Bt: Flaky results, pre-determined consensus (16/8/2006)

Here are the conclusions from a very thoughtful and detailed article by Keya Acharya, a Bangalore based development journalist, on the erratic performance of Bt cotton in India.

After considering in some detail how varied the performance of Bt cotton appears to have been at different times and in different parts of the country, Keya Acharya seeks to sum up the overall patterns affecting Bt cotton cultivation.

One of the patterns she identifies is a strong determination amongst India's governing and scientific elites to push transgenics - with Bt cotton very much the flagship - as the way forward for Indian agriculture, regardless of the actual evidence in the field.

This means, Acharya points out, that where Bt cotton fails there is silence on the poor results not only by the seed corporates themselves, but by India's regulators, with the GEAC failing to develop GM regulation accordingly. Thus, "The existing varieties that have had such disastrous results in the southern Indian region... are still allowed in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharastra till 2007."

This is what Acharya means by "Flaky results, pre-determined consensus." Meanwhile, India's poor farmers suffer the consequences of this unshakeable consensus, with no official voices raised or regulatory checks developed to hinder the industry's aggressive marketing.

Bt: Flaky results, pre-determined consensus
by Keya Acharya
India Together, 11 August 2006

...The patterns

While there appears to be little that can be categorically stated about Bt cotton's success/failure in India itself, a few aspects stand out.

One, the determined approach to extend and increase Bt cotton shown by Indian government's political and scientific administration along with private scientists is matched by their seemingly equal inability to discuss Bt cotton's mixed results so far. Instead, the authorities appear to be pinning their hopes on transgenic crops with Bt cotton as the flagship and as the only way forward for cotton cultivation.

Two, and in line with this, the Bt seed industry meanwhile has found easy coincidence between their commercial interests and the government's professed national interests. Marketing of Bt cotton seeds has taken on the aggression of a race with reports of unapproved, trial-run seeds being deliberately distributed to spread awareness on them.

Three, as noted earlier, India's small farmers have borne the brunt of the experimentation of Bt cotton, shouldering, in addition, more failures due to spurious seeds, and having less agricultural resources to bolster the crop. The current transgenic seed scene appears more to favour 'rich' farmers, with better resources and more lands for alternative support. The poor farmer will hopefully fare well in a good monsoon year; how he manages in lesser rains is anybody's guess.

Even though good monsoons are good for cotton just as they are for other crops, seed corporates are holding out a banner on food and livelihood security over Bt cotton and other transgenic crops as if they are special. The reality is that three years ago, the government acknowledged falling farm incomes and growing inequities amongst farmers in the Situation Assessment of Farmers (2003). This makes me circumspect about transgenic crops as a livelihood security measure for the majority of India's small-holder farmers.

The only decision by the government that appeared reasonable was in 2003, when the GEAC decided to extend Bt-trial runs for 3 years till March 2006, in the face of protests at poor trials. Also in 2003, the Ministry of Environment and Forests setup a commission to formulate a mechanism for the evaluation, monitoring and control of Bt cotton in India. Despite the situation being ripe for debate, the website of the Ministry of Environment is silent on what the commission has to say.

Keya Acharya
11 Aug 2006

Keya Acharya is a Bangalore based development and investigative journalist. This is the third and final article in a series of three special reports.

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