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2-Plants: Bt cotton winning a battle, but losing the war

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TITLE:  Bt cotton winning a battle, but losing the war
SOURCE: Bharat Textile, India
DATE:   Jul 4, 2003

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INDIA: BT Cotton Winning A Battle, But Losing The War

Cotton farming in India is far different from that in the US. Monoculture
cotton is not grown on an industrial scale or season after season, as in
the southern belt of the US, which is the "cotton bowl" of the country
catering to industrial needs. Indian farmers alternate crops and this is
what wreaks havoc.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) on April 25 withheld
official sanction to the Monsanto-Mahyco combine to go ahead with the
commercial cultivation plan of Bollgard cotton in Punjab and other
northern States. This was hailed as a "victory" by the anti-Bt-cotton
lobby and the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
(RFSTE), which has been crusading against the genetically modified (GM)
crops, in general, and Monsanto's Bt cotton, Bollgard, in particular.

That this withdrawal of official sanction by the GEAC is no victory has
been clearly demonstrated by subsequent events. First, it was the global
seed meet in Bangalore in June under the auspices of the International
Seed Federation. Apart from the general theme of seed business - running
into billions of dollars worldwide and with India being a goldmine - the
underlying idea was to put across to the public that GM crops are the
only way to put Indian agriculture on a fast track and banish poverty
from the nation.

The "gene revolution" is set to go the Green Revolution way, where
corporate agriculture and its cohorts will hold sway over the poor Indian
farmer and the consumer at large. The multinational Monsanto has clearly
outwitted the anti-Bt-cotton lobby, in general, and has set its eyes on
the cotton crop in India. This will have far-reaching implications for
Indian agriculture.

Now that the MNC has been stalled from selling its seed, it has recast
its role as a seller of the technology behind the seed, rather than the
seed itself. And this none can question, as the former comes under the
Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime (which none can challenge); as
regards the end-product emanating from the technology, one can always
erect roadblocks.

One can find parallels of this sort of a situation in the pharmaceutical
sector. Say, a leading pharmaceutical firm in the US or Europe brings out
a costly, branded prescription drug or generics. A developing country
such as India, with good infrastructure in drug manufacture, can always
break down the molecules in the original drug and produce a low-cost
version of the original and sell it to the customer. This, in essence, is
what is happening in Bt cotton technology. But comparisons stop here.
Unlike in the pharma sector, the Indian private seed sector lacks the
technical skill to create a "gene construct" for something as Bt cotton.
Thus, MMB (Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech), a 50:50 joint venture between the
parent Monsanto and its subsidiary Mahyco, has become the sub-licencee
for the Bollgard gene. By a simple technique of backcrossing, the
Bollgard gene could be transferred to any established cotton hybrid
produced by a governmental agency, such as an agricultural university or
a private seed company - a case in point is what Tamil Nadu-based Rasi
Seeds has been allowed to do; and more private players could come into
the fray. These go to prove that an unwary government or incompetent
bureaucracy can unwittingly become party to promoting a technology that,
in its very nature, is dubious. The GEAC might have stalled the spread of
the Bollgard, but it can neither stall the technology nor stop the
clandestine mushrooming of the bootlegged Bt varieties even in places
where they were not meant to be in - for instance, in the vast cotton
farmlands of Saurashtra and Kutch in Gujarat. Of course, one can
rationalise the situation on the dictum that farmers should have the
freedom to choose. Obviously, it is the price advantage that must have
prompted the farmers to choose these clandestine Bt varieties, which sell
at a fraction of what the MMB Bt seed costs (Rs 1,600 for a 450 gm pack).
But the this will cause to the fragile floral and faunal balance does not
seem to concern anybody.

That Bt cotton cultivation will enhance the income of farmers by about Rs
10,000 a hectare, as claimed by MMB, has in reality been totally belied.
But the more worrying issues are: First, the gene-use restriction
technique (GURT), where lethal proteins are produced in the seed at the
time of maturity, will render seed harvested from one season sterile for
use in the following season, which, in effect, will tie up the farmer to
the MNC producing the costly seed permanently. Second, the acquisition of
insect resistance or herbicide tolerance by wild plants growing in the
neighbourhood of Bt cotton farms could vastly change their population
dynamics and increase their invasive potential, resulting in the spread
of super weeds.

This will be a very serious issue for a developing country such as India,
where the control of invasive plants is a major problem for subsistence
cotton farmers, and, which in turn will have very serious implications
for the ecosystem. The pernicious Parthenium, for instance, was unknown
to India until it came along with PL 480 wheat shipments from the US. It
has now become a Herculean task to get rid of this weed - which closely
resembles the wheat crop - from the farms of Punjab and Haryana. Cotton
farming in India is far different from that in the US. Monoculture cotton
is not grown on an industrial scale or season after season, as in the
southern belt of the US, which is the "cotton bowl" of the country
catering to industrial needs. Indian farmers alternate crops and this is
what wreaks havoc.

And, there is no escaping the eco disaster - which must have already set
in, as the bootlegged `Navbharat 151' (the local Bt cotton variety) was
cultivated large-scale in Gujarat in 2001.

Hence, the larger question is: Is the country inadvertently inviting a
greater disaster on the environmental front for a dubious technology that
has not been consistent in its dependability even in its country of
origin? Arguments in favour of Bt cotton revolve around the acreage it is
under in the US, Brazil, China, and so on. But none who hoist the Bt
cotton on India understands or explains the intricacies of cotton farming
in the US vis--vis those in India. The predominant argument was echoed
by the International Seed Federation Secretary-General, Dr Bernard le
Buanec, during the Bangalore meet: "Farmers will decide the future of GM
crops". Indeed, evidence shows that it is MNCs in the billion-dollar seed
business that decide what farmers around the world, including the US,
should sow and the future of GM crops. India is the prime target now.

A multinational and its native collaborator are walking away with crores
of rupees. If only institutions such as the ICAR and State agricultural
universities had a clear vision on the need to bring out a transgenic
cotton resistant to the dreaded bollworm. With a network of 47 national
institutes (including a deemed university), the Indian Agricultural
Research Institute (IARI), 29 national research centres (which include
the Cotton Research Institutes in Nagpur and Coimbatore), 11 Project
Directorates (of which, there is one on cotton), four national bureaus
and an array of State agricultural universities (some of which also
conduct research on cotton), a Bt cotton of our own could not be
produced. And now, the ICAR and others are plying second fiddle to the
ongoing Bt cotton fiasco.

There have been suggestions to institute Parliamentary probes into the
failure of Bt cotton. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr N.
Chandrababu Naidu, has constituted a commission to look into the farmers'
complaints to "clearly assess" the performance of the Bt cotton in the
State. While these "commissions" and "committees" look into the matter,
the fiasco will continue. The GEAC might have stalled the fourth variety
of Bt cotton - Mech 915 - of MMB, which is a small battle won. But the
war against the Bt cotton of Monsanto has clearly been lost.



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