Doug Gurian-Sherman takes apart Bt cotton claims (31/1/2006)

1.Re: In defence of Bt cotton - Doug Gurian-Sherman
2.In defence of Bt cotton - R K Sinha & Bhagirath Choudhary

Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman has sent us a very interesting commentary on an article published recently in the Indian press - 'In defence of Bt cotton'. He concludes by saying that the kind of spin to be found in the article "is typical of proponents of GE crops, who don't seem to have enough confidence in their technology to make accurate and realistic arguments."

Dr Gurian-Sherman is Senior Scientist at The Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC, and was formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he was responsible for assessing human health and environmental risks from transgenic plants and microorganisms, and for developing biotechnology policy.

R K Sinha & Bhagirath Choudhary, the authors of the article Gurian-Sherman takes apart, are from the biotech-industry-backed ISAAA and the All-India Crop Biotechnology Association (AICBA). AICBA represents Monsanto and other GM 'stakeholders'. It's worth noting, however, that some of the partisan and misleading claims made in the article are to be found quite regularly in press pieces in India on Bt cotton.

1. Re: In defence of Bt cotton

The article below about Bt cotton in India is interesting in the way it misrepresents the supposed "benefits". There are a number of misleading statements that, while not literally untrue, seem to be intended to mislead the public. In general, the article associates Bt with "benefits" that likely have little or nothing to do with it by juxtaposing statements about Bt with unrelated data about cotton. An unwitting reader would easily link Bt with the unrelated "benefits," because the authors do not point out that they are really largely unlinked.

For example, the article notes that the yield of cotton has increased from 309 kg/ha when Bt cotton was first introduced after 2001-2002, to 460 kg/ha now. Although the article does not explicitly say that the increase is due to Bt cotton, this is clearly the implication (the article is about Bt cotton, after all, not cotton improvement generally). The article mentioned that Bt cotton makes up only around 15% of cotton acres. Therefore, if we assume, as implied, that Bt is responsible for the increased cotton yield, then the yield on the Bt acres must be around 1300 kg/ha, or an over 400% increase in yield on Bt acres, in order to bring up the average on all cotton acres to 460 kg/ha [taking the weighted average: 0.15(X) + 0.85(309) = 460, solving for X gives around 1313 kg/ha]!! I don't know much about cotton production in India, but it seems ludicrous on its face that control of a single insect, cotton bollworm (the only one, I think controlled by Bt), even this important insect, could have anywhere near this kind of impact. Actually, what the data suggest, is that factors other than Bt must be responsible for much of the yield increase – which also suggests that increased cotton yield in India does not depend much on Bt!

In fact, a more likely (partial) explanation is found later, where the article mentions that because the Bt cotton varieties mature early, a farmer can get two cotton crops per year compared to one with other varieties. But this is also misleading, because it implies (again, it is not explicit) that the earlier maturation is due to Bt. But Bt probably has nothing to do with early maturation, and therefore the early maturation aspects of these Bt varieties have nothing to do with GE. It almost certainly just turns out that Monsanto has put the Bt gene into non-GE cotton varieties that mature early! My guess is that these early maturing varieties are not available without the Bt gene (although they could be – there is likely nothing in the biology of the variety to prevent it) – which if true amounts to pressure to force Indian farmers to buy Bt if they want the other desirable traits. Monsanto seems to be doing this in the U.S., for example by making non-GE soybeans that produce low linolenic acid oil (less prone to turn rancid) available only when attached to the Roundup Ready trait. To me this amounts to a kind of monopoly blackmail. (In any case, growing cotton continuously, two crops per year, will often burn out the soil before long. Cotton is a very extractive crop.) Growing two cotton crops per year will also increase the possibility that the bollworm will become resistant to the Bt quicker, making the Bt trait largely useless in those places where resistance occurs. Asian Bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) was recently reported to have developed resistance to Bt cotton in Australia (2005 paper by R. Gunning in Appl. Environ. Microbiol.).

The article also mentions that other [non-Bt] varieties often fail due to drought and multiple pest epidemics. Again, Bt does not confer drought tolerance, and only protects against a few Lepidoptera (moth) pests, not the many others (like jassids and many diseases) that also attack cotton. So again, if these varieties perform better than the currently available non-Bt varieties, it is not due to Bt, but to non-GE traits that the Bt has been added to. What all of this suggests is that if the Monsanto cotton varieties are improving cotton growth, it has a lot to do with non-GE traits that could be available without Bt.

This kind of spin is typical of proponents of GE crops, who don't seem to have enough confidence in their technology to make accurate and realistic arguments.


In defence of Bt cotton
Times of India, Jan 24 2006

Bt cotton technology has been widely accepted by Indian farmers across the country since its first commercialisation in 2002.

In 2005-06, the current cotton season, legally permitted Bt cotton has been planted over 14 lakh hectares in northern, central and southern cotton growing zones as compared to merely 45,000 ha in 2002-03.

The area under official Bt cotton accounts for 15.6% of the 90 lakh ha, which is the total cotton area of the country. There were only three Bt cotton hybrids in 2002.

Against that, nearly 20 Bt cotton hybrids belonging to half a dozen companies have been planted across the country in the current season. In 2005-06, more than 10 lakh small and medium farmers in India enjoyed the benefits of Bt cotton technology

The significant increase in cotton yield during the last five years is reportedly higher than the cumulative increase in the last five decades.

As a result, cotton production has touched 250 lakh bales (1 bale=170 kg) in the 2005 season, higher than the projected target of 220 lakh bales for the tenth five year Plan under the Technology Mission on Cotton (TMC).

Yield, that directly measures the income of poor farmers, has increased from 309 kg/ha in 2001-02 to 460 kg/ha in 2004-05, and is estimated to reach 475 kg/ha in 2005-06.

Bt cotton technology provides new ave-nues for the Indian textile industry in the post-quota regime of the WTO. The availability of good quality raw cotton on a regular basis was a genuine concern a few years back.

With the introduction of Bt technology and effective implementation of TMC, the cotton textiles industry has grown in confidence. Cotton textiles exports increased from $3 billion in 2001 to $4 billion in 2005.

The textiles industry is expected to reach a size of $85 billion by 2010 from the current size of $42 billion, both in terms of exports and domestic consumption, with a significant increase in cotton component in the total textile trade.

Taking into account the performance of various Bt cotton hybrids in different agro-climatic zones, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has already commenced diversification in Bt genotypes by permitting more companies to introduce different Bt genes.

A recent report, organised by the National Commission on Farmers under the chairmanship of M S Swaminathan, has recommended that biotechnologies can offer new hope for increased productivity, sustainability and profitability to Indian farmers.

It has concluded that the cultivation of Bt cotton allows for an additional net pro-fit of at least about Rs 12,000 per ha, and about 40-50% savings in pesticide use, while other varieties report failure due to drought and multiple pest epidemics.

Bt hybrids mature early, enabling double-cropping in single-cropped areas. The consultation raised serious concerns about the sale of spurious Bt cotton seeds and calls for strong measure to prevent that.

Lack of general awareness of crop biotech in different cotton-growing areas is cause for serious concern.

The consultation has also advocated that a large-scale training programme be introduced in Krishi Vigyan Kendras and the state-extension system to ensure safe and effective transfer of crop biotech products.

Critics of agri-biotech have often cited a recent research paper of K R Kranthi of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, published in Current Science. It is incorrect to conclude that the paper points to the ineffectiveness of Bt cotton in controlling the bollworm.

While Bt cotton is highly effective during the 60-115 days period, we advocate the use of insecticide sprays during the remaining one to two weeks period when bollworm populations may reach economic threshold levels.

A recent global study on socio-economic and environmental impact of GM crops by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot reported a cumulative gain of $124 million to the Indian farm economy over the last three years as a result of Bt cotton technology.

However, cases of wilting of Bt cotton crop have been reported in the media. Micronutrient imbalance might have caused the wilting problem. It is essential to educate farmers to adopt an integrated fertiliser, pest and micronutrient regime.

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