ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

4 April 2002


If you read nothing else today, please read this incisive demolition of the reasons advanced for the approval of BT cotton in India.



Devinder Sharma

What happens when you let a cat into a pigeon cage? The pigeons close their eyes thinking that since they cannot see, the cat also cannot see them. What happens thereafter is a foregone conclusion. This is exactly what the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) -- the highest regulatory authority in India for the genetically modified crops -- did.  It simply closed its eyes to the threat Bt cotton’s commercial approval will unleash on human health, the environment and the survival of the cotton farmers.

With the cat -- the private seed industry -- prowling around, the GEAC preferred to turn a blind eye to the dangers that lie ahead.  In what appears to be the biggest scandal to have hit Indian science, the GEAC circumvented scientific norms to hastily approve the commercial introduction of India’s first genetically modified crop. In the bargain, it also opened the floodgates for future introduction of GM technologies and products that have been rejected by the European Union.

While the debate continues to rage on, the real issues and the manipulations that have gone through have meanwhile been drowned in the "orchestrated" welcome for the GM crop.  Let us try to understand the various aspects of the Bt cotton controversy by looking at the frequently asked questions (FAQs):

Were the research trials conducted scientifically? No, not at all.  In fact, scientific norms were thrown to the wind and for obvious reasons. And this is certainly scandalous. This is in reality the greatest scientific fraud to have hit Indian science.  The entire expenditure for research on nine genetically modified crops, including cotton, amounts to Rs 60-crore. And it is entirely being borne by the industry.  The industry therefore has a vested interest. How can you trust that data?

For the first three years, the crop trials were conducted by Mahyco-Monsanto. The data so compiled was never made public. Why? What is so secretive about it? After all, it is not the national defence that is at stake. The seed has to be ultimately used by farmers. Why shouldn't they know what they are being asked to buy? Secondly, the data was never scrutinised by an independent team of experts and representatives from the civil society and various other groups from different walks of life. If you look at the composition of the three committees that evaluate the data at three stages, the DBT has very cleverly stuffed the committees with pro-industry scientists and farmers. The GEAC has no representation from the civil society.

There are norms that are clearly laid out for agricultural experiments. For the first three years of research trials, the crop was not even sown once in time. For instance, it was sown as late as two to three months last year. And yet the department says that the crop yields were as high as 50 per cent. The DBT secretary even mentioned that the yields were as high as 80 per cent something that even Monsanto doesn't claim. How can the research data from such trials be accepted? Actually, when the crop is sown late, it escapes the insect attack, which is at its peak in the first two months. With no insect attack, the crop losses are minimal. So what's the great success about it? Moreover, if sowing late by three months gives a higher yield why doesn't the government advise farmers to also sow the crop three months late?

You may well ask that since scientists were looking for data on pest control and so how does the date of sowing becomes important? If that be so, then why not ask agricultural scientists working with 31 agricultural universities and the 81 national centres of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) also to follow the same criteria? Why an exception only for Mahyco-Monsanto? If the crop is sown late and it escapes the major pest attack, what kind of data has been collected? Doesn't it put a question mark on the whole exercise? Isn't it a scientific scam?

The GEAC was completely wrong when it asked the company Mahyco-Monsanto to repeat the research trials for one year. In fact, as per scientific norms the research trials should be re-conducted for another three years considering that the data so far collected is not correct. Even the ICAR had asked for two years of more research trials. Mahyco-Monsanto had
objected and therefore a compromise for one year was reached. Since when have we started compromising in science?

How about the environmental and health risks? True, there is a lot of public concern about its environmental fallout. Environmental, as well as animal and human health risks too have been ignored by the GEAC in its undue haste to promote a risky technology. A year earlier, the ICAR had pointed to some eight to nine areas of concern where additional research needs to be conducted. Interestingly, the GEAC is happy with one year of data on these aspects. This again is against all scientific norms. No research is conclusive without a minimum of three years data.

Take the case of gene flow, for instance. Gene flow is the term that denotes the distance to which the pollen can fly. The DBT says that gene flow in Bt cotton is for two metres. Mahyco-Monsanto says that it is for 15 metres and the US Department of Agriculture says that it is for three miles. By suggesting a mandatory limit of 20 per cent refuge (of non-Bt cotton) in a Bt cotton field, the GEAC has merely played to the galleries. Strange that a regulatory body that failed to initiate any action when Bt cotton seed was grown illegally in Gujarat a few months back, should talk of such stringent measures at the farmers‚ level.

We still don't know what will be the impact on human health once the genetically modified seed goes into the food chain. Unlike China, where Bt cotton does not go into the food chain, cottonseed oil is used as edible oil and the oil cake goes for cattle consumption. So why take a calculated risk when there is no cause for desperation? And will the GEAC be held accountable for any subsequent damage to the environment and human health. The chairman of the GEAC should be publicly tried for any human health and environmental mishap. This will send the right kind of signal.

Cotton consumes more than 50 per cent of the pesticides sprayed in the country.  It is also true that agricultural scientists had all these years said that there was no escape for cotton farmers but to use more potent pesticides. These scientists were actually promoting the pestcides industry's interest all these years. They were not looking for more sustainable and farmer-friendly options. The same class of agricultural scientists are now backing the genetically modified cotton. In essence, once again they are promoting the industry's commercial interests. This time it is the biotechnology industry, which has more money to sponsor research and other activities.

In the bargain, cotton farmers are being asked to get in addition to the 'pesticides treadmill' into a hitherto unknown and more dangerous 'biological treadmill', the consequences of which can be disastrous. The scientific community will not suffer for its faulty decisions. It will be the cotton growers again who will have to pay the price.

But let's face it, farmers are visibly happy with Bt cotton as the recent illegal plantings in Gujarat shows, so what’s your problem? Yes, you are right. This is exactly what had happened when the fourth generation pesticides synthetic pyrethroids were introduced in the country less than 20 years ago. And since then over 10,000 cotton growers have committed suicide. Synthetic pyrethroids are fourth generation pesticides, which were introduced in India sometimes in mid-1980s as the answer to the bollworm pest problem in cotton. I had at that time warned against its use saying that the pest would develop resistance against it and then what would be the answer. But the scientists as well as the farmers were very happy with the results for the first two to three years and then the insect started developing resistance. The pest-host relationship became so hostile that farmers were a dismayed lot and then began the spate of suicides.

Were the suicides were spurted by the cotton pest? The suicides actually began when farmers were unable to control the American bollworm pest, which in turn devoured the crop. With crops failing as a result and with the farmers under heavy debt the only option for nearly 10,000 of the estimated 15,000 farmers in the past few years was to take the fatal route to escape the humiliation that comes along with indebtedness.

Is this a small price for the experiments that agricultural scientists keep on conducting to prop up the commercial interests of the companies? Who is accountable for these deaths? Why shouldn't the agricultural scientists be held responsible for such a massive human tragedy, perhaps the greatest in the history of independent India? What will happen when the insect develops resistance to Bt cotton? What will happen when farmers once again start committing suicides? Who will be responsible for those poor families whose only bread-earner passes away? Already the pest has started developing resistance to Bt gene in Australia and China.

But isn't there a viable alternative, you will ask? The only viable alternative is to ban the use of pesticides on cotton. But this will not happen for two reasons. First, it requires a political will since the pesticides industry is a strong lobby. And secondly, agricultural scientists will resist because this will mean that they spend more time in the crop fields rather than in air-conditioned laboratories. American bollworm, the dreaded pest in cotton field, actually has 27 natural enemies or predators in the same crop field. They are the first ones to get knocked down once the pesticides sprays begin. By the time the bollworm appears on the scene, the field is bereft of its natural enemies. It then multiplies and merrily devours the crop and in the process develops immunity against the chemicals.

The Planning Commission has suggested an integrated pest management practice on cotton in its mid-term review of the 9th Plan. It has quoted from a study done by the National Centre for Integrated Pest Management, which tried the IPM approach in 200 hectares involving 124 farmers in Nander district of Maharashtra. The average yield recorded under these experiments was 1,000 kg per hectare, three times the national average. And let’s not forget, this was without the use of pesticides and GM crops. Such technologies will not be promoted simply because there is no industry behind it.

Low productivity of cotton is often cited as the reason for the introduction of Bt cotton. Again, this is a completely wrong argument. Cotton productivity or yields in India are amongst the lowest in the world not because we don't have high-yielding varieties. In fact, the first cotton hybrids were evolved in India. What is not know is that in the past 20 years, cotton farmers have been deliberately paid 20 per cent less every year by way of administered price to keep the textile industry afloat. In other words, the cotton farmers in reality have subsidised the industry. If only cotton farmers had received an attractive price, there would have been an incentive to produce more.

Bt cotton does not increase yield. In China, where Bt cotton is grown in 700,000 hectares, there is no difference in the yield of Bt cotton and non-Bt cotton.

Even now, while on the one hand we find that the biotechnology industry as well as the DBT uses the same argument, the government on the other has allowed the import of cotton into the country. In the years to come, it will not be because of low yields but because of heavy imports of cheap and highly subsidised cotton into the country that the cotton farmers will be faced with an unprecedented crisis of protecting their livelihoods. The introduction of Bt cotton will in addition rob the cotton farmers of whatever little they could benefit from. We will see more and more cotton farmers getting into the spiral suicide dance. #

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

ngin bulletin archive