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2-Plants: Bt cotton "is obviously not a technology meant for the poor, dryland small farmers of India"

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TITLE:  Poor Crop Management Plagues Bt Cotton Experiment In India
SOURCE: Nature Biotechnology 20 (1), p. 1069, by K.S. Jayaraman
DATE:   November 2002

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   "Meanwhile, Mihir Shah, director of the Baba Amte Centre for People's
    Empowerment, and Debashish Banerji of the Samaj Pragati Sahyog
    (Nature and Society Cooperative), based in Madhya Pradesh, say: 'This
    is obviously not a technology meant for the poor, dryland small farmers
    of India.' "

Poor Crop Management Plagues Bt Cotton Experiment In India

Scientists in India are trying to figure out the ramifications of the 
growth of scores of illegal, untested, genetically modified varieties of 
cotton alongside legal varieties. Combined with a bad monsoon and the 
government's failure to educate farmers and regulate effectively, this is 
clouding an objective assessment of the first-year performance of GM cotton 
- a situation that could hinder future progress of the technology in India.

Goskonda Chandra Reddy, who planted Monsanto Mahyco's Bt cotton instead of 
rice, says bollworm attack is much less in the field than in the non-Bt 
variety he planted in the borders as refugia.

Farmers in five Indian states are cultivating Monsanto's (St. Louis, MO) Bt 
cotton on over 100,000 acres after India's Genetic Engineering Approval 
Committee (GEAC) gave the go-ahead in March to three hybrids developed by 
the company (Nat. Biotechnol. 20, 415, 2002). The seeds carry the Bacillus 
thuringiensis (Bt) gene and produce a natural pesticide lethal to the 
bollworm, a scourge of cotton fields worldwide. Farmers have bought Bt 
cottonseed at four times the price of traditional varieties in the hope it 
will bring them better returns.

Both the government and Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech India Ltd. (Mumbai) - the 
joint venture between Monsanto and Maharashtra Hybrid Company that sold the 
seeds - claim the crop is doing well. "The truth is that we have very 
positive feedback on Bollgard (Bt cotton) from farmers in all the cotton-
growing states in the Centre and the South," Ranjana Smetacek, Monsanto's 
spokesperson, told Nature Biotechnology. "The agriculture ministry is 
happy, the evaluation committee is happy, and I can show you excellent 
photos [of the Bt fields] I have received," added Department of 
Biotechnology secretary Manju Sharma.

However, reports from non-government organizations (NGOs) suggest the crop 
is failing. Officials in Andhra Pradesh say that Bt cotton in the state is 
underperforming, and Gujarati newspapers have reported that there has been 
heavy bollworm infestation of Bt cotton, which was also found susceptible 
to leaf-curl virus and root-rot disease, and that in Madhya Pradesh, Bt 
cotton suffered greater damage due to drought than traditional varieties 
grown there.

One of the problems, according to both government sources and NGOs, is that 
local farmers are not meeting the many technical specifications - such as 
for refugia management and planting conditions - for Bt cotton, a 
relatively high-maintenance crop. Cotton farmers with very small land 
holdings, for instance, have found it impossible to set aside land for 
refugia, and only 40% of the total area of cotton is irrigated - which is 
causing problems this year because of a delayed monsoon. Prasantha Kumar 
Ghosh, a former advisor in the Department of Biotechnology, says Bt cotton 
is facing problems this season because of poor rains. "Bt cotton is input 
intensive, and our trials have clearly shown this."

Suman Sahai, convener of Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based NGO, and a visiting 
professor at the University of Heidelberg, blames the government and 
scientific community for failing to educate farmers about dangers of not 
following proper procedure. "We have consistently argued that any new 
technology must be introduced only after farmers and consumers have 
complete information on all its aspects so that they can make an informed 
choice." Sahai says the government has still not placed in the public 
domain data generated by trials of Bt cotton in India. Devinder Sharma, 
anti-GM campaigner and director of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food 
Security (FBFS) in New Delhi, agrees. "The GEAC is solely responsible for 
hastily pushing the untested technology," says Sharma.

To make matters worse, several thousand acres - even in areas such as 
Punjab and Haryana where Bt cotton has yet to be approved - have been sown 
with second and third generations of a Monsanto knockoff known as Navbharat 
151, according to Sahai. Last year, these seeds were covertly sold by the 
Navbharat Seeds Company and planted by Gujarati farmers on over 10,000 
acres (Nat. Biotechnol. 19, 1090, 2001). Illegal Bt seeds (that the 
government failed to destroy) from last year's harvest in Gujarat have been 
flooding the market at one-tenth to one-half the price of legal seeds. 
First-generation seeds do not have the same vigor as the originals, and 
subsequent generations have even worse quality and yield.

The presence of so many varieties of Bt cotton "is making a public mockery 
of India's ability to regulate and direct the use of this new and 
controversial technology," says Sahai. "The government must recognize the 
chaos it has created and take corrective steps."

"The large quantity of untested and unauthorized Bt hybrid seeds are likely 
to cause losses, and farmers are likely to lose faith in Bt cotton, which 
would damage this useful technology," says Arvind Kapur, managing director 
of Numhens Proagro, which is getting ready to seek government approval for 
its GM mustard. However, A.S.N. Reddy, a senior official at Proagro, 
believes there is no need to panic. "In about two years the situation will 
stabilize," he said. "Once farmers realize the fake Bt-cotton varieties 
they use are no good, they will turn to the genuine ones."

Meanwhile, Mihir Shah, director of the Baba Amte Centre for People's 
Empowerment, and Debashish Banerji of the Samaj Pragati Sahyog (Nature and 
Society Cooperative), based in Madhya Pradesh, say: "This is obviously not 
a technology meant for the poor, dryland small farmers of India." Whether 
or not this is true will be determined from a full analysis by the Ministry 
of Agriculture at the end of the year, after the main harvesting season, 
which begins this month.


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