ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
20 February 2003


1.Report on success of GE cotton sows confusion
2.No check on quality of GM foods, say experts


1.Report on success of GE cotton sows confusion

By T V Padma
Asia Times

NEW DELHI - Civil society groups have been taken aback by a new scientific report that sings the praises of the superlative yields of genetically engineered (GE) cotton in India, at a time when ground realities speak of massive failures.

It was left to leading voluntary agencies to point out that the report in the leading international journal Science in February was outdated and based on data from field trials carried out in 2001 by the Maharashtra Hybrid Company (MAHYCO), a subsidiary of the US seed giant Monsanto Corp.

The report spoke of a 70 to 80 percent yield increases of Monsanto's patented Bt cotton, compared to conventional hybrids. Bt cotton is genetically engineered to contain a gene borrowed from a common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a substance lethal to the bollworm that devastates more than half of India's cotton crop.

The wide international publicity given to the Science report, authored by researchers from the University of California, Berkley, and the University of Bonn, Germany, underplayed the fact that it relied on data from trials in India in 2001 - and was not from commercially grown cotton, activists here say.

These trials were the ones that decided the Indian federal government's clearance of commercial production of Bt cotton in March the following year.  "Thanks to the publicity, there is an erroneous impression that the study was based on the crop season that ended. In reality, the analysis is based on the data MAHYCO-Monsanto had collected in the final year of field-testing in 2001, a year before the crop was commercialized," says Devinder Sharma, a leading food policy and trade analyst.

Data in the Science report was recorded in the third and last round of trials by MAHYCO-Monsanto before the cotton was cleared, and not on data after the cotton was commercially grown in actual field conditions. The controversial clearance for commercial production of Bt cotton was given last year despite the fact that a case against "illegal" trials filed by voluntary agencies and farmers' organizations was pending in India's apex Supreme Court.

Not only was MAHYCO-Monsanto entrusted with carrying out its own field trials, unusual in a country which has large, well-funded agricultural research organizations, but the results were never made public. India's first crop of Bt cotton sown by farmers last year in several cotton-growing states, was, by the accounts of several farmers' organizations, a failure. There were in fact a clamor for compensation.

With no independent scientific assessment in place, the government and scientists ignored these failure reports often brought to their notice by activists and farmers' groups. This was the data that "still remains hidden from the public gaze in India", and "has no relevance to the crop harvest in 2002-03", Sharma says.

The report also errs in treating savings in crop losses as yield increases, says Sharma. "But then for an industry under tremendous pressure for public acceptance of its risky technology, playing the yield card was a simple way to hoodwink the masses," he observed.

Commercial clearance to Bt cotton was granted on the grounds that it has been fully tested in Indian conditions, that it does not require pesticide sprays and gives higher yield and farmers higher incomes. "All the claims on the basis of which the clearance was given have been proven false by the total failure of Bt cotton in states where it was cleared for planting, including Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh," points out Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFTSE).

A field survey conducted by the RFSTE from October 23 to November 2 last year in two cotton-growing states - Maharashtra in western India and Andhra Pradesh in southern India - belied claims of super yields and successful warding off of the bollworm pest by Bt cotton. In a statement, RFSTE said there continued to be substantial attack of bollworm and sucking pests like jassids, aphis and thrips on Bt in Maharashtra.  It has documented instances of several farmers in Yawatmal district in Maharashtra and Warrangal in Andhra Pradesh saying they sprayed pesticides for bollworm and sucking pests several times in their cotton fields.

Additionally, the cotton crops were attacked by two fungal diseases, root rot and wilt, which was confirmed by plant disease scientists at the Zonal Agricultural Research Center in Yawatmal district in Maharashtra and Warrangal district in Andhra Pradesh. RFSTE also says that contrary to claims of 15 quintals per acre with Bt cotton, yields have been as low as 20 kg per acre in some areas.

Yields in cotton in general could have been lower last year due to a crippling drought - the worst in the past 12 years. Nevertheless, even Monsanto said in a statement that Bt cotton did suffer from a condition called root wilt seen in times of severe moisture stress, proving it is certainly not drought resistant.

RFSTE says even the claims of higher income for farmers are also farfetched.

Many poor farmers recorded poor yields and lower prices for the genetically engineered crop, despite paying much more for the Bt-cotton seed and spending more on pesticide sprays.

RFSTE's field survey also found no effective safeguards for biosafety. Farmers growing Bt cotton did not plant adequate "refugia" or areas planted plants with ordinary cotton to prevent accidental transfer of pollen to nearby non-genetically engineered plants.

The performance of Bt cotton in India has been mired in controversy since the country prepared itself for its first harvest of the genetically engineered cotton last year. In December 2002, Environment and Forests Minister T R Baalu told parliament that the performance of Bt cotton was "satisfactory" in the first year of its planting.

But three voluntary organizations - Greenpeace India, Center for Resource Education and Sarvodaya Youth Organization said their investigations showed otherwise. "The government has conveniently ignored other important issues like the inferior quality of Bt cotton, the weakness of Bt cotton wherein the stalk breaks and the plant falls, unfavorable market rates for Bt cotton and the fact that Bt cotton farming is labor-intensive which increases the costs incurred by the farmer, said Kavitha Kuruganti, a Greenpeace campaigner.


2.No check on quality of GM foods, say experts


NEW DELHI: Close on the heels of the government decision to allow imports of genetically modified (GM) foods on a case-by-case basis, top nutrition experts here have expressed fears that there are no systems as of now to adequately assess the risk or even to detect unapproved genetic modifications.

Ramesh V Bhat, deputy director at the Food and Drug Toxicology Research Centre, National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), says that while kits are available to detect approved genetic modifications, there is no way of knowing if an unapproved variety is being slipped in.

Agreeing that GM foods provide hope for increasing food production, experts from the Indian Council of Medical Research's foremost institution of nutrition also add that they need to go through "complete risk assessment".

However, these experts say complete risk assessment may not be possible if the technology developer does not pass on all the information, such as the genetic construct of the particular material.

The department of biotechnology has initiated projects for trying to build capacity for detection of GM. However, former director and emeritus medical scientist at NIN, Kamala Krishnaswamy, says "it's not that easy". These foods would require an appropriate labelling, which clearly shows the country of origin, she said.

In addition to the labelling, experts say the government should ensure that the onus of safety rests with the company, just as in the case of drugs.

Fears about whether unapproved GM foods have already started coming in are real. Fears about hazardous GM foods slipping in has already led to a major controversy over the import of GM corn-soya blend from the US for distribution amongst schoolchildren and the poor by Catholic Relief Services and CARE-India. There were apprehensions that the US food consignment could contain traces of the hazardous Starlink Corn, which is not yet approved.

 China has adopted a more cautious approach. While Bt cotton was approved for commercial sale, none of the other important GM crops have got a nod since 1998.

"Why, when the most urgent threat arising from illegal weapons of mass destruction is the nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan, is the US government ignoring it and concentrating on Iraq? Why, if it believes human rights are so important, is it funding the oppression of the Algerians, the Uzbeks, the Palestinians, the Turkish Kurds and the Colombians? Why has the bombing of Iraq, rather than feeding the hungry, providing clean water or preventing disease, become the world's most urgent humanitarian concern? Why has it become so much more pressing than any other that it should command a budget four times the size of America's entire annual spending on overseas aid?

"...Strategic thinkers in the US have been planning this next stage of expansion for years. Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary for defence, was writing about the need to invade Iraq in the mid-1990s. ...blood is a renewable resource; oil is not." George Monbiot, 'Too much of a good thing' The Guardian, February 18, 2003,5673,897814,00.html

"Blair's not listening to us anymore - he's just listening to Bush and Big Business". A comment on the GM 'Public Debate'? No, it was the main message from speakers to the two million at the Stop the War rally in Hyde Park [London].  Robert Vint , GM Crops and War - two struggles or one?

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