FARMERS in Andhra Pradesh used Bt cotton for the first time for the kharif crop of 2002. This was preceded by a long and controversial campaign by Mahyco-Monsanto, the patent holder of and licensee for this genetically modified cotton variety, to get the State government's acceptance. Following the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's green signal, Andhra Pradesh Agriculture Minister Vadde Sobhandreswara Rao, granted permission for the sale of Bt cotton in the State in July 2002.
Of the 25 lakh acres (10 lakh hectares) under cotton cultivation in Andhra Pradesh, farmers grew Bt cotton on 8,200 acres (3,280 ha) in the districts of Warangal, Nalgonda, Mahaboobnagar, Ranga Reddy and Adilabad, among others. The seeds were sold as a package of 450 gm of Bt cotton seeds and 150 gm of non-Bt cotton seeds, costing Rs.1,650 as against Rs.400 to Rs.450 in the case of the usual hybrid seeds. Of this price, Rs.1,200 is said to be the licence fee for the patent holder, Monsanto. In all, 1,578 packets of two varieties of Bt cotton, under the brand name Bollgard, were sold by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB) India Ltd. in Andhra Pradesh.
The experience of the farmers, as it has emerged from independent studies done by non-government organisations (NGOs) and a State government survey of 3,000 farmers who grew Bt cotton, indicates that Bt cotton has been a failure in terms of reducing pesticide use, increasing the yield, and fetching a higher price. Monsanto officials, however, pointed out that their claims pertained only to the seed's resistance to Bollworm attacks.
While announcing the State government's permission to sell Bt cotton seeds in the State, Vadde Sobhandreswara Rao had cautioned farmers that the company had made no claims about either higher yield or resistance to other pests. But the implied argument of the advocates of Bt cotton was that protection against the Bollworm meant decreased use of pesticides, higher yields and concomitantly increased income.
An eight-day, 11-village study held in Warangal district by the Andhra Pradesh Coalition for Defence of Diversity in November and December last year revealed that Bt cotton farmers would earn Rs.5,000 to Rs.6,000 less per acre than those who grew other cotton varities. While yield at a time from Bt cotton was similar to that from other varieties, the latter had a life of three more months, and thus produced about 30 per cent more cotton per plant. Further, the Bt cotton staple is 100 mm shorter than the staple of other varieties, and would fetch a lower price. Bt cotton also had about double the number of seeds of the normal hybrid varieties. The situation was so bad that reports from cotton traders suggested that many farmers mixed their Bt cotton pickings and other cotton crops to sell their Bt cotton stocks. Even in terms of pesticide use, the survey found that Bt cotton crops required only one or two pesticide sprays fewer, which amounted to a saving of between Rs.400 and Rs. 800 an acre.
Similar reports have emerged from Nalgonda and Mahaboobnagar districts. In Mahboobnagar district, a perennially drought-affected region, a meeting convened by the Telangana Natural Resource Management Group brought out the extensive failure of Bt cotton to meet even its stated objective of reducing pesticide use. Farmers who grew Bt cotton under the direct supervision of the company's representative, found it difficult to recover the cost. In fact, heavy use of pesticides such as avant, cypermethrin, condidor and tracers seems to have defeated the very purpose of Bt cotton here.
Countering these points, Monsanto claimed that yields increased by an average of 30 per cent in the last season in the southern States, including Andhra Pradesh. It also claimed that pesticide use had declined by 65 to 70 per cent and that farmers who grew Bt cotton earned about Rs.7,000 an acre more than others. But the Government of Andhra Pradesh survey, which covered 14 districts, belied the company's claims. Conducted by the Department of Agriculture, the survey stated that not many farmers were inclined to grow Bt cotton this year. Some 2,500 of the farmers surveyed were unsure about growing Bt cotton again, while 335 stated that they would not grow Bt cotton. The survey found that a quarter of the Bt cotton cultivators had reported high incidence of Bollworm attacks, while another 40 per cent said that they still suffered "moderate" attacks from the pest. Interestingly, 1,150 farmers reported that the incidence of "sucking pest" was relatively high in the case of Bt cotton. An overwhelming 78 per cent said Bt cotton yields were low compared with the regular hybrids.
Monsanto claimed an overall success for the technology and blamed improper farming practices, inadequate water supply, and soil and drought conditions for the "few" cases of reported failure of Bt cotton.
It seems that the State government does not want to be seen taking sides in the increasingly shrill controversy. Reacting to the growing reports of failure of Bt cotton, Vadde Sobhanadreswara Rao announced recently in the Legislative Assembly that the government was "exploring all possibilities" to reduce the distress of Bt cotton farmers. He assured the MLAs that if it was proved that farmers had suffered losses owing to Bt cotton they would be compensated.
The State government's hesitation stems from the difficult question of who is to blame for the predicament of the farmers and, therefore, who will pay the compensation. NGOs and farmers' bodies have pointed out that under Section 39(2) of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001, the seed company has to compensate farmers who failed to realise the results according to the claims.
Mahyco-Monsanto argues that its promise related not to a higher yield but to the seed's germination and its genetic purity. Monsanto representatives point out that no "official" complaint has been received by the State government against the company. According to Monsanto, the entire publicity is waged against it by its competitors and pesticide companies.
The Andhra Pradesh government has entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with about 40-odd seed companies operating in the State, including Mahyco-Monsanto, and according to that it is compulsory for them to offer compensation to farmers only in cases of failure of germination and lack of genetic purity of the seeds. This may offer a loophole for the companies to wriggle out of the tight corner they find themselves in.