Paying the price of Bt Cotton (22/11/2005)

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Paying the price of Bt Cotton
C Rajasekhar
The Hindustan Times, November 21, 2005
(The author is Assistant Professor, National Law Institute University, Bhopal)

APPARENTLY, Bt cotton has come with a huge price tag attached – Bt cotton farmers in Nimar are supposed to have lost about Rs 400 crore, as nearly half of the crop grown on about 4 lakh acres has wilted. What is Bt cotton and what is the genesis of the present controversy?

Bt cotton is a genetically engineered cotton seed that contains a gene akin to the common soil bacteria, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a toxin lethal to the cotton pest, bollworm.

The controversy began in 1998 when the joint venture, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco) – Monsanto Biotech Limited (MMBL) — started its field trials of Bt cotton in nine states including MP without the written approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

In March 2002, regulatory approval was given to Bt cotton for commercial cultivation on the grounds that the Bt cotton field trials gave greater yields, generated higher incomes for farmers and required lesser pesticide sprays than non-Bt cotton crop.

Mysteriously, the detailed results of the field trials have still not been disclosed to the public.

A recent survey conducted by the Beej Swraj Abhiyan in association with two NGOs, Sampark and WASP in Jhabua and Dhar districts, belie the tall claims made by Bt cotton seed makers.

While Bt cotton growers incurred an expenditure of Rs 2127.13 per acre on fertilisers, wages, pesticides and irrigation, non-Bt cotton farmers spent just Rs 1014.86 per acre.

While a 450-gm packet of Bt cotton seed cost around Rs 1600-2000, a non-Bt cotton packet cost between Rs 400-500. Moreover, the difference in pesticide sprays for both Bt cotton sprays and non-Bt cotton sprays was not statistically significant.

Finally, Bt cotton growers earned a net profit of Rs 1493.53 per acre, non Bt cotton farmers earned Rs 2663.12 per acre, that is, about 75 per cent more. Clearly, in economic terms, Bt cotton farmers have been left high and dry!

The episode also indicates a complete regulatory failure – though the National Biotechnology regulatory regime provides for State Biotechnology Coordination Committees and district-level committees on paper, in practice they have proved completely ineffective.

However, the most disturbing feature is the transformation of the character of farming in the State – instead of maximising food security and ecological security, farmers are being induced by private sector seed or agribusiness companies to grow profit maximising cash crops without a proper assessment of costs, benefits and risks.

While the NGOs have demanded that the State Government secures compensation from seed companies, it may be legally difficult to do so, as farmers have purchased these seeds from the companies in their personal capacity. Nevertheless, Agriculture Minister Gopal Bhargava must immediately appoint a committee comprising agriculture scientists, top-ranking agriculture officials, geneticists and representatives of NGOs and farmers to probe the issue thoroughly.

Amongst other things, the committee could seek the results of the field trials done by MMBL in the State; share information with Southern states like AP and Karnataka about their experiences with Bt cotton; collect data on area and output under commercial cultivation of Bt and non-Bt cotton crop in the State, the yields per acre, incomes of farmers and quality of Bt and non-Bt cotton crop and a full biodiversity assessment of Bt cotton crop including the frequency of pesticide sprays, its effect on soil microorganisms and birds, bees and butterflies who act as pollinators and the risks of transfer of genetically engineered traits to non-genetically engineered crops through pollination.

Besides this, the Agriculture Minister must also ensure that in future whenever seeds of a company are introduced into the local market, the Agriculture Department must test samples of these seeds and district- and block-level officials of the department must guide the farmers appropriately in this regard.

Finally, all said and done, when even the West is adopting a cautious approach towards biotech farming, do we really need genetically engineered cotton and other crops in the State?

Agriculture being a State subject and the ruling party being one that espouses indigenous solutions, Bhargava should tread with wisdom and caution — lest agriculture is transformed into a scary reality show in the State.

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