A saga of failures

Print edition : January 27, 2006

Bt cotton, ripe for picking. - S. SIVA SARAVANAN

THE latest controversy over the pricing of Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh has its roots in the miserable performance of the crop in some parts of the State and the helplessness of the government to make Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (India) Limited to pay compensation to the farmers.

With the government and civil society groups speaking practically in one voice about the failure, supporting their argument with studies, the regulatory body, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, put on hold the renewal of approval for the company's seeds for the year 2005-06.

The crop failed in all the three years after its introduction, at least in parts of some districts such as Warangal, Mahbubnagar, Medak, Adilabad and Kurnool. (Of the three varieties, Bollgard MECH 162 was introduced in the first year followed by MECH 184 and MECH 12 in the subsequent years.) In 2002, the first year, it was a double shock for the growers in the perennially drought-hit Mahbubnagar district. Drought and Bt cotton cut into their earnings.

Ramulu of Mallapur village bought Bt cotton seeds at Rs.1,600 a packet (the cost in 2002), which was about four times costlier than the usual hybrid variety Bunny (Rs.450). Four months later, when it was time to pick the cotton, the yield was just a quintal against the promised 10 to 12 quintals an acre. The company had promised improved production, linking it to better plant protection against bollworm. Ramulu had to spend Rs.4,000 on eight pesticide sprays and Rs.1,200 on fertilizers. He ran into huge losses, like other farmers in the district. But the company dismissed it as an isolated example.

In the second year too, a season-long study by the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity (APCIDD), representing a dozen civil society groups, demonstrated that it failed on all counts compared to non-Bt hybrids. The pesticide use did not reduce appreciably, costs were higher, and the yields barely 2 per cent more. "Two years have passed since Bt cotton was allowed in Andhra Pradesh. It is a matter of concern that our findings are in stark contrast to the hype built around Bt cotton by the company," said P.V. Satheesh, convener of the APCIDD. Thanks to such reports, the company's expectation of raising the crop area from 9,000 acres (3,600 ha) in 2002-03 to one lakh acres (40,000 ha) in 2003-04, selling as many packets (one packet of 450 gm is enough for an acre), proved a dampener. It could sell only 12,000 packets.

The findings of the APCIDD's three-season study released in April 2005 were no different. In a related study, another non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), found that Bt cotton's success was "erratic and uneven". There was higher incidence of pests and diseases requiring more pesticide sprays in Bt cotton fields than in areas where non-pesticide management of cotton was in vogue.

Correspondingly, the population of beneficial insects came down drastically, which could be traced to the release of endotoxins. "It raises a question mark over the pest management paradigm in which Bt cotton was promoted aggressively in the last three years and also safety," said R.V. Ramanjaneyulu of the CSA. Confirming the findings, the State Agriculture Department's Joint Director of Warangal suggested seeking a compensation of Rs.2.5 crores for the losses suffered by the farmers.

On its part, the APCIDD "debunked" Mahyco-Monsanto's claims that Bt cotton returns the socio-economic benefits to the small farmer by reducing the cost of cultivation, cutting down usage of pesticides and improving yields. Drama marked the release of this report, with a Mahyco-Monsanto executive bringing farmers to present to the media "our side of the story, the success of the Bt cotton". They left in a huff after arguments with organisers and mediapersons.

Around April last year, it was time again for the GEAC to consider renewal of the approval for commercial cultivation of Bt Cotton in South India. Armed with these reports, the APCIDD and the CSA wanted the GEAC not to renew the approval. Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister N. Raghuveera Reddy too conceded that there was prima facie evidence to show that MECH-184 Bt cotton seeds sold by the company had failed in Warangal district. He said this was following a study by a team of farm scientists of cotton breeding, entomology and seeds. The company's response was that infestation was not confined to Bt cotton but to all cotton hybrids and that the former was only bollworm-resistant.

The company was not prepared to admit that Bt cotton had indeed failed in some areas. The State was left with no alternative but take on the giant.

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