The science and politics of Bt cotton failure (12/9/2005)



The following article (item 2) appeared in India's national newspaper, The Hindu, on 29 August 2005. The author is the geneticist, Dr Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign who wrote:

"What the GEAC [India's GM regulatory body] is doing with respect to Bt cotton amounts to criminal negligence. Its biased decisions are resulting in debilitating losses for poor farmers, specially in rainfed areas. The members of the GEAC must be held accountable for the losses faced by farmers, sometimes leading them to taking extreme steps. The government has remained unmoved by reports of crop failures and impervious to demands that a thorough review be undertaken of the Bt cotton performance in India, before proceeding any further with it. It continues to commit offences against farmers by allowing a substandard product to be sold to them."

Dr Sahai refers in the article to the recently published study by Indian government scientists, lead by Keshav Kranthi at the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), showing that the "protection offered by Bt cotton lasts only for part of the plant's life cycle and most critically, that bollworm readily attack the bolls because Bt toxin expression was below effective levels in the economically most important part of the plant."

This article, and the fact that Gene Campaign has now issued a notice to the Ministry of Environment and Forests to file a complaint over the GEAC's failure to regulate GMOs properly, has stung Keshav Kranthi into responding. (Is Bt Cotton Unsuitable?)

Kranthi dismisses concerns over Bt cotton as "meaningless hullabaloo" and claims that Bt cotton is, in fact, "a brilliant technology", "state-of-the-art" etc., despite the fact that the CICR study, as he admits, confirms "inherent inadequacies".

Revealingly, Kranthi tells his readers, "our main intention [in doing the study] was to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the technology so that it can be improved further." This would seem to tie in with allegations made at the time of the study's publication, that the real intention behind it was to admit to the problems with GM cotton in India only in order to lay the ground for further GM cotton approvals, involving stacked genes etc.

That this is Kranthi's game is also suggested by the warning he gave at the end of last year about the risk of pest resistance to Bt cotton in India in a paper published in the Indian Academy of Science publication, Current Science (87, 1593-15972004).

Kranthi et al had established a theoretical model to predict Bt-resistance development in bollworms and this showed that it was likely to set in within 3-4 years in India and that Bt-cotton crop failures could begin in some parts of India within the next couple of years.

Once again, on the face of it, this showed an extremely serious flaw in the technology - one that could spell potential disaster. But again Kranthi et al spun the problem to support a more rapid introduction of GMOs - by blaming the problem on a Bt gene monoculture amongst the GM varieties currently used in India which, they claimed, pointed to the need for a more diverse use of genes in GM crops.

Clearly, it would not be hard to see Karanthi et al's evidence of major flaws in the GM products in use in India as part of a public relations strategy intended not to protect farmers, but to promote the next generation of GM products in the industry pipline. And, hey, guess what? Monsanto and Syngenta, amongst others, are preparing to bring to market exactly the kind of products Kranthi et al say their research points to.

All of this exactly follows the predictions made, amongst others, by Hans R.Herren - Director General of The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya and winner of the 1995 World Food Prize. When GM products were first being introduced, Herren predicted: "farmers are likely to be weaned from pesticides to be force fed biotech seeds, in other words, taken off one treadmill and set on a new one!"

Herren went on, "The trend towards a quasi-monopolization of funding in agricultural development into a narrow set of technologies is dangerous and irresponsible. Also, too many hopes and expectations are being entrusted in these technologies, to the detriment of more conventional and proven technologies and approaches that have been very successful and which potential lies mostly unused in the developing countries."

He concluded, "It is only too obvious to concerned scientists, farmers and citizens alike that we are about to repeat, step by step, the mistakes of the insecticide era, even before it is behind us."

As we noted previously in relation to Kranthi et al, "it would be a mistake to think that India's scientific establishment are about to provide the politicians with the wake-up call they so badly need. Far from drawing the obvious lesson that it is time to withdraw from a technology that their own findings are showing to be ineffective and potentially disastrous for farmers, their research results are being spun as showing the need to go still further and faster along the same path in the hope of finding a way out!"

Suman Sahai

A new report published by scientists at the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, in the 25 July issue of Current Science. The study conducted at India's premier cotton research institution gives the scientific reasons for the failure of the Monsanto Bt cotton varieties and shows that India's Bt cotton technology is faulty and will fail to protect against the bollworm.

The CICR study validates the principal findings made by Gene Campaign and other groups like Greenpeace and Center for Sustainable Agriculture, that pesticide savings are not significant in India; that protection offered by Bt cotton lasts only for part of the plant's life cycle and most critically, that bollworm readily attack the bolls because Bt toxin expression was below effective levels in the economically most important part of the plant.

Most alarmingly, the CICR study shows that Bt cotton cannot be effective in India because the major cotton pest here, the bollworm, is not suscep

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