such reports investigated," said Kavitha Kuruganti. "We do not say that the Cry1Ac gene is directly responsible for the [livestock] deaths but no studies have been done so far to see what biochemical changes have happened in the plant through the genetic engineering process per se, which is causing nitrogen compounds to build up in the plants. This is revealed by the VBRI's preliminary analysis reports of hydrocyanic acid, nitrate and nitrite accumulation," she added.

Supporters of Bt cotton technology accuse the NGOs of "scare-mongering" by linking livestock mortality to consumption of Bt cotton, and cite how the GEAC has overturned their claims. They argue that cotton itself was toxic to sheep and goats and that cotton forage cannot be fed to animals because of the toxic component gossypol present in it.

The NGOs brush them aside. If that were the case, they ask, why were deaths not occurring when these animals were feeding on normal cotton? They cite a study by the Veterinary College of the Acharya N.G. Ranga Agriculture University that showed that gossypol was present only in cotton pods and that its consumption was not fatal. They wonder why no studies have been taken up by seed companies or the DBT on green foliar material and open grazing on Bt cotton fields to simulate real-life situations. Toxicity studies are conducted in controlled laboratory conditions, with controlled diets, using Bt cotton seeds. No data from these studies are available in the public domain.

The tendency of some biotechnical companies has been to deny reports of livestock deaths or blame them on pesticide residues. If pesticide residues are to blame, two further questions arise. The first is whether such toxic chemicals should be used at all. The second is whether it is worth using a cotton seed that has been genetically modified to avoid the need for such toxic chemicals, if pesticides are in fact required to produce a good crop.

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