By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: It is now official. Bt cotton seeds are a failure, at least in Andhra Pradesh.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest has accepted the contention of farmers and farm organisations that Bt cotton seeds supplied by Mahyco-Monsanto India Limited have failed to deliver the promised results.
The damning report comes just ahead of a review of the permission granted by the Centre for the cultivation of Bt cotton. The permission, given in 2002, was to be reviewed on Friday.
“The fact of yield losses varying from 30 to 60 per cent on an average and even 80 per cent in a few cases, is clearly borne out from the verification reports submitted by the joint teams constituted for the purpose. It is also evident that, whatever may be the other contributing factors, the Bt cotton varieties in question have failed to perform up to the standards that were promised and expected. The poor performance is reflected not only in their vulnerability to diseases, but also in the square/flower dropping that was observed in several fields,” the GEAC report pointed out.
Meanwhile, a report of the MoU committee (Joint Director, Agriculture) has also found fault with the seed company. It even suggests that “M/s Mahyco Monsanto Ltd, is liable for payment of damages at the rate of Rs 1,496.25 per acre and a total amount of Rs 2,48,85,630 in respect of the affected extents... The company shall take necessary action for payment of the compensation accordingly within the period prescribed under MoU, namely 30 days, failing which this award will carry interest at the rate of 24 per cent per annum.”
Thousands of farmers in Warangal, Guntur and Mahbubnagar districts have lost heavily after they changed to Bt version of cotton from conventional hybrid varieties three years ago. While farmers, farm organisations and NGOs blame crop failures on the genetically modified seeds, economists and farm experts prefer to tread a cautious path.
The GEAC and MoU Committee reports only confirm research conducted by NGOs and the NG Ranga Agricultural University which found that there was no substantial difference in use of pesticides with Bt cotton, and the yields were the same if not less. What is more, Bt cotton was vulnerable to attack by other pests like aphids.
Farmers reported that there was an increase of 300 per cent in non-target pests like jassids, aphids and thrips. Bt cotton crop has been attacked by wilt and root rot. Many complain that higher yields of up to 15 quintals per acre were promised, whereas the average yields of Bt Cotton were two to three quintals per acre. Nowhere did Bt Cotton yields cross more than four quintals per acre at the end of the harvest.
Bt Cotton is a genetically engineered form of natural cotton. It contains the property of insect-specific resistance through the transfer of a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt for short). The Bt variety produces a protein which when ingested in adequate quantities is toxic to lepidopteron insects. The Bt cotton is specifically targeted at the most serious scourge of the cotton crop, the boll worm.
In AP, Mayhco-Monsanto and the home-grown Raasi sell Bt cotton seeds. Monsanto provides the Bt genes and the seeds are developed by Mayhco.
Genetically modified cotton varieties were introduced in the State during 2001-2002 amidst stiff resistance by environmentalists and social activists. The government had earlier banned field trials of Bt cotton.
Farmers grow Bt cotton in over 80,000 hectare in the State. Bt cotton seed varieties are sold at Rs 1,600 per packet of 450 gram, against Rs 400 per packet of non-Bt varieties. A Bt-cotton farmer spends around Rs 16,000 per hectare against Rs 10,000 by conventional cotton growers. The returns, however, are almost the same.
Bt cotton was sold by Monsanto with the promise that, by genetically altering the seed it could develop resistance to boll worm, the commonest and most serious scourge of cotton.
Monsanto does not sell its seeds directly, it markets the varieties through its Indian agent Mahyco. Monsanto’s Bt genes are utilised by Mahyco to produce Bt cotton seeds. The high protein content in the Bt varieties make them consume more water upsetting the delicate ecological balance.
Andhra Pradesh, one of the most proactive States in safeguarding the rights of cotton farmers, responded to the increase in farmers’ suicides by introducing a MOU, with the primary aim to arbitrate cases involving seed companies and farmers and to provide quick relief to the latter. Repeated failure of Bt Cotton in the State in 2002-03 and 2003-04 caused the government to make Monsanto-Mahyco accountable to the farmers in Bt. Cotton.
The chairmen of MoU District Level Committee have no hesitation in holding that the defects noticed in Bt. Cotton varieties in question, should be attributed to the genetic impurity and inadequacy of the parent seed used by the company for genetic modification.
According to economist and Chronicle columnist Jayati Ghosh, chairperson of the State Farmers Welfare Commission, an integrated pest management system is the best solution. “During my visits to Guntur, Mahbubnagar and Warangal districts, many farmers brought to my notice that Bt cotton seed was resistant to one particular type of pest. Pesticide usage has not come down. Some farmers said the crop was bad other reported it was not better,” she said.
She feels that farmers have gone in for Bt cotton without adequate knowledge of the varieties they are using. Farmers should look at alternative varieties and opt for alternative pest management methods.
Genetically modified varieties including cotton find a supporter in internationally renowned biologist Dr M S Swaminathan. “We have a lot of things to look into. Before coming to a conclusion, we should look into other factors as well. There are a number of reasons for crop failure. You cannot specify one particular reason,” he said.
State agriculture officials do not find fault with Bt technology per se. "Bt technology is OK. The fault lies with the so-called Bt seed varieties. Certain varieties of Mahyco have failed in the State while those of Rasi are performing wonderfully well", clarifies T Peddi Reddy, additional director of agriculture.
On the production side, Bt varieties are as good as any hybrid variety. The only advantage of Bt cotton is that it is resistant to boll worm and consumes less quantity of pesticide. He said the State government had sent samples of Mahyco seeds to the Cotton Research Centre in Nagpur to verify if they contained the Bt gene.
Environmentalists argue that field trials on Bt cotton varieties were not conducted properly and nor were the results evaluated scientifically. While many countries have fixed a mandatory field trial for six years before granting approval for commercial production, the Central government gave its approval after four years of field trials.
Says State Farmers’ Welfare Commission member Y V Malla Reddy, “the cost of cultivation of Bt cotton is higher but the yields are not commensurate with the expenditure. Bt cotton has both advantages and disadvantages. What many overlook are the unintended benefits. Traders and seed companies deliberately hide the negative side of the products they market.”
He points out that Bt cotton trials were not open for independent scrutiny. Trials were done on very small plots of land and the data sought to be extrapolated into real situations and growing conditions.
Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, Government of India: Report largely agrees that Bt cotton seeds provided by Monsanto-Mahyco India Ltd caused heavy losses to farmers. “The fact of yield losses varying from 30 to 60 per cent on an average and even 80 per cent in a few cases, is clearly borne out from the verification reports submitted by the joint teams constituted for the purpose. It is also evident that, whatever may be the other contributing factors, the Bt cotton varieties in question have failed to perform up to the standards that were promised and expected. The poor performance is reflected not only in their vulnerability to diseases, but also in the square/flower dropping that was observed in several fields,” the report said.
The report of the Joint Director Agriculture says, “some members of the MoU committee (a panel set up to decide on compensation for farmers who lost their Bt cotton crop) have expressed a doubt whether the seed defect as now noticed in the Bt varieties and the consequent losses suffered by the farmers can be brought under the contingency of genetic impurity.”
Mahbubnagar Regional Agricultural Research Station, Acharya NG Ranga Agriculture University: The station collected data on Bt cotton performance from 100 farmers from Mahbubnagar, Nalgonda, Rangareddy and Medak districts. It noted that the expenditure on Bt Cotton did not decrease but rather increased. The net income from Bt cotton was almost negligible compared to other hybrids. In Ranga Reddy district, farmers have negative incomes from Bt cotton.
The station reported that the average pesticide use with Bt cotton was one spray lesser than non-Bt hybrids. While 61 per cent of the farmers surveyed found that Bt cotton was effective against boll worm up to three months, 39 per cent found no difference between Bt and non-Bt cotton varieties. Only in Medak district did Bt cotton generate more income to farmers than non-Bt hybrids.
The university team found that Bt cotton was unable to withstand water or moisture stress unlike conventional varieties.
Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad: Report said Bt cotton has not been yielding the desired results. According to the CSA study, the incidence of pests, especially bollworm, was still high despite the huge production cost of Rs 2,632 per acre. Cotton production had witnessed better results when organic methods of cultivation had been used, with the expenditure at Rs 382 per acre. The centre has strongly recommended against continuing the cultivation of BT cotton, and has called for more non-pesticidal cultivation of cotton.
Gene Campaign, Delhi: The agricultural policy think tank in its Bt cotton evaluation study reported complete failure of the crop. It reported 60 per cent of the farmers did not recover costs and that most of them incurred a loss of Rs 80 an acre. The seed cost per acre is four times that of quality non-Bt varieties. The savings on pesticides is a mere Rs 217 an acre, while the seed cost, including the licence fee for using the patented Bt seeds, is Rs 1,200 higher.
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