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2-Plants: A scientific fairytale on Bt cotton

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-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  Presenting the Real Picture
        Sub: A scientific fairytale on Bt cotton
SOURCE: The AgBioIndia Bulletin, India, by Devinder Sharma
DATE:   Feb 14, 2003

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Presenting the Real Picture
Sub: A scientific fairytale on Bt cotton

For the biotechnology industry, painting a successful picture of the
introduction of the first genetically modified crop in India - Bt cotton
- has tremendous significance. After all, unlike China, India is a
democracy and public acceptance of a faulty technology will surely add to
the profile of an industry faced with a credibility crisis. This
monumental task can only be accomplished with the help of scientists and

News reports appearing on the basis of a paper that the Science journal
published in its edition of Feb 7, 2003, claiming an increase of 70 to 80
per cent in the yields of cotton in India, appeared all over the world.
Strange that the international media, which does not find anything
newsworthy when the Indian Prime Minister visits the United States,
gloats over a study that talks of cotton of all the things. Well, you
guessed it right. The issue here is not what happens to cotton farmers in
India but the media's renewed interest in promoting the commercial
interest of the biotechnology industry.

"Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries"
(Science, Feb 7, 2003, Vol. 299) a paper jointly written by Matin Qaim of
the University of California, Berkeley, USA and David Zilberman of the
University of Bonn, Germany, is the latest in the series. We will perhaps
have many more such papers being doled out by dozen, all thanking the
seed company Mahyco (clearly avoiding to mention its partner - Monsanto)
for its research support. Nevertheless, what is interesting is that the
paper begins with the wrong premise that Bt cotton increases crop yields.


A Scientific Fairytale Providing a Cover-Up to the Bt Cotton Fiasco in India

By Devinder Sharma

In the mid 1980s, a World Bank team was travelling through parts of the
frontline agricultural State of Haryana in northwest India, assessing the
impact of its 'dream' project - Training and Visit (T&V) System - of farm
extension. That was the time when 'T&V' was the buzzword and the World
Bank had doled out millions of dollars to promote the new farm technology
dissemination system to take the latest technology from the agricultural
laboratories to the land.

My newspaper, the Indian Express, amongst the largest selling dailies in
India, deputed me to accompany the team. As the Agriculture Correspondent
of the newspaper, I was obviously very keen to follow the outcome of the
famed programme. The team travelled through some of the dry and semi-arid
regions of the State, and was accompanied by the project director of the
'T&V' System along with his supporting staff.

At most places, farmers were collected to enable the World Bank team to
interact with them. The Bank's team would ask the same question - whether
the programme had benefited them - to farmers wherever they went. And I
remember vividly that at most places the farmers would say that the
programme hasn't made any difference to their lives. But what they said
was in Hindi, and the project staff translating it for the benefit of the
Bank's team would invariably turn it around saying: "Sir, he says that
the programme has changed his life for the better."

No wonder, the World Bank gave a favourable report. It is however another
matter that the 'T&V' System now is all but forgotten.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex body
responsible for granting commercial approval to genetically modified
crops, too had conducted a similar survey to assess the impact of the
transgenic crop in its very first year of planting. A team comprising
four experts, who were either part of the government's approval process
or represented the State of Andhra Pradesh had toured Nalgonda,
Karimnagar and Warangal districts. The team members, all wearing
'bollgard' caps and accompanied by company officials from Mahyco-
Monsanto, actually saw the standing crop in ten acres (out of the 9,300
acres sown with Bt cotton) and submitted their 'favourable ' report, as

Another team comprising representatives from three NGOs -- Centre for
Resource Education, Sarvadaya Youth Organisation and Greenpeace India,
trailed the expert team. They interviewed the same farmers who were
earlier visited by the expert team, and their testimony before the video
camera exposes the rot in scientific assessment and analysis. No wonder,
the Minister for Environment and Forests, Mr T.R.Baalu, whose son has
defaulted the nationalised banks to the tune of Rs 240 million, was quick
to make a statement in Parliament on December 16, 2002, stating that
'studies conducted by an expert team from his ministry has shown
"satisfactory performance" of Bt Cotton in the first year of its planting.'

Times haven't changed, isn't it?

For someone who still believes in 'good science' despite global efforts
being made to replace it with the industrial prescription of 'sound
science' , Matin Qaim and David Zilberman's paper in the American journal
Science actually ends up doing a great disservice to good science. The
title of the paper -- Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in
Developing Countries -- itself is deceptive. The authors have merely
tried to look into the yield performance of Bt cotton, which in no way is
representative of the entire range of genetically altered crops. But we
can't blame the authors for a faulty and misrepresentative title. This is
the prerogative of the editors.

It also makes a tactical error in treating savings in crop losses as
yield increase. Interestingly, the Indian Council of Agricultural
Research (ICAR) - the umbrella organisation governing the world's second
biggest agricultural research infrastructure in India - had earlier
objected to Mahyco-Monsanto's repeated claims that Bt cotton increases
yields. Bt cotton for all practical purposes acts like a pesticide and
pesticides do not increase yields. They merely reduce crop losses. But
then, for an industry under tremendous pressure for public acceptance of
its risky technology, playing the yield card was a simple way to hoodwink
the masses. In fact, the reality is that none of the genetically modified
crops have broken the yield barrier that was established by the high-
yielding varieties, which ushered in the famed green revolution.

It is true that the potential of GM crops in developing countries is
limited without a substantial yield effect, especially in regions with
strong population growth. After all, despite the hype that economists
like Per Pinstrup-Andersen have created about the Bt cotton success, the
fact remains that there is a negligible increase in yield differences vis
a vis the non-Bt cotton hybrids in China. Showing a quantum jump in
'yield' (not in reducing the crop losses) was therefore what Mahyco-
Monsanto wanted to establish for India. And it is here that the authors
fell in a well laid out trap. The data that Mahyco-Monsanto supplied for
this paper (and which has been acknowledged by the authors) is based on
field trials carried out by the company on 395 farms in seven states. The
authors say "in addition to regular trial records, more comprehensive
information was collected for 157 farms on agronomic aspects and farm and
household characteristics." They conclude that a cross check of summary
statistics showed that these 157 sites are fairly representative of the
total 395 trial locations.

The media gloated over the research findings. The international media,
which was worried at recent news reports of Bt cotton failure coming from
various parts of the country, actually mistook this 'research' to be for
the year 2002. News reports give an impression as if the study is for the
crop season that has just ended. In reality, the analysis is based on the
data that Mahyco-Monsanto had collected in the final year of field-
testing in the year 2001, a year before the crop was commercialised. This
was the data that the company had presented before the GEAC. This was the
data that still remains hidden from the public gaze in India. And this is
the data, which has no relevance to the crop harvest in 2002-03.

Matin Qaim and David Zilberman would have done a yeomen service to the
biotechnology industry if they had also incorporated the results of the
field trials conducted a year earlier in 2000. That was the year when Bt
cotton crop was sown two months late and still the company claimed that
it gave a yield advantage of 50 per cent. This was essentially because
the bollworm attack is the heaviest in the first two months of crop
sowing and by sowing late the crop had escaped the insect attack. When
asked that why wasn't the government advising the farmers to sow the crop
two months late if the yields can go up so dramatically, the GEAC had
remained silent. The fact remains that such a claim was completely
incorrect and cannot be substantiated in repeat trials. In any case, the
outcome of the research trials was certainly known given the fact that
the company had paid all expenses for the field trials.

The trials were conducted in plots not exceeding 25x25 metres. The output
data was extrapolated to one hectare. And prior to this, the trials were
conducted in still smaller size plots of 10x10 meters. It is
understandable that you can count the number of plants and then multiply
to arrive at the harvest the farmer will reap from one hectare. This is
the way agricultural scientists work out the potential yield of crop
plants. And this is the reason why the potential yield is so unrealistic.
In case of rice and wheat, the potential of high-yielding varieties has
been estimated at eight to nine tonnes a hectare. What the progressive
farmers harvest on an average is not more than five to six tonnes. The
gap in yield is blamed on the farmers' inability to manage the farm. What
the scientists refuse to divulge is that the small plot size is not the
scientific way to ascertain yields. Punjab farmers, for instance, say
that they can work out a miracle yield in a plot of 25x25 metres but that
does not mean it can be replicated over 10 hectares.

Bt cotton trials and the entire process of monitoring, evaluation and
approval has remained shrouded in mystery. The data has been kept
classified as if it is country's nuclear deterrent ability that is not to
be disclosed.

Let us now look at the pest and the pesticides equation. The authors say
"under Indian conditions, bollworm have a high destructive capacity that
is not well controlled in conventional cotton." This is a strange
observation. The authors should tell us in which country they find the
bollworms to be less destructive? Is the insect less destructive in
America, China or Australia where Bt cotton is being cultivated on a
large scale? In any case, American bollworm is a polyphagus insect and
feeds on over 90 crops and has a life cycle, which sustains on numerous
crops. The insect is perhaps the world's most destructive pest. Behind
the references quoted to establish the point that the insect pest damage
is substantially lower in China, remains hidden the dubious fact that
pesticides use and abuse has created a much bigger crisis on the farm
front in China on account of exposure and the resulting health impact. In
the early 1990s, China Daily had reported that in one year alone, over
10,000 f

Indian farmers are often indebted and credit constrained and do not have
access to chemicals at the right point in time. True, but if the growing
indebtedness and credit constraint were the factors there seems to be no
justification for pricing the genetically modified seed so high. On an
average, the cotton grower spends between Rs 2,500 to Rs 4000 on
pesticides sprays depending upon the region and the intensity of insect
attack. Mahyco-Monsanto had provided 450 grams of Bt seed (along with 100
grams of non-Bt seed for refuge plantings) priced at Rs 1600. Farmers
normally use one kilo of seed per acre and that means the actual seed
cost comes to Rs 3,500. The high seed cost outweighs the advantage from
less pesticide sprays that the authors have talked about. Numerous
studies have exposed the miscalculation done by the ICAR and the
Department of Biotechnology, which had earlier worked out a profit of Rs
10,000 from a hectare. The profit calculations have gone awry in the very
first year of planting, with Bt cotton farmers protesting at numerous
places in central and south India.

Pesticides are not the only external input that is important for cotton.
Water consumption is another issue, which is being deliberately ignored
in the debate on Bt cotton's economics. Cotton hybrids require more water
than the traditional varieties but what is little known is that the water
requirement for Bt cotton is much higher than the non-Bt hybrids.

While the Bt cotton fraud is all too apparent, let us take a look at
another crisis in the making. The GEAC had only approved Bt cotton
hybrids for the central and southern states. For Punjab, Haryana and
Rajasthan in northwest, which together have a third of the country's
cotton area under cultivation, field trials have been held in the
previous crop season. Interestingly, ICAR had asked for three years of
research trials before any recommendation can be made. But the
Agriculture Minister, Mr Ajit Singh, was so keen that he directed ICAR to
forgo the scientific regulations and increase the number of trials so
that the approval can be granted on the basis of just one year's data.
The ICAR accepted the directive and the field trial data has just been
compiled. A year earlier, some adaptive research trials were also
conducted, which came in handy to justify the final outcome.

The Punjab Agricultural University conducted field trials in 2002 using
Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt hybrids - Mech 12, Mech 162 and Mech 9. In addition,
field trials were also performed using Bt cotton varieties (produced by
Rasi Seeds) Rch 132 and Rch 138. It is reliably learnt that the best
results have been given by the local non-Bt cotton with yield levels of
24 quintals per hectare. Mahyco's Mech 915 yielded 21 quintals per
hectare. Rasi's Bt chbrids were higher yielding than Mahyco's. Also, what
has been observed is that Bt cotton has less fibre length as a result of
which the market is not very excited. Farmers are therefore getting low
price, an estimated Rs 300-400 less on every quintal (100 kilos). In
addition, boll shedding is more in Bt hybrids and the insect resistance
remains for about 90 days after which the total pest attack multiplies.

And yet, it is an open secret that PAU will be recommending to the GEAC
the Bt cotton varieties for approval. The ultimate green signal has to
come from the GEAC.

Meanwhile, it is astonishing that no agricultural scientist and
economists is excited about the results achieved by some cotton growers
in the thick of the cotton belt in Mansa in Punjab. Some farmers, visibly
disgusted with excessive use of chemicals, decided to go organic. This
year they have harvested cotton to the tune of 28 quintals per hectare
and that too without applying pesticides and fertiliser. No economist
will like to analyse the economics and sustainability of the Mansa cotton
experiment. The ICAR and the department of biotechnology are also not
very enthused with the results. Agricultural scientists must keep their
eyes closed, after all resource-starved PAU is looking for joint
collaboration with Mahyco-Monsanto. It is the farmer who must continue to
pay the actual cost of all these unwanted experimentation, more often
than not taking the fatal route to escape the growing indebtedness from
cotton failure over the years. #

(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst.
Responses can be emailed at )


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