The bitter harvest (29/9/2005)

2.Expert demands inquiry into Bt cotton cultivation

Kasturi Das
The Telegraph (Calcutta), 29 September 2005

Ever since its introduction in March 2002, Bt cotton, the sole transgenic crop commercially grown in India, has been at the centre of controversy. The latest one has been triggered off by a research by Keshav R. Kranthi and his colleagues at the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur. It is based on the findings of a series of field experiments on eight Bt-cotton Bollgard hybrids commercially grown in India. The results revealed that the Bt cotton 'hybrids' being grown here are inadequate for effectively controlling the cotton pest, bollworm.

The study has indicated that one of the reasons behind poor performance of Bt cotton in India is that here it is grown as 'hybrid', unlike in the US, China and Australia. The findings are disquieting given that the principal reason behind the introduction of Bt cotton in India was its purported ability to make the cotton plant resistant to bollworms.

It is appalling that even with such clear scientific evidence, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, the country’s apex body for approving genetically modified products, has not taken any initiative to stall its commercial cultivation. Instead, fresh approvals have been granted, and old approvals renewed.

Growing wild

On the other hand, efforts are on at the highest level to put in place a full-fledged policy framework to provide a big push for the proliferation of transgenic crops in the country. This, despite the fact that the ecological and health-safety implications of GM crops are yet to be proved conclusively anywhere in the world.

More alarming is the blatant attempt of our policy-makers to push through transgenic agro-technology on the pretext of achieving noble objectives, such as, increase in agricultural yield, economic wellbeing of farm families, food security of the nation, security of national and international trade in farm commodities, and so on.

As far as yield is concerned, studies in India and abroad have revealed poorer performance of GM crops compared to their non-GM counterparts. Lack of satisfactory yield, along with the high costs of GM seeds and cultivation, makes GM crops spell doom for small and marginal farmers. In Andhra Pradesh in particular, cultivation of Bt cotton has forced hundreds of farmers to commit suicides.

New problems

Even if it is assumed that GM crops will help to boost yields, it can never guarantee two square meals for the entire population of the country, since the biggest impediment to achieving food security in India is economic accessibility, and not physical availability.

Moreover, the monoculture-based GM technology, by endangering the biodiversity of India, may well end up threatening the livelihood of our agrarian community. There still remains the threat of contamination of non-GM crops by their GM counterparts. Indian agricultural exports may also become a vulnerable and risky venture in a situation of coexistence of GM and non-GM crops.

If India stops further promotion of transgenic crops, it may be in an advantageous position in the external trade front. With public opinion against GM crops gaining increasing momentum around the world, the global market prospect is likely to get increasingly better for any non-GM agricultural product.

Thus, there is not enough economic justification for promoting the cultivation of GM crops in India. Hence, instead of glorifying transgenic crops, a prudent approach would be to put a moratorium on further commercial cultivation of GM crops in India. It is not genetic engineering but more sustainable alternatives like organic or ecological farming that can pull Indian agriculture out of hard times.

2.Expert demands inquiry into Bt cotton cultivation
By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
REDIFF.COM, September 29, 2005

The story of Bt cotton cultivation in India is getting murkier by the day and it deserves a full fledged inquiry on all aspects, said Dr Suman Sahai of 'Gene Campaign'.

In a press conference in New Delhi, Sahai told media that multinational corporations are having vested interests in the cultivation of Bt cotton and it's high time the Indian government stood up for the farmers and consumers of India.

The letters 'Bt' stand for Bacillus thuringiensis, a toxin-producing bacterium found naturally in soils. Scientists have, with the help of genetic engineering, separated toxin producing genes to produce certain seeds. Pests die when they eat Bt cotton plants.

The United States company Monsanto is enjoying monopoly over the most used variety of cotton seed Bollgard.

After a large number of suicides of debt-ridden farmers due to use of fake varieties of seed, and campaigning by non-government organisations, Andhra Pradesh has banned Monsanto Bt cotton which is distributed with help of Mahyco.

Dr Sahai said that, it is criminal on the part of the government and on the part of the regulatory authority to pretend that all is well with Bt cotton when there is so much evidence that it is not.

In the biotech industry, Bt cotton is a critical technology for the success of the marketing of genetically modified agriculture all over the world.

For India, the issue raised by Dr Sahai deserves attention because the government's monitoring is not only weak, but absolutely inadequate and inefficient, believe the experts.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee haven't been able to respond satifactorily to most arguments against the failure of Bt cotton varieties.

Dr Sahai alleged that "despite corroborated reports of failure, Monsanto has refused to pay any compensation to Indian farmers who have suffered losses and GEAC has not taken any action in this regard".

The issue deserves attention also because Dr Mangala Rai, director general of Indian Council of Agricultural Research is currently engaged in deliberations with a powerful team within the government over how to bring about a second green revolution in India with the help of US technology.

"Indo-US nuclear deal's quid pro quo is the agriculture deal signed with the US," Dr Sahai said.

Commenting on the huge economic interest and aggressive marketing of multinationals, she added, "It's obvious that America allowed us the access to nuclear technology and in return asked India to allow an access to the Indian agriculture market for American biotech companies."

Dr Sahai, in support of her argument to demand a through inquiry against Bt cotton cultivation, quoted a startling example of well-known scientist Dr Kranthi belonging to the Cotton Research Institute of Nagpur.

Dr Sahai alleges that Dr Kranthi published a paper in the scientific journal Current Science providing scientific data on how Bt cotton is not very effective in India.

Dr Sahai picked up from there and quoted him in The Hindu to prove that Bt cotton technology is faulty and doesn't protect farmers against the boll-worm.

But Dr Kranthi retaliated soon. He wrote a column in The Hindu absolving himself and his boss Dr Mangala Rai.

About his evidence in the scientific journal, Dr Kranthi says that Bt cotton "has a few inherent adequacies. That does not take away the merit of the technology".

Dr Kranthi has described Bt cotton as a brilliant technology.

The tussle between the two scientists has raised a cloud over Monsanto's future plans in India.

Dr Sahai says that farmers need to answer why Bt cotton hybrids in India were unstable and unpredictable. She says that everything should be on hold till the inquiry is made.

She said one of the causes of farmers' suicides in India was a failure of Bt cotton cultivation and cultivation of fake and illegal variety of Bt cotton. Dubious seeds are a major threat to Indian farmers.

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