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2-Plants: Bt cotton in India - One swallow does not make the summer

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TITLE:  One swallow does not make the summer
SOURCE: Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, India
        by Kameswara Rao C
DATE:   Feb 24, 2003

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One swallow does not make the summer

Abstract: One swallow does not make the summer Since the summer of 2001,
India farmers in some federal states are permitted to commercially
cultivate Bt cotton. Initial experiences and statistics are now available
and used by experts of different couleur to support their personal view.
Representatives from NGOs state that Bt cotton reduces yield and income
of Indian farmers, whereas some scientists use the data to prove their
view that transgenic plants have a huge potential for developing
countries in general. In contrast to those black and white views, Dr. C.
Kameswara Rao admonishes in his article "One swallow does not make the
summer" against an over-interpretation of the data and tries to bring
proponents as well as opponents of genetic engineering back to earth by
using a sophisticated argumentation. His article is characterized by a
well balanced view backed by many cross references to further articles
and opinions and thereby offers a good overview about the ongoing
discussion about Bt cotton in India. Additionally, this articles benefits
from the author's experiences gained by visiting Indian cotton farmers

A large number of people in India are praying for the success of Bt
cotton, not necessarily out of love for this crop, but because the
failure of Bt cotton will close the doors for other GE crops. We would
like the path of Golden Rice into India to be smoother than it has been
for Bt cotton and GE Mustard. We all would be very happy if rational,
convincing and non-provocative articles that explain the merits of GE
technology, and the risks based on scientific data, appear in different
contexts. Unfortunately, some of the articles that have come up in recent
times have done much damage to prospects of GE crops in India and
elsewhere. Since the case in point is Bt cotton, I confine my response to
this crop.

Matin Qaim and David Zilberman in Science (1,2)

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), Government of India,
have given approval for commercial cultivation of Bt cotton for three
years. The prospects of the Bt cotton crop for this first year have been
largely affected by drought in many parts of India and the yields are not
what were expected to be. In addition to drought, we also have the
problem of clandestine or adulterated or spurious Bt cotton, in some
parts of India. We did nothing to stem this menace. Farmers are still
picking cotton in the irrigated fields. A number of NGOs are anxiously
picking up anything and everything to show Bt cotton in bad light.

It is only fair to wait till the end of the three-year period to declare
Bt cotton as a success or failure. In the meanwhile, it is certainly
reasonable to assess the prospects, in a non-judgemental way, using the
commercial results and certainly not field trial data, which have served
their purpose in gaining the approval of the GEAC. If we wait till the
end of the three-year period, the farmers themselves will come out with
their assessment of the benefits of Bt cotton. If the farmer is not
convinced, no amount of effort through articles in Science and Nature or
the whole world body of crop biotechnologists and governments can make
the farmer adopt this technology.

As per the unpublished data of Mahyco (Ref. 16 in the science paper),
over the four-year period from 1998 to 2001, Bt cotton varieties showed
an average yield advantage of 60 per cent. How then, 80 per cent (which
Ms Ranjana Smetacek puts as the upper end of the spectrum than an
average) or higher yield advantage is realisable?

Three different varieties of Bt cotton, MECH 9, MECH 12 and MECH 162,
were approved for cultivation in different parts of the country. Table 1
in the paper in Science seems to represent averaged data for all the Bt
cotton varieties. We need to know the difference in the performance of
the three Bt varieties and their isogenic counterparts, although each is
meant for a different region in the country. Why did not the authors pool
up all the four years' trial data, but chose only that of 2001?

The yield of the popular check variety is lower than that of the isogenic
non-Bt variety (Table 1). Different varieties of non-Mahyco cotton are
popular in different states. It is too unrealistic to pool all data and
declare that Mahyco's Bt variety is the King and its isogenic non-Bt
variety is the Prince in Waiting. An inescapable impression is that the
'popular' check varieties that are poorer than the isogenic non-Bt
varieties were chosen for comparison. I am not sure of other Mahyco
varieties of cotton, but in my experience MECH 162 is distinctly poorer
than two locally grown varieties Brahma and that of Indo-American Hybrid
Seeds, which I have seen in the Ranibennur area of the Karnataka State.
There are much better varieties of cotton in other countries.

The authors of the Science paper wrote, "we maintain that the limited
experience with GM crops so far is insufficient to make broad
generalisations about their impacts" (p 900). The Indian experience is
insignificant compared to the global experience with GE crops. It is
difficult to understand how the miniscule of the Indian field trial data
dramatically change the situation to justify generalisations for all the
developing counties and for all the GE crops.

The authors thanked Mahyco for making the field trial records available
(Reference 30). In his response (3) to Drs Shantharam and Prakash (4)
letter, Dr Qaim wrote "We have used the company field-trial records about
pest infestation levels, such as larval counts per plant. ...... These were
collected during weekly trial visits by local company agronomists, and we
received the complete bundle of handwritten field records, not just
aggregated summary statistics". A number of people/agencies requested the
GEAC to make such trial data public and to place all relevant data on the
website of the Ministry or Mahyco/Monsanto. Dr Richard Roush also
supports (5) this view. By demanding this, Dr Shantharam and I are not
joining the green bandwagon, but are only trying to make the regulatory
process in India transparent and convincing, in order to gain public

We do not blame Monsanto for not making the data public as the data were
generated by and were in possession of Mahyco. So far as I know, Mahyco's
response was a deafening silence. The Chairman of the GEAC maintained
that the data are confidential. At the time of GE mustard issue, he said
that field trial data (for all GE crops in India) would be made public
only if all the members of the GEAC agree, probably knowing fully well
that the GEAC meetings would neither be in full attendance nor unanimous
in decision making. I am surprised, even offended, that data considered
confidential for Indian workers were so freely available elsewhere.

Dr Qaim wrote in his response to Drs Shantharam and Prakash, that the
analysis of the authors is completely independent from that of Mahyco or
Monsanto. What did Mahyco's analysis show? Convincing data weaken the
anti-GE lobby. If Mahyco is confident, why the fear in making the data
public, when it was asked for? Since the technology came from the west,
should the data also follow the same route?

Dr Qaim wrote that "when pest-related yield losses are 50% of the genetic
yield potential, and suddenly you would be able to control this pest
damage, then- taking the actually achieved yield as the reference- the
yield increase would be 100%". Yes, this is theoretically possible only
if the bollworm is the sole pest and it is controlled 100 per cent by the
GE cotton variety. Dr Qaim's statement also means that the difference in
the levels of yield realisation will fall year after year, with shifting
base level, in relation to reduced pest pressure resulting from the
continued use of the GE variety.

A number of early data at different stages on GE crops have shown that
there would always be a short fall, up to a third, between the yield
values of small-field trials and realisation in the much larger
commercial cultivation. Even if the field trial data show 80 per cent
yield gain, this cannot not be fully realised, particularly when there
are other pests to contend with. Dr Devinder Sharma expressed similarly
with reference to non-GE rice.

The statement that "The yield gains are largely due to the Bt gene
itself" is unacceptable, since this gene has nothing to do with yield.
Heterosis was never known to be the function of a single gene.
Considering the basis and type of data used, the opinion of the authors
that the results on cotton "are easily transferable to food crops since
the type of pest damage they would sustain would be the same" is a little

I feel that the authors have over-reached at a time when the Editors of
Science misplaced their scissors. The net result is panic among
biotechnologists, for the harm the premature pronouncements would cause
to the introduction of GE technology into the developing countries.
Nevertheless, Dr Qaim's statement that, "our Science paper is not a
substitute for a careful analysis of broader Bt cotton impacts in India
in commercial agriculture", is a saving grace.

Ms T. V. Padma, Asia Times, February 19, 2003

When very few in India, even among the scientists, access Science, Ms
Padma reports (6) of the 'civil society groups' being taken aback by the
article in Science, 'at a time when ground realities speak of massive
failures (of Bt cotton)'. So far as the 2002-03 cotton season is
concerned, there is a failure of the cotton crop in general, but is it
really massive failure of Bt cotton? Even if true, did any one analyse
the causes and in the first place what was the source of the seed, and
what were the cultural practices?

I wonder what would be the response of Ms Padma to the yield and economic
data and the opinion of several agricultural experts, posted by Ms
Ranjana Smetacek on

View, which are diametrically opposite of what Ms Padma recorded. I do
not know if Ms Padma had ever visited a Bt cotton field, but in my field
experience (7) Bt cotton is doing fine and is very promising, not
withstanding the hue and cry of the so called civil society groups to the
contrary. I have full faith that Bt cotton will prove beneficial in the
long run, irrespective of the current hiccups. Ms Padma and Dr Devinder
Sharma are right in distinguishing between virtual increase in yield due
to the genetic potential of a crop variety and the realisation of
increased yield due to protection from loss. Journalists, bureaucrats and
Dr Vandana Shiva know every thing under the sun, but even they should,
once in a while, learn of some scientific facts and ground realities
before writing articles, taking decisions or pronouncing verdicts.

One should understand that Bt cotton technology is meant to control only
the bollworms, which cause the maximum damage to the commercial product
that is cotton. As an additional precautionary measure, one to three
pesticide sprayings are recommended, even on Bt cotton. There are other
pests, particularly sucking pests, occurring on Bt plants, to contend
with. These require adequate pesticide application for control. On the
whole, the amount of pesticide application is drastically reduced,
resulting in a substantial reduction in financial inputs. This also
results in reduced chemical pollution of the soil, reduced health risk to
the farm labour and reduced exposure of the non-target insect populations
to lethal chemicals.

If Bt cotton succumbed to pests as claimed by Ms Padma, Dr Devinder
Sharma and Dr Vandana Shiva, which are the pests responsible for it and
what kind and quantity of pesticides were sprayed and at what stage? If
the farmer thought that Bt cotton variety does not need any pesticide
spraying at all, it is the failure of agencies that are expected to guide
the farmer and not that of Bt cotton. Was there adequate amount of water?

Virtual increase in yield, susceptibility or tolerance/resistance to
drought, or fungal diseases has nothing to do with Bt technology. It is
absurd to suggest that Bt gene induces susceptibility to drought and
fungal diseases. The GEAC has noted that Bt technology is only a part of
Integrated Pest Management for cotton, and we should not look much beyond
this position.

The GEAC recommended 20 per cent or five rows of non-Bt cotton as a
refuge. The purpose of the refuge (or refugium or border) is to delay the
rate at which the bollworm develops resistance to the Bt protein. The
second purpose is to serve as a pollen sink, reducing the reach of cotton
pollen, thus curtailing chances of gene flow to the other non-Bt cotton
plants. Cotton plant has only one non-native wild relative in India,
Gossypium stocksii, which grows in the northern part of Gujarat, where
cotton is not cultivated. There is no chance of Bt cotton inter-crossing
with its wild relative. It is a biological absurdity to suggest that Bt
cotton will inter-cross with any and every species growing in the vicinity.

The inferior quality of the varieties used to develop Bt varieties is
certainly a debatable issue. There are several non-Bt varieties showing
higher yields than the Bt isogenics. But weakness of the plant or stalk
breaking is not due to Bt genes. Unfavourable market forces and higher
cultivation costs, incurred out of ignorance or panic, cannot be the
burden of Bt technology.

Dr Devinder Sharma, AgBioIndia, February 14, 2003 (8)

Dr Devinder Sharma would not miss, for anything in this world, the broad
side provided by Qaim and Zilberman. The World Bank Team Dr Sharma
mentioned have actually visited India but the author pair did not.

I do not agree with Dr Sharma in that the field trial data become suspect
simply because they were provided by the product generators. Even if the
Government of India had instituted a mechanism for evaluating field trial
data, the people involved would be suspected of collusion, by one side or
the other. We need to trust some one somewhere. But if it is implied that
only Greenpeace, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology,
Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security and Gene Campaign are the only
one to be trusted in this country, it is absurd. I am grateful to these
bodies, for their verbal and written pronouncements, that tell us what
they think of science and technology. Otherwise, mischief will spread
silently, like water under the mat.

With the World Bank Team Dr Sharma mentioned, there was a language
problem. In the absence of such a difficulty, if the same farmers gave
two different and opposing versions on the performance of Bt cotton to
the scientific team and the NGOs, it is the farmers to be blamed and not
Bt technology or the companies that are behind it. Such farmers can plant
non-Bt cotton and say that it is Bt cotton that has ruined them or they
can plant Bt cotton and say that it is non-Bt cotton that has fared
better than the Bt cotton in the neighbouring field. And money makes many
things. I am beginning to feel that such things are happening or even
made to happen. In such a situation, even Dr Fred Perlak would not know
the difference between Bt and non-Bt plants. Obviously, many of us are
not honest.

The reason for not including the field trial data of the year 2000 by
Qaim and Zilberman is obvious, incorrect correct cropping practice. It is
not the responsibility of the authors, if some one did not read the paper
properly and mistook field trial data for actual commercial data of 2002-
2003. Dr Sharma's contention that cotton hybrids require more water than
pure lines and that Bt cotton is thirstier than all is strange and
requires rigorous scientific confirmation. Dr Sharma made a very serious
charge that the ICAR has jumped regulations to 'complete' field trials
for Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and only the ICAR and the GEAC can
answer this. If Bt cotton varieties of both Mahyco and Rasi Seeds are
under trial in the three northern states, it is certainly welcome and
this should be extended to the southern states as well. May the best
variety gain the confidence of the farmers and the public. It is
unbelievable that cotton farmers in Manasa, Punjab, have achieved very
high yields by organic farming, without fertilisers and pesticides! They
would probably gain much more by growing Bt varieties organically. What
is the logic behind considering that organic farming and GE technology
are mutually incompatible?

My points
1. Farmers should be educated on how to grow cotton on scientific lines.
Cotton is being grown on soils that are patently unsuitable. Irrigation
will certainly give a better crop. The cotton field on a Mahyco farm near
Ranibennur was a pleasant sight. If farmers were educated to grow cotton
on such scientific lines, the yields would be much higher. In fact the
difference in the culture practices of scientific farming and farmer
farming is responsible for the disparities in yield data between the two.

2. Supervision after the sale of the Bt cottonseed is grossly inadequate.
The regulation on refuge was not strictly followed. I have seen only
three rows of refuge in some fields and in one case no refuge at all.
When questioned, the smiling farmer said that all the cotton fields
surrounding his Bt cotton are non-Bt and so they serve as the refuge!

3. The Indian Regulatory process requires formation of State Level and
District Level bodies, without which growing GE crops becomes illegal.
How many states have formed these boards and how many of them have
actually permitted growing Bt cotton? I gather only 12 states have state
level committees, but what about the other states and what about District
Level bodies?

4. The Indian Regulatory system requires a thorough reform. The
regulatory process should be rational, uniform, transparent and
expedient. The GEAC showed different attitudes for Bt cotton and GE
mustard, in an identical situation. All information is shrouded in a
cloak of official secrecy. The GEAC does not seem to have competent
scientific staff to prepare briefs and advice. The scientific members of
the GEAC are usually too busy even to attend its meetings. The GEAC
should make all relevant test/trial data public and hold public hearings
before taking decisions on the introduction of GE products.

5. Farmers are very unhappy at the loss they suffer on account of cotton
refuge. The FBAE suggested a non-cotton refuge. The American bollworm
being polyphagous on about 90 crops, crops like red gram, sunflower,
maize, chillies, sunn hemp, etc., can be used for refuge. Since the
damage bollworm causes to the commercial product of these crops is not as
extensive as on cotton, the farmers would get some economic returns
without affecting the scientific purpose of a refuge. At the European
Commission conference on Sustainable Agriculture for Developing Countries
held at Brussels (January 30, 31, 2003), Dr Jim Peacock, Chief of CSIRO
Plant Industry, Australia, told me that they also have been using non-
cotton refuge. We did nothing in India in this regard. Would someone with
the required facilities undertake to assess the possibilities of using
non-cotton refuge?

6. There were reports from the US, that lower levels of pesticide
application have encouraged predators of the sucking pests and reduced
their density. Heavy pesticide loads in the cotton fields earlier
discouraged the predators. Dr Jim Peacock confirms this for Australia,
(though not for the white fly, which is a minor pest on Australian
cotton), and that this has also reduced the pesticide levels required to
control the sucking pests. We need to gather data on this aspect in the
remaining two years of Bt cotton probation.

[1] Matin Qaim and David Zilberman: Yield Effects of Genetically Modifed
Crops in Developing Countries. Science 299, 900-903 (2003).
[2] Bio-Scope: Genetically modified cotton crops produced greater yields
[3] Response from Dr. Quaim to the letter written by Shantharam (pdf)
[4] Letter from Dr. Shantharam to Dr. Qaim (pdf)
[5] Short comment by Dr Richard Roush (pdf)
[6] Ms T. V. Padma: Report on Success of GE Cotton Sows Confusion (pdf).
Asia Times, February 19, 2003
[7] Bio-Scope: Bt cotton in India - post introduction scenario by C
Kameswara Rao
[8] Devinder Sharma: A scientific fairytale on Bt cotton. AgBioIndia,
February 14, 2003