By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, March 4: The cat is out of the bag finally. It's is now officially proved that Bt cotton crop is a failure, at least in Andhra Pradesh.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest has finally accepted the contention of farmers and farm organisations that Bt cotton seeds supplied by Mahyco Monsanto India Limited failed to deliver the promised results.
"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 take square/flower dropping that was observed in several fields", the GEAC report pointed out.
The Greenpeace and Warangal-based Sarvodaya Youth Organisation released portions of the GEAC report in Delhi on Friday. Sarvodaya convener Damodar told Deccan Chronicle over telephone that their stand on the Bt had been vindicated. "We have been fighting against the ill-effects of Bt cotton. We have finally won the battle to some extent. We still have to secure compensation to the affected farmers", he observed.
Thousands of farmers in Warangal, Guntur and Mahbubnagar districts have lost heavily after they changed to the Bt version of cotton from conventional hybrid varieties three years ago. While farmers, farm organisations and NGOs blame the successive crop failures on the bad quality of the seeds supplied by GM companies, economists and farm experts prefer to tread a cautious path.
According to eminent economist Jayati Ghosh, an integrated pest management system is the best solution to the problems being faced by farmers. "During my visits to Guntur, Mahbubnagar and Warangal districts, many farmers brought to my notice that Bt cotton seed was resistant to only 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 pointed out.
She, however, feels that many farmers have gone in for Bt cotton without adequate knowledge of the varieties they are using. Farmers should look at the alternative varieties available in the market. They should also prefer alternative pest management methods to overcome their problems.
Farmers grow Bt cotton in over 80,000 hectares in the State. Bt Cotton seed varieties are sold at Rs 1600 per packet of 450 grams. This is in contrast to 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.
Genetically modified cotton varieties were first introduced in the State during 2001-2002 amidst stiff resistance by environmentalists and social activists. In fact, the State government had banned field trials of Bt cotton. Only a handful of farmers could really make profit.
As in the past, this year too many Bt cotton growers have knocked at the door of the State government seeking compensation for the losses they had incurred. The State has MoU committees to monitor the crop and decide the quantum of compensation to be paid to the affected farmers.
Environmentalists argue that field trials on Bt cotton varieties were not conducted properly and 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 YV Malla Reddy, "the cost of cultivation of Bt cotton is higher but the yields are not commensurate with the expenditure incurred. 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 done on very small plots of land were sought to be extrapolated into the farmers situation and growing conditions.
Genetically modified varieties including cotton, however, find a supporter in internationally renowned biologist Dr MS Swaminathan. "We have a lot of things to look into. Before coming to conclusion, we should look into other factors involved as well. There are a number of reasons for crop failure. You cannot specify one particular reason", he pointed out.
Farmers reported that there was an increase of 300 per cent in non-target pests like jassids, aphids and thrips. Bt cotton has been attacked by wilt and root rot in the State. 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.
Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based agricultural policy think tank, in its Bt cotton evaluation study reported complete failure of the crop. The study showed that 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.
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.
The Regional Agricultural Research Station of Acharya NG Ranga Agriculture University, in Mahbubnagar, collected data on Bt cotton performance from 100 farmers from Mahbubnagar, Nalgonda, Rangareddy and Medak districts. It noted that the expenditure on growing Bt Cotton did not decrease as the projections seemed to indicate but rather increased. The net income from Bt Cotton was almost negligible compared to other hybrids. In fact, in Rangareddy district, the survey found that farmers have negative incomes from growing Bt Cotton.
The study revealed that the average number of pesticide sprays with the use of Bt cotton was only 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 in this aspect between Bt and non-Bt cotton varieties. Only in Medak district, Bt cotton generated more income to farmers than non-Bt hybrids.
The university team found that Bt cotton was unable to withstand water or moisture stress unlike the conventional varieties. GM giant Monsanto
does not sell its seeds directly in the country. It markets the varieties through its Indian agent Mahyco. Monsanto's gene technology is 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.
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.
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