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2-Plants: A lesson from the field - Bt cotton in India

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

TITLE:  A lesson from the field
SOURCE: Frontline, Vol 20 (11), India, by Asha Krishnakumar
DATE:   May 24 - June 06, 2003

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A lesson from the field

Surveys done by government committees and non-governmental organisations
support the claim of farmers in several States that Bt cotton yielded inferior
crops and even did not perform well in the matter of resistance to pests.

THE so-called genetic revolution in cotton appears to be coming apart at the
seams. Reports are pouring in from different parts of the country of a
"failed" or "unsatisfactory" harvest of the first commercial transgenic Bt cotton
crop. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture has asked the
Centre to re-evaluate the economic viability of Bt cotton. The Genetic Engineering
Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests has
rejected the use of MECH 915 Bt cotton seeds in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB) India Ltd, the sole licensee/patent holder of
Bt (short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium
used to control Lepidopteran insects because of a toxin it produces) cotton
seeds in the country, claimed recently that the "in-built protection" against
the bollworm (the major cotton pest) in the Bt cotton seed had reduced
pesticide use by 65-70 per cent and, consequently, led to yield gains of 30 per cent
and an extra income of Rs.7,000 an acre (Rs.17,500 a hectare) in the southern

But the 55,000 farmers who sowed cotton seeds on over 42,000 hectares across
the country last year have a different story to tell. Reports of State
governments, farmers' organisations, non-government organisations (NGOs) and
scientists appear to be giving the lie to MMB's claims. While, understandably,
yield gains cannot be expected - Bt is not engineered to produce higher yields
and it is only implied - there was no reduction even in pesticide use although
it is supposed to be engineered for this. For, according to reports, the
resistance to the bollworm was generally poor. This is because Bt cotton is
engineered in such a way that the whole plant releases the Bt toxin, and if the
plant does not grow well, the toxin is not produced at the level required to
kill the bollworm. This is what happened in most parts of the country. Also,
the plants can resist only the bollworm and are susceptible to attacks by
sucking pests such as aphids, jassids and white mosquitoes, for which pesticides
have to be used.

Another important reason for the failure of Bt cotton, sold under the brand
name Bollgard, is that farmers in India, predominantly small and marginal
landholders operating on less than two hectares, are unable to set aside land
for "refugia" (to prevent pests from attacking the Bt cotton plants and thereby
developing resistance to it), as recommended by MMB.

Of what was harvested, farmers seem generally unhappy about the quality -
texture, length and weight. Much of this is corroborated by studies conducted
by the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh,
as also by independent sources. For instance, following widespread
complaints of failure of Bt cotton in Madhya Pradesh early this year, the GEAC (the
statutory body set up to approve research in and commercial use of genetically
engineered organisms) commissioned a seven-member team of scientists to
evaluate the performance of the crop. The study showed that Bt cotton failed in
Madhya Pradesh "due to wilting and large-scale drying of the crop at the peak
bolling stage, accompanied by leaf-dropping and shedding, as also forced
bursting of immaculate bolls". According to the study, non-Bt plants performed
much better.

A six-member panel set up by the Gujarat government under Joint Director,
Agriculture (Oilseeds), S.K. Sangami, to evaluate the performance of Bt cotton
in the State, said that "it is unfit for cultivation and should be banned in
the State".

The Andhra Pradesh government set up a team under Dr. Abdul Qayoom, former
Joint Director of Agriculture, to evaluate the performance of Bt cotton after
Agriculture Minister Vadde Sobhandreswara Rao announced in the Assembly that
"the overall information is that farmers have not experienced positive and
encouraging results", and hence the farmers need to be compensated. The study
showed that "Bt cotton has totally failed" as crop yields were lower than
those in the case of non-Bt cotton, besides the staple being shorter and weight
lower. In several villages in Andhra Pradesh, the majority of farmers reported
Bt cotton yields of six quintals an acre against 14 quintals an acre from
common hybrid varieties. (MMB has said that it will compensate farmers only for
failure to germinate and for absence of the genetic purity promised by the
company, and not for yield losses.)

In Karnataka, studies by Greenpeace India showed that not only were Bt
yields lower than yields in the case of other hybrid varieties, but input costs
were much higher and crop quality quite poor.

A Bt cotton evaluation study carried out in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh
by a Delhi-based agricultural policy think tank, Gene Campaign, reported
complete failure of the crop in both the States. The study showed that 60 per cent
of the farmers did not recover costs and that most of them incurred a loss
of Rs.80 an acre. The input costs for Bt cotton sown on an acre are about
Rs.1,000 higher than that for non-Bt cotton. The seed cost per acre is four times
that of quality non-Bt varieties. The savings on pesticides is a mere Rs.217
an acre, while the seed cost, including the licence fee for using the
patented Bt seeds, is Rs.1,200 higher.

According to the study, in most cases Bt cotton did not resist even the
bollworm, and farmers had to spray the same quantity of pesticides for both Bt
and non-Bt crops. The study also showed that cotton traders in the two States
were not buying Bt cotton; they prefer non-Bt varieties such as Brahma and
Banny. Some farmers seem to be mixing Bt cotton with non-Bt varieties to sell
off the former.

However, the most shocking fact, according to the Gene Campaign study, is
that neither Andhra Pradesh nor Maharashtra has set up the regulatory authority
mandated by the 1989 Environmental Protection Act to oversee the cultivation
of genetically modified crops.

Similar were the results of a study conducted in Maharashtra, Madhya
Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka by the Delhi-based NGO Research Foundation for
Science, Technology and Ecology. According to the study, not only did the Bt
seed not protect the plant from bollworm attacks, but the plant was subject
to a 250-300 per cent increase in attacks by non-target pests such as
Jassids. Bt plants were also subject to a fungal disease, fusarium. Quite apart from
lower yields, the fibre harvested was also very short, fetching poor prices.
Compared to non-Bt varieties, Bt seeds are more expensive and the Bt crop
needs more fertilizers and water. The study concluded that Bt cotton was not
suited for Indian conditions.

The international experience with Bt cotton has not been exciting either.
Studies in the United States showed up the erratic and disappointing
performance of Bt cotton. In several places the costs of cultivating Bt cotton are
higher than those of non-Bt cotton. Farmers also had to pay a technology fee to
use Bt cotton seeds; Monsanto has dragged several farmers to court for using
its seeds without paying this fee. In China, studies showed that Bollgard
cotton performs satisfactorily only in a favourable production environment, with
mulching and irrigation, not typical of the farming systems of developing

The Cry1Ac gene inserted in many Bollgard cotton varieties is most effective
against the tobacco budworm (Helicoverpa virescens). But the main pest in
the case of cotton is the American Bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), which can
develop resistance quickly to Bt unless the plants consistently express the
Cry1Ac toxin at levels that will kill the majority of insects. Bt-resistance in
bollworm has been reported extensively from all over the world. In 1999,
Chinese scientists observed a seven-fold to 10-fold increase in Bt resistance
leading to large-scale crop failures.

INDIA is the third largest producer of cotton after China and the U.S., and
Monsanto has for long been trying to get into the country. In 1990, it began
negotiating a technology transfer arrangement with the government for its Bt
cotton package. Talks are supposed to have ended in 1993 after a failure to
reach an agreement on the financial terms of the transfer. The same year,
negotiations began for the Bt technology transfer arrangement between Monsanto
and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd (Mahyco). Three years later, on Central
government approval, the first Bt cotton variety (US Cocker-312) was imported
into India. This was backcrossed with "elite" Indian varieties to produce
locally adapted Bt cotton varieties with the Cry1Ac gene.

In April 1998, Monsanto acquired a 26 per cent stake in Mahyco, which later
became the 50:50 joint venture Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech. By the end of the
year, MMB received approval from the Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation
(RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to conduct countrywide field
trials on 85 hectares and to produce seeds on 150 hectares. As part of the
trial programme, MMB was required to undertake studies on several aspect,
including Bt's resistance to pests, its impact on non-target organisms, pollen flow
that may affect non-transgenic cotton, and the impact of Bt seeds on the food
chain. Most importantly, Bt cotton had to obtain the certification that it
did not contain the "terminator gene".

In January 1999, Dr. Vandana Shiva directorof the Research Foundation for
Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi, filed a public interest petition in
the Supreme Court challenging the "legality" of the field trials approved by
the DBT primarily on grounds that it is the GEAC, under the Ministry of
Environment and Forests, and not the RCGM, under the DBT, that can approve field
trials and that no biosafety regulations were followed in the exercise.

But even before the petition was taken up, the DBT, in July 2000, allowed
Mahyco to conduct extensive field trials, including seed production at 40 sites
in six States, based on the "totally confidential" data from the small
trials. The DBT also set up a committee to monitor "independently" and evaluate
the large-scale field trials.

On January 5, 2001, a 10-member delegation comprising judges and scientists
from the U.S. met Chief Justice of India A.S. Anand and other senior members
of the judiciary "to educate them on biotechnology". That June, when MMB
approached the GEAC for the commercial release of Bt cotton varieties, it was
stalled by the concerted effort of some independent science organisations, NGOs
and academics, citing what they described as scientific fraud in the conduct
of the tests.

Among the major lacunae pointed out in the MMB field trials were the risk of
genetic pollution and contamination through cross-pollination and
hybridisation (in the study of the distance Bt pollen could fly, data showed a large
variation between two and 15 metres, a 7,500 per cent margin of variation), the
impact of Bt toxin on non-target beneficial species (while it was pointed
out that the study showed zero impact of Bt toxin on populations of beneficial
species, no beneficial species seem to have been involved in the study), and
emergence of resistance in the target bollworm species (no study seems to
have been done on insect resistance to Bt). In socio-economic terms, Bt cotton
did not compare well with other alternatives particularly in the control of
such pests as the bollworm (the data submitted did not tally with the claim of
increased yields and cost reductions). However, the next day, the GEAC
allowed field trials for another year. MMB began trials on 100 hectares in seven

In October 2001, MMB discovered commercial cultivation of Bt cotton on over
10,000 acres (4,000 ha) in Gujarat, traced the sale of the seeds to
Hyderabad-based Navbharat Seeds Pvt Ltd., and demanded punitive action against the
company. MMB discovered that this company had been selling a Bt cotton variant,
Navbharat 151, for three years. It had acquired the seeds not by any genetic
engineering process but by working in the laboratory on seeds collected from
cotton fields. The GEAC first ordered the Gujarat Biotechnology Coordination
Committee to burn all illegal plantations but later, on the insistence of the
Gujarat government, ordered that the cotton be procured at a suitable price.
But before this order could be implemented, the cotton had reached the
market and seeds had been sold to numerous farmers and, probably, even re-sown.
This incident showed up the limited capacity of the government to prevent the
diffusion into the market of illegal Bt seeds with unknown environmental and
ecological impact. In November 2001, a case was registered with the Gujarat
High Court against Navbharat Seeds for violating the EPA rules. The case is
still pending.

In November 2001, the Delhi-based Gene Campaign filed a public interest
petition Delhi High Court against the government's alleged negligence in allowing
large-scale field trials without appropriate monitoring, regulation or
safety precautions. But, on January 23, 2002, DBT Secretary Manju Sharma announced
that the latest round of Bt cotton trials were satisfactory, based on the
report of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

On March 26, 2002, the Centre put an end to all the controversies by
approving for three years the commercialisation of three Bt cotton varieties -
MECH-12 Bt, 162 Bt and 184 Bt - subject to certain "conditions". But little did it
realise that the controversies would erupt again.

That Bt cotton has failed in India, says Gene Campaign director Suman Sahai,
is no surprise as it was developed primarily for cold climes such as the
U.S., where pests are few. Also, landholdings in the U.S. are large and the
subsidies enormous, raising the farmers' risk-taking capacity. In India, in the
small landholdings where cotton is cultivated, it is almost impossible to set
aside the 20 per cent "refuge" acreage for non-Bt cotton, as recommended by
Monsanto, so that the bollworm can feed on the non-poisonous cotton and remain
susceptible to the Bt toxin. In the absence of such "refuge", the bollworm
will surely develop resistance to the Bt toxin. And, as there are many kinds
of cotton pests in India apart from the bollworm that are often as intense and
devastating, pesticide spraying cannot be stopped.

Though all this was proved by the 2002 kharif results, the proponents of Bt
cotton are unrelenting. Insisting that some 55,000 farmers benefited from the
Bt crop, they blame improper farming practices, inadequate water supply, and
soil and drought conditions for the "few" cases of failures reported. They
also argue that one crop season is too early to conclude on the efficacy of
Bt. They say that "the entire negative publicity against Bt seed companies is
given by competitors and pesticide companies".

Terming as rubbish the surveys done by some non-governmental organisations
that reveal Bt cotton's poor performance all over the country, MMB director
Ranjana Smetacek says: "Farmers' performance in six States has been very good,
prompting us to expand our sales this kharif season to seven lakh acres (from
80,000 last season)." However, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on
Agriculture does not seem to be impressed with Smetacek's statement as it is
reported to have said that "the risk of reducing biodiversity and other
environmental hazards does not make the sowing of Bt cotton a sensible proposition".

While the Centre has done well not to approve the commercialisation of MMB's
MECH 915 Bt, a more important responsibility is to put in place all the
mandatory institutions and infrastructure for the use of genetically modified
crops at various levels of disaggregation, to make all Bt cotton trial data
transparent and initiate a public debate on the use of the cotton variety.



 Hartmut Meyer       
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