Unusual disease on Bt cotton - fact finding report (12/9/2005)

Note that apart from the observation of a particular vulnerability of Bt cotton to an unknown disease, which has apparently affected more than 50,000 acres of cotton crop in Andhra Pradesh, the fact-finding team also found that on the Bt Cotton plots there was a "high incidence" of "Helicoverpa (against which the main claims of Bt Cotton rest!)... with considerable damage to squares and buds".

From Kavitha Kuruganti of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh:

Please find below for press coverage, the report of a Fact Finding Team that visited Bt Cotton and non-Bt Cotton fields on September 9th 2005 to inquire into the incidence of an unusual disease on cotton crop, especially on Bt Cotton, in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh.

The fact finding team, after its day-long visit to a few villages and meetings with numerous farmers, concludes that Bt Cotton seems to be more vulnerable to this disease (which seems to be a viral disease being spread by sucking pests) than non-Bt Cotton. This requires urgent deeper investigations by the government and proper extension advice provided for controlling the phenomenon. This also has serious implications for liability mechanisms which are still not in place when it comes to Bt Cotton - farmers are even now expected to fend for themselves in case of failures, despite investing heavily on an expensive technology and despite many failure stories in the past few years. Government should pro-actively start assessing the losses across different districts and put into place effective and simple compensation mechanisms.

The fact finding visit also has important findings on the very claims of the Bt Cotton technology - that of controlling damage to the flowering and fruiting bodies of the cotton plant (economically important parts). The team found high incidence of Spodoptera (which is not just a leaf-eating insect) and Helicoverpa (against which the main claims of Bt Cotton rest!) on Bt Cotton plots with considerable damage to squares and buds.

Kavitha Kuruganti
Centre for Sustainable Agriculture

Report of a Fact Finding Team's Visit to Warangal District to investigate an unusual disease on Bt Cotton on September 9, 2005

A newspaper report appeared recently in the Warangal edition of Eenaadu (a telugu daily) titled Pathiki Anthu Chikkani Tegulu ("An unknown disease on cotton - Losses in 50,000 acre of Warangal district") which mentioned that more than 50,000 acres of cotton crop in Warangal district has been affected by an unknown disease. The media report also mentions that this problem appears to be higher in Bt Cotton than on cotton other than Bt Cotton [non-Bt Cotton]. This was confirmed by government agriculture scientists who visited several villages of the district to investigate into farmers' complaints. Farmers, who have had a good season so far, are panicking at this adverse development at the flowering and fruiting stage on the crop. These reports came from Hasanparthi, Hanmakonda, Atmakur, Dharmasagar and Geesukonda blocks.

A fact finding team consisting of Mr Ramprasad, Agriculture Scientist, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Ms Kavitha Kuruganti, Researcher, CSA and Mr Damoder of Sarvodaya Youth Organisation visited the fields in a few villages in Atmakur and Geesukonda blocks of Warangal district on September 9, 2005 along with farmers from the villages. The villages visited include Sthambhampalli in Geesukonda mandal, Durgampeta and Gudeppad in Atmakur mandal.

In Sthambampalli village, we visited the field of Mr Shankar Rao, who had sown RCH2Bt on one acre. He had so far sprayed Confidor for sucking pests and Boron and Magnesium Sulphate for the peculiar problem that had appeared on the crop. Here, while about 10% of the plants were completely stunted and seemed to be fully affected, another 20% of plants were affected in the upper canopy almost completely. The top leaves of the plant are wrinkled with non-uniform expanded and unexpanded areas. These leaves have inter-veinal red tinge. These plants also seem as if they will not recover. The squares are drying up and falling down. The leaves have a reddish color all over and are curling downwards. The plant however not dried out, no browning found in the dissected stem and wilt has been ruled out. There is high attack of Spodoptera also on this plot with leaves and shoots having been eaten. He also says that he was told that Bt Cotton would be effective against all pests while he is discovering now that this is not the truth. The incidence of sucking pests is quite low - we found however low incidence of mites, thrips and jassids on some leaves. White flies are absent. This could also be because he had taken action to control the initial incidence of sucking pests.

We also looked at the cotton plants with this problem in Mr Doosayya Veeraswamy’s land which was also sown with RCH2 Bt. The problem was similar spodoptera was present in this field too. We also visited Mr Sambayya’s land planted with Bunny Bt – here it was much lesser but still present. Mr Gundekari Ramesh, who had sown 3 acres of his land with RCH2 Bt showed us his Bt Cotton plants which were similar. They were stunted and more than 35% of his field was affected by this disease like phenomenon. While we were walking through the fields, other farmers including women started complaining about the same problem and started asking for a remedy. Some of them were farmers who had sown illegal Bt Cotton.

We went to at least two plots that we were told were Bt Cotton plots - however, we discovered that there is no non-Bt Cotton sown in this village this year. It was all either approved or unapproved Bt Cotton. One of the explanations provided for the spread of Bt Cotton was that farmers who wanted to opt for non-Bt Cotton feared that they will lose out if there is only Bt Cotton all around them and therefore opted for Bt Cotton too. While some of the farmers had sown Bt Cotton last year also, others are growing it for the first time this year. Refuge system is not being followed on the ground.

The villagers here reported that after feeding on Bt Cotton, several goats got killed last year. Asked why they have opted for Bt Cotton despite the problems that they are reporting (they mentioned that the Mahyco varieties of Bt Cotton failed badly last year with very low yields and that goats got killed), they said that they hope that pesticide usage would come down with Bt Cotton now that they are trying other Bt Cotton varieties and that farmers who form a majority of the village cannot afford to think about the negative repercussions on some shepherds who rear animals like sheep and goats. However, several of the farmers met also mentioned that they have to re-think their decision about Bt Cotton now that they are witnessing the new disease on the crop.

We then visited the field of Mr Chelpuri Chandraiah of Durgampet village. He had sown one acre of RCH2 Bt, one acre of Bunny Bt and one acre of Mallika Bt Cotton. His field, several kilometers away from Sthambampalli village, had the same problem. Many plants with stunted growth with leaves reddish in color and curled downwards were present. The problem was more prevalent on this land. The IIIT people, who are running an information extension service in this village, had suggested that he apply boron for treating the problem. Chandraiah had done so 20 days ago, with no improvement in the situation. He had sprayed Contaf and Confidor so far. At the time that we visited him, he was spraying curacron with a power sprayer for the spodoptera attack. He chose to opt for Bt Cotton this year since he got about 10 quintals with RCH2 Bt last year with around Rs. 3000/- spent on pesticides. However, a non-Bt variety that he had sown last year called Pratham had given him 12 quintals with Rs. 5000/- or so spent on pesticides. He said that he had not been able to compare his crop with non-Bt fields since there aren't any such fields around his plot. He thinks that the problem could be because of spurious seed supplied to him by the company coupled with the current weather conditions.

We visited the fields of Mr Chelpuri Narsayya who had sown RCH2 Bt Cotton on 2 acres of his land, with one row of non-Bt refuge all around. In this field, we found high attack of spodoptera as well as Helicoverpa in addition to the unknown disease and leaf curling due to a high incidence of sucking pests. Narsayya had sprayed Confidor and Actara so far in addition to Boron to take care of the new disease. Bollworm damage to squares and buds was quite high in this field.

We also met Mr Chelpuri Laxmaiah here, who had sown RCH 20 Bt in six acres. He has faced the new disease as well as high incidence of sucking pests, Spodoptera and Helicoverpa. He has so far sprayed Confidor, Monocrotophos, Pride, Actara and Avaunt now to control Helicoverpa. When he consulted the Rasi company representatives about the various problems in his field, he was told that it was because he lacked irrigation!

We then visited the field of Mr Lakkidi Channa Reddy who had sown MECH 12 Bt this season. Helicoverpa incidence as well as spodoptera incidence was high here even as the peculiar disease was present at equal levels here. Even though there were not many stunted plants here, the upper canopy of almost a third of his plot was affected with the disease. This farmer also reported higher incidence of skin allergies in all Bt Cotton fields this year. All the other farmers concurred with this observation and experience of this farmer.

We finally visited a non-Bt plot of Mr Chelpuri Mogili, who had sown a non-Bt Cotton hybrid called Sudarshan. In this plot, Helicoverpa damage was at par with the Bt cotton plots we had seen so far, but the disease was definitely much lower. The farmers accompanying us (around 6-7 of them) found the difference marked too. So far, he had sprayed Actara and Cypermethrin for the control of Helicoverpa. His seed cost per packet was Rs. 430/- as opposed to around Rs. 1700/- on an average paid by the others.

We found that in village Gudeppad, where we met with Mr Bommineni Rajireddy, a well-known progressive farmer, who has given his land for some Rasi field trials on Bollgard this season too, that the problem was present on these trial plots too. The Rasi company personnel, including their entomologist Mr Venkat from Salem, could not diagnose the problem - they felt that it was a viral disease that was probably being spread by thrips. We found that the incidence of thrips was quite low in all the fields that we visited - however, both mites and thrips were present at a low level in almost all the fields visited while the presence of jassids and white fly was low this year.

The fact finding team, from its field visits and consultations with other experts (plant pathologists and entomologists), concludes that this might be a new disease unusual for the cotton crop in this state, being spread mostly by the higher incidence of sucking pests on Bt Cotton, that too of thrips.

The main points that emerge from this fact-finding trip are:

1.The government allowed the spread of Bt Cotton, especially of unapproved varieties too to such an extent that it has become very difficult to find control plots to check the actual situation of whether this viral attack was common to all cotton plots or was prevalent more on Bt Cotton (as a result of some unpredictable result of the genetic technology employed here).

2.Beyond academic reasons, such a monoculture of Bt Cotton also means a great deal of damage if this disease is indeed peculiar to Bt Cotton hybrids, which seemed to be the case from our own verification of Bt and non-Bt plots. The government scientists have a similar observation to make, as per media reports. The dire future of cotton farmers in a monoculture situation with such susceptibilities of Bt Cotton cannot be overstated.

3.It is known that Bt Cotton has higher incidence of sucking pests and for the first time, the possibility of viral diseases spreading through these sucking pests mostly on Bt Cotton because of its higher vulnerability is becoming clear. Therefore, it is not only a vulnerability to higher incidence of sucking pests but a vulnerability to greater spread of diseases through these sucking pests.

4.Bt Cotton plots, especially of RCH2 Bt variety, have higher prevalence of this disease. This disease has mixed symptoms of boron deficiency as well as mite attack and the visiting government officials are recommending treatment for both these causes. However, this has not improved the situation, though the spread of the disease has been controlled in the first two plots visited.

5.The damage is upto 30% of the Bt Cotton plots visited. While some plants have become stunted with no growth at all, in other plants which are affected, the upper canopy is displaying the symptoms of leaf reddening and curling downwards with a dried rim even as the squares are drying up and falling down.

6.There is high incidence of Spodoptera on all the plots visited including the non-Bt cotton field. The spodoptera larvae were found to be feeding on leaves as well as buds and flowers. This brings into question the claims of the Bt Cotton companies that damage to flowering and fruiting parts is protected well through this technology. Bt Cotton is clearly not effective against Spodoptera and this is the major pest damaging buds and flowers right now!

7.There is equal incidence of Helicoverpa damage on Bt Cotton and non-Bt Cotton plots. This brings into question the efficacy of the very technology with which Bt Cotton was introduced. Samples of such larvae were collected by the team. The incidence was more than 1 larva per plant. In the case of one farmer's case, the average reported was 2-3 helicoverpa larvae per plant. The square damage that was witnessed by the team was more than 3-4 squares per plant that were bored into by the larvae.

8.There are experiences of skin allergies from working in the Bt Cotton fields and of livestock deaths after feeding on left over Bt Cotton vegetation in the fields from these villages. However, no investigation was done by the government on these issues.

* We demand that immediate assessment be taken up of the extent of damage with this phenomenon and the reasons for the same. Cotton fields of neighboring districts like Nalgonda, Karimnagar and Khammam have to be monitored too for the purpose.

* Scientific comparison of the field level situation between Bt Cotton and non-Bt Cotton plots be taken up to understand the full dimensions of the problem.

* Clear recommendations for control of the problem be disseminated to all farmers before any further loss takes place.

* Compensation mechanisms should be put into place for all those farmers whose fields have been badly affected by this phenomenon and the government should ensure that such compensation is paid properly.

This Fact Finding Report is part of the Bt Cotton monitoring across India of the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee [MEC] set up by Adivasi Ekta Sangathan, AKRSP, CEAD, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Grameen Vikas Trust, Greenpeace India, Jan Saahas, Kheti Virasat Mission, Krishnadevaraya Rythu Sankshema Sangam, Krushi, MARI, Navajyothi, Pasumai Tayagam, Prasun, Rashtriya Satyagrah Dal, Sampark, Sarvodaya Youth Organisation, SECURE, VASPS and YUVA.

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