ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

27 October 2001


The first piece below was posted to Prakash's AgBioView (October 24, 2001). Though from a decidedly pro-GE source, it contains some interesting points and clearly reflects a strong anxiety over the possible fall-out from the illicit GE cotton issue.

In fact, C. Kameswara Rao's piece notably contrasts with the irresponsibility fostered on the AgBioView list by its moderator, CS Prakash, who recently doctored the headline of a news item reporting the widescale presence of illicit GE cotton in India to read GE cotton "growing merrily" in India. This item was then picked up and, probably unwittingly, run under the same fake headline on Agnet.

The second item below summarises a recent Purdue University study, "The Economics of Bt Corn: Adoption Implications" and indicates the extent of the agronomic complexity involved in using and assessing GE crops (varying pest levels/technology fees/refuges/segregation or even non-acceptance of GE corn/non-GE premiums) - a complexity very far removed from Prakash's euphoric "growing merrily".

1. Illegal Bt cotton in India
2. Bt corn costs often higher than returns in Indiana


1. Illegal Bt Cotton in India

C. Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore , India

1. The unauthorised cultivation of Bt cotton in Gujarat is bad for the future of GM crops in the country on at least three counts: a) it will encourage similar misadventure in other parts of the country;
b) it gives a new whip for the NGOs to ridicule the regulatory measures and GM crops; and
c) it will further delay the introduction of GM crops into India by generating fresh controversies.

2. Mahyco has spent a lot of time and money fulfilling the governmental regulations and has been patiently waiting for permission for the release of Bt cotton for growing in the country. The Bt patent holder Monsanto and the licensee Mahyco have an immense lot to lose if they get involved in illegal trade of the yet unauthorised seed. Monsanto and Mahyco should follow the Canadian example and start punitive legal proceedings to sue Navabharat Seeds Ltd., and the farmers involved, in order to discourage repeats of such unauthorised sale of GM crop seed and also to clear their own name. The Government of India and the Government of the State of Gujarat (of other States, if victims of similar mischief), should join in taking such legal measures as necessary, to prevent repetition of similar incidents, which are a clear violation of the environmental protection laws of the country.

3. An enquiry should be instituted to find answers to the following questions:
a) How did the unauthorised reach Gujarat?
b) How many farmers and in how many other states (for example, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra) are involved in similar Bt seed transactions?
c) How did Navabharat Seeds Ltd. procure the seed of Bt cotton and multiply it to be able to supply such a huge quantity of nearly 6,000 kg of seed?
d) What is the role of Dr D B Desai, supposedly a former employee of Mahyco?

4. Suitable action should be taken against the farmers too, since they cannot wriggle out on grounds of ignorance of the illegality of the seed transaction. Certainly many farmers are ignorant of legal provisions in these matters but possibly not those who know of Bt cotton and those who can pay for the expensive Bt seed.

5. The mischievous talk that this unauthorised Bt crop contains the terminator gene should immediately be dispelled.

6. It does not sound right if two departments of the Government of India speak differently and it is certainly not nice to find the Department of Biotechnology trying to wash off their hands by saying that there is absolutely no problem from their side, meaning that the villain of the piece is the Ministry of Forests and Environment.

7. In the final analysis, the Government of India have dragged the issue far too long and should in future decide these issues with far greater alacrity than in the past, so that no one claims desperateness as the cause for adventurism.

8. If the farmers have to be paid compensation, liability rests with the Navabharat Seeds Ltd., who in all probability did not warn the farmers of the implications, and not with the Governments. If compensation claims on Governments are acceded, that only will set a dangerous precedent. On extension of a similar logic, some one caught with a pirated version of a software package or a newly released feature film, should be paid compensation by the Governments, when the CD is ceased and the purchaser fined.


2. Bt corn costs often higher than returns in Indiana

October 26, 2001
Ag Answers [via AGNET OCTOBER 26, 2001 -- II]

Genetically modified seed designed to stop a destructive worm from devouring corn plants may itself take a bite out of some corn growers' profits, says a Purdue University agricultural economist.

Farmers at the eastern end of the nation's Corn Belt are less likely to recover the cost of planting seed containing the gene Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, than producers farther west, said Marshall Martin.

Martin was among a team of researchers at Purdue who studied the economic impact of planting Bt corn.

Bt corn controls the European corn borer. The 1/8-inch to inchlong corn borer larvae feed on corn leaves and burrow into and through corn stalks, tassels and around ears. Corn borers can attack corn plants throughout the growing season.

The Purdue study found that higher-priced Bt seed, combined with lower corn borer infestation levels and other issues, makes transgenic corn less attractive than traditional varieties for farmers in Indiana.

"The adoption level of Bt corn in the Eastern Corn Belt has been relatively low compared to the average for the Corn Belt and the reported percentage in the western and southwestern parts of the Corn Belt, for two fundamental reasons," Martin said.

"One, our European corn borer infestation level historically has been pretty low, so that the extra cost of the seed cannot be justified based on the number of bushels saved because you planted Bt corn to reduce damage. The second reason is, we have here in the Eastern Corn Belt -- and Indiana in particular -- a number of companies that process corn for food uses, none of which now will accept any transgenic corn."

Bt corn is engineered to produce the Cry protein, an active substance fatal to corn borers but not humans and animals. When consumed by corn borers, the protein kills the pests within a day or two.

Corn borer infestations are more frequent and severe in parts of Illinois and states to the west and upper Midwest. In Indiana, corn borer problems occur about once every four years.

Because farmers in the Western Corn Belt experience more corn borer damage, the use of Bt and other transgenic corn is greater in those states.

"Nationwide in 2000, 25 percent of the U.S. corn crop was transgenic," Martin said. "This year, based on a June survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it was 26 percent. Of that nationwide use, 18 percent in both years was Bt.

"When we look at Indiana specifically, in 2000 only 7 percent of corn was Bt. This year it dropped to 6 percent. As you move eastward, there's less infestation and less adoption. Ohio, for example, was only about 6 percent Bt a year ago and 7 percent this year."

Farmers in Illinois, a corn borer border state, planted about 13 percent of their corn crop in Bt this year.

Analyzing a broad range of data, from crop yields and values to pesticide cost savings to the technology fees companies factor into the price of the genetically modified seed, Martin and fellow researchers concluded that 40 percent of a Hoosier grower's crop would have to be threatened by corn borers to make Bt use financially viable.

"If you have a 25 percent probability of corn borer infestation like we do in Indiana, and the value of your crop is about $400 an acre -- or $2 a bushel corn -- the value of using Bt corn compared to not spraying or doing anything is a little over $5 an acre," Martin said.

"That's about the break-even level. So the decision there would be to not adopt the Bt."

Higher yields and crop values, combined with greater corn borer infestation and smaller technology fees, may warrant planting Bt seed, Martin said. Farmers worried about big crop losses also might be better off with transgenic corn, he added.

"If your financial situation's not as stable and your bank or lender says you need to do something to manage your risk, maybe you better use the Bt," Martin said. "There's this kind of 'insurance value' for some high-risk farmers."

Farmers should consider two other issues before buying Bt, he said. "The grower needs to look at refuges," Martin said. "By U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirement, farmers must plant at least 20 percent of their acreage within a quarter- to half-mile distance of a non-Bt variety, to maintain a viable population of European corn borer susceptible to being killed by the Bt toxin.

"The other thing farmers need to take into account is the market. If you're in a region where market segregation is necessary because you may be selling corn to a processor that wants to be assured of non-transgenic corn, then you need to be able to plant, grow, harvest, dry, store and transport the non-Bt types and keep them separate."

In the last few growing seasons, non-Bt corn has commanded premiums of between 5 cents and 15 cents per bushel, Martin said.

The Purdue study, "The Economics of Bt Corn: Adoption Implications," is available through the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service. It is publication number ID-219.

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