A lesson from the field

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

A Bt cotton plant at harvest time. Farmers are generally unhappy about the quality of the crop - the length and weight of the staple and the texture of the cotton. -

A Bt cotton plant at harvest time. Farmers are generally unhappy about the quality of the crop - the length and weight of the staple and the texture of the cotton. -

Surveys done by government committees and non-governmental organisations support the claim of farmers in several States that Bt cotton yielded inferior crops and even did not perform well in the matter of resistance to pests.

THE so-called genetic revolution in cotton appears to be coming apart at the seams. Reports are pouring in from different parts of the country of a "failed" or "unsatisfactory" harvest of the first commercial transgenic Bt cotton crop. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture has asked the Centre to re-evaluate the economic viability of Bt cotton. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests has rejected the use of MECH 915 Bt cotton seeds in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB) India Ltd, the sole licensee/patent holder of Bt (short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium used to control Lepidopteran insects because of a toxin it produces) cotton seeds in the country, claimed recently that the "in-built protection" against the bollworm (the major cotton pest) in the Bt cotton seed had reduced pesticide use by 65-70 per cent and, consequently, led to yield gains of 30 per cent and an extra income of Rs.7,000 an acre (Rs.17,500 a hectare) in the southern States.

But the 55,000 farmers who sowed cotton seeds on over 42,000 hectares across the country last year have a different story to tell. Reports of State governments, farmers' organisations, non-government organisations (NGOs) and scientists appear to be giving the lie to MMB's claims. While, understandably, yield gains cannot be expected - Bt is not engineered to produce higher yields and it is only implied - there was no reduction even in pesticide use although it is supposed to be engineered for this. For, according to reports, the resistance to the bollworm was generally poor. This is because Bt cotton is engineered in such a way that the whole plant releases the Bt toxin, and if the plant does not grow well, the toxin is not produced at the level required to kill the bollworm. This is what happened in most parts of the country. Also, the plants can resist only the bollworm and are susceptible to attacks by sucking pests such as aphids, jassids and white mosquitoes, for which pesticides have to be used.

Another important reason for the failure of Bt cotton, sold under the brand name Bollgard, is that farmers in India, predominantly small and marginal landholders operating on less than two hectares, are unable to set aside land for "refugia" (to prevent pests from attacking the Bt cotton plants and thereby developing resistance to it), as recommended by MMB.

Of what was harvested, farmers seem generally unhappy about the quality - texture, length and weight. Much of this is corroborated by studies conducted by the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, as also by independent sources. For instance, following widespread complaints of failure of Bt cotton in Madhya Pradesh early this year, the GEAC (the statutory body set up to approve research in and commercial use of genetically engineered organisms) 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 Joint Director, Agriculture (Oilseeds), S.K. Sangami, 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 the farmers need 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 weight lower. In several villages in Andhra Pradesh, the majority of farmers reported Bt cotton yields of six quintals an acre against 14 quintals an acre from common hybrid varieties. (MMB has said that it will compensate farmers only for failure to germinate and for absence of the genetic purity promised by the company, and not for yield losses.)

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 a Delhi-based agricultural policy think tank, Gene Campaign, reported complete failure of the crop in both the States. The study showed that 60 per cent of the farmers did not recover costs and that most of them incurred a loss of Rs.80 an acre. The input costs for Bt cotton sown on an acre are about Rs.1,000 higher than that for non-Bt cotton. The seed cost per acre is four times that of quality non-Bt varieties. The savings on pesticides is a mere Rs.217 an acre, while the seed cost, including the licence fee for using the patented Bt seeds, is Rs.1,200 higher.

According to the study, in most cases Bt cotton did not resist even the bollworm, and farmers had to spray the same quantity of pesticides for both Bt and non-Bt crops. The study also showed that cotton traders in the two States were not buying Bt cotton; they prefer non-Bt varieties such as Brahma and Banny. Some farmers seem to be mixing Bt cotton with non-Bt varieties to sell off the former.

However, the most shocking fact, according to the Gene Campaign study, is that neither Andhra Pradesh nor Maharashtra has set up the regulatory authority mandated by the 1989 Environmental Protection Act to oversee the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

Similar were the results of a study conducted in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka by the Delhi-based NGO Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. According to the study, not only did the Bt seed not protect the plant from bollworm attacks, but the plant was subject to a 250-300 per cent increase in attacks by non-target pests such as Jassids. Bt plants were also subject to a fungal disease, fusarium. Quite apart from lower yields, the fibre harvested was also very short, fetching 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.

The international experience with Bt cotton has not been exciting either. Studies in the United States showed up the erratic and disappointing performance of Bt cotton. In several places the costs of cultivating Bt cotton are higher than those of non-Bt cotton. Farmers also had to pay a technology fee to use Bt cotton seeds; Monsanto has dragged several farmers to court for using its seeds without paying this fee. In China, studies showed that Bollgard cotton performs satisfactorily only in a favourable production environment, with mulching and irrigation, not typical of the farming systems of developing countries.

The Cry1Ac gene inserted in many Bollgard cotton varieties is most effective against the tobacco budworm (Helicoverpa virescens). But the main pest in the case of cotton is the American Bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), which can develop resistance quickly to Bt unless the plants consistently express the Cry1Ac toxin at levels that will kill the majority of insects. Bt-resistance in bollworm has been reported extensively from all over the world. In 1999, Chinese scientists observed a seven-fold to 10-fold increase in Bt resistance leading to large-scale crop failures.

INDIA is the third largest producer of cotton after China and the U.S., and Monsanto has for long been trying to get into the country. In 1990, it began negotiating a technology transfer arrangement with the government for its Bt cotton package. Talks are supposed to have ended in 1993 after a failure to reach an agreement on the financial terms of the transfer. The same year, negotiations began for the Bt technology transfer arrangement between Monsanto and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd (Mahyco). Three years later, on Central government approval, the first Bt cotton variety (US Cocker-312) was imported into India. This was backcrossed with "elite" Indian varieties to produce locally adapted Bt cotton varieties with the Cry1Ac gene.

In April 1998, Monsanto acquired a 26 per cent stake in Mahyco, which later became the 50:50 joint venture Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech. By the end of the year, MMB received approval from the Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to conduct countrywide field trials on 85 hectares and to produce seeds on 150 hectares. As part of the trial programme, MMB was required to undertake studies on several aspect, including Bt's resistance to pests, its impact on non-target organisms, pollen flow that may affect non-transgenic cotton, and the impact of Bt seeds on the food chain. Most importantly, Bt cotton had to obtain the certification that it did not contain the "terminator gene".

In January 1999, Dr. Vandana Shiva directorof the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi, filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court challenging the "legality" of the field trials approved by the DBT primarily on grounds that it is the GEAC, under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and not the RCGM, under the DBT, that can approve field trials and that no biosafety regulations were followed in the exercise.

But even before the petition was taken up, the DBT, in July 2000, allowed Mahyco to conduct extensive field trials, including seed production at 40 sites in six States, based on the "totally confidential" data from the small trials. The DBT also set up a committee to monitor "independently" and evaluate the large-scale field trials.

On January 5, 2001, a 10-member delegation comprising judges and scientists from the U.S. met Chief Justice of India A.S. Anand and other senior members of the judiciary "to educate them on biotechnology". That June, when MMB approached the GEAC for the commercial release of Bt cotton varieties, it was stalled by the concerted effort of some independent science organisations, NGOs and academics, citing what they described as scientific fraud in the conduct of the tests.

Among the major lacunae pointed out in the MMB field trials were the risk of genetic pollution and contamination through cross-pollination and hybridisation (in the study of the distance Bt pollen could fly, data showed a large variation between two and 15 metres, a 7,500 per cent margin of variation), the impact of Bt toxin on non-target beneficial species (while it was pointed out that the study showed zero impact of Bt toxin on populations of beneficial species, no beneficial species seem to have been involved in the study), and emergence of resistance in the target bollworm species (no study seems to have been done on insect resistance to Bt). In socio-economic terms, Bt cotton did not compare well with other alternatives particularly in the control of such pests as the bollworm (the data submitted did not tally with the claim of increased yields and cost reductions). However, the next day, the GEAC allowed field trials for another year. MMB began trials on 100 hectares in seven States.

In October 2001, MMB discovered commercial cultivation of Bt cotton on over 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) in Gujarat, traced the sale of the seeds to Hyderabad-based Navbharat Seeds Pvt Ltd., and demanded punitive action against the company. MMB discovered that this company had been selling a Bt cotton variant, Navbharat 151, for three years. It had acquired the seeds not by any genetic engineering process but by working in the laboratory on seeds collected from cotton fields. The GEAC first ordered the Gujarat Biotechnology Coordination Committee to burn all illegal plantations but later, on the insistence of the Gujarat government, ordered that the cotton be procured at a suitable price. But before this order could be implemented, the cotton had reached the market and seeds had been sold to numerous farmers and, probably, even re-sown. This incident showed up the limited capacity of the government to prevent the diffusion into the market of illegal Bt seeds with unknown environmental and ecological impact. In November 2001, a case was registered with the Gujarat High Court against Navbharat Seeds for violating the EPA rules. The case is still pending.

In November 2001, the Delhi-based Gene Campaign filed a public interest petition Delhi High Court against the government's alleged negligence in allowing large-scale field trials without appropriate monitoring, regulation or safety precautions. But, on January 23, 2002, DBT Secretary Manju Sharma announced that the latest round of Bt cotton trials were satisfactory, based on the report of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

On March 26, 2002, the Centre put an end to all the controversies by approving for three years the commercialisation of three Bt cotton varieties - MECH-12 Bt, 162 Bt and 184 Bt - subject to certain "conditions". But little did it realise that the controversies would erupt again.

That Bt cotton has failed in India, says Gene Campaign director Suman Sahai, is no surprise as it was developed primarily for cold climes such as the U.S., where pests are few. Also, landholdings in the U.S. are large and the subsidies enormous, raising the farmers' risk-taking capacity. In India, in the small landholdings where cotton is cultivated, it is almost impossible to set aside the 20 per cent "refuge" acreage for non-Bt cotton, as recommended by Monsanto, so that the bollworm can feed on the non-poisonous cotton and remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. In the absence of such "refuge", the bollworm will surely develop resistance to the Bt toxin. And, as there are many kinds of cotton pests in India apart from the bollworm that are often as intense and devastating, pesticide spraying cannot be stopped.

Though all this was proved by the 2002 kharif results, the proponents of Bt cotton are unrelenting. Insisting that some 55,000 farmers benefited from the Bt crop, they blame improper farming practices, inadequate water supply, and soil and drought conditions for the "few" cases of failures reported. They also argue that one crop season is too early to conclude on the efficacy of Bt. They say that "the entire negative publicity against Bt seed companies is given by competitors and pesticide companies".

Terming as rubbish the surveys done by some non-governmental organisations that reveal Bt cotton's poor performance all over the country, MMB director Ranjana Smetacek says: "Farmers' performance in six States has been very good, prompting us to expand our sales this kharif season to seven lakh acres (from 80,000 last season)." However, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture does not seem to be impressed with Smetacek's statement as it is reported to have said that "the risk of reducing biodiversity and other environmental hazards does not make the sowing of Bt cotton a sensible proposition".

While the Centre has done well not to approve the commercialisation of MMB's MECH 915 Bt, a more important responsibility is to put in place all the mandatory institutions and infrastructure for the use of genetically modified crops at various levels of disaggregation, to make all Bt cotton trial data transparent and initiate a public debate on the use of the cotton variety.

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