August 2002, when the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC, rechristened
as Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) was manipulated by Monsanto, and
its Indian subsidiary Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company), albeit through
the back door, with clandestine support from vested interests scientific
community and open support of a vocal Rajya Sabha Member, granted approval for
the commercial cultivation of the first “Bollgard” I cotton in India, in fact,
the very first genetically engineered crop in the country, I had written an
article titled “Bt Cotton – Boon or Bane?”.
was published in The Hindu Business Line and
elicited spectacular enthusiasm from the reading public here in India and also
overseas (Sudliche Zuzammenarbeit in
Berlin, a highly respected and vocal global advocacy forum requested my
permission to translate the article into German and publish the same in their
highly respected and well read global magazine).
then argued that Bt cotton in India was bound to fail. A decade later my
prediction has come true. My main scientific reasoning was that the recombinant
gene technology used is a technique where there is much that is not clearly
understood because it is at the very periphery of biological science. Hence,
results from such a technique in plant breeding are loaded with uncertainties
and danger. But then, half baked science, as is it’s wont, finds its own lobbyists
for personal and pecuniary reasons.
so-called “green revolution” is another classic example in India. I warned, way
back in 1980, during an international congress in Hamburg, Germany, that
India’s green revolution would fall on its face. The degraded soils, dried
aquifers, highly polluted ground water (loaded with so much of nitrate making
it totally non-potable) and vanishing bio diversity due to continuous
monoculture of rice-wheat with “imported” high yielding varieties (HYVs), is
testimony to this.
to this the cancer spread in Gurudaspur district, where uncontrolled pesticide
use, an adjunct of the green revolution, has spread the disease scare like a
tornado. Go to Punjab, the “cradle” of India’s green revolution, or Haryana, or
Western Uttar Pradesh, and you will understand. True, India produced large
amounts of food grains for a while, but at what environmental and human cost?
The innumerable farmers’ suicides due to unsustainable input costs leading to
bankruptcy is another “feather” in the cap of the green revolution lobbyists! The
central theme of this article, however, is Bt cotton and the Bt hype, which
seems to have come full circle.
us first start with how the “science” behind Bt technology has failed. When you
transpose an alien gene (in this case from a soil habiting bacterium, Bacillus thurengiensis, known popularly
as Bt) into a plant cell, targeting a specific pest, in this case the dreaded
American Bollworm (the most devastating cotton pest), it is expected that the
protein configuration which acts as a “poison” when in the gut of the sucking
insect (boll worm), stays stable. But, it simply will not.
in simple language, is the prime reason that while resistance to the American
boll worm started faltering after three to four cotton crop seasons, other
pests like the mealy bugs began to appear. And nobody ever thought of what
happens to the soil in which there are millions of other bacteria which thrive,
many quite beneficial to the host plant. Without going into the intricacies of
microbial science, one can say that what happens is soil “fatigue”.
is also an important reason why the so-called green revolution faltered after
about a decade of its “unstoppable” spread in India. The carbon profile of
Indian soils, reservoir of soil fertility, dipped so low due to indiscriminate
and unbridled use of chemical fertilisers that soils simply could not sustain
crops any more. Yields declined or plateaued.
is also the reason why the “promoters” of Bt technology are scrambling to come
out with “newer” versions of the original. So, we have “Bollgard” II, and God
knows where the “development” of newer versions will stop.
can give an analogy from the automobile technology. Though the “Internal
Combustion Engine” is the “basic” foundation of a four wheeler, exterior
“dressing” that the auto maker keeps heaping on “newer” models keeps customers
glued to the four wheelers. Voila! There we have an automobile revolution, like
the Bt cotton “revolution”. In Beijing nearly 1500 autos are added on to the
roads daily. Delhi is not far behind with 1000! That is the reason we have
“newer” and “newer” models every other year. We can stretch the example even to
a PC (“Personal Computer”).
we attempt to understand the analogy better, we understand that when the
“resistance” to bollworm breaks down, it will then be the mealy bugs, and when
that resistance also breaks down, it will be another pest. The pest gets
smarter than the plant. This is the inevitable price we pay in biological
science like this.
the case of the “miracle” dwarf varieties of wheat or rice introduced into
India during the heydays of the green revolution. Where are they now? They all
have been wiped out. In the case of wheat, “Brown Rust” is the most classic
example. This is the rub. And in the process we totally eliminate the native
cotton varieties which have stood the test of time and the ravages of pests and
diseases, though producing less lint. In one stroke, Monsanto has succeeded in
reducing vastly, if not totally eliminating, many of India’s robust native
cotton varieties. India has been the loser, while Monsanto and its peddlers
have been the gainers.
of now, Bt cotton covers around 90% of the total cotton cropped area. In
2011-12, the productivity of Bt cotton was 485 kg lint per hectare. It was 560
kg lint per hectare in 2007. The danger signal has already been flashed. In
other words, there is an annual reduction of more than 5% in lint yield. Will
Monsanto answer please?
we forget is that wherever yield “increase” was reported, it was under “high
intensive” agriculture - ample supply of water, fertilisers, and supplemental
insecticidal sprays to protect the crop against bollworm. Remove this cover and
you have the crop faltering. This is the tragedy of the Vidharbha cotton farmer.
Bt Cotton, when grown in rainfed areas, has miserably failed. The most telling
example is from Andhra Pradesh. Of the total cotton cropped area of 47 lakh
acres, in 33.73 lakh acres the crop totally failed, and remember, almost the
whole area is rainfed.
district is the ‘cotton belt’ of Maharashtra. The maximum farmers’ suicides are
of cotton farmers. They were financially ruined by huge loans at high interest from
unscrupulous moneylenders to prop up an unsustainable “high input technology” –
exorbitantly costly seeds (when Bollgard I was introduced in India, it was sold
at an unheard of price of Rs 1950 for a 500 gram seed packet, while in China,
the same year, Monsanto sold the same quantity for just US$ 2 or about Rs. 100
at the going exchange rate then). This speaks volumes for the kind of financial
fleecing this MNC and its Indian subsidiary inflicted on gullible Indian cotton
this connection, it is pertinent to point out some crucial scientific facts
concerning Bt cotton vis-à-vis Monsanto strategy. In November 2009, Monsanto
scientists detected unusual survival of the pink boll worm (another important
cotton pest), in Bt cotton fields, as earlier predicted by this author. In
January and February 2010, samples from the cotton fields were tested in
Monsanto’s laboratories. It is now confirmed that pink bollworm is now
resistant to the pest killing protein in Bt cotton.
now, Monsanto has been sticking to the argument that “There have been no
confirmed cases of poor field performance of Bt cotton attributable to insect
resistance”. That argument has been rendered scientifically incorrect by
Monsanto itself now. To understand this, one must go back nearly three decades of
commercial cotton cultivation in India. The country now spends close to Rs 1600
crores on cotton pest control through sprays of insecticides, which is about
50% of the total spent on all crops put together. Cotton occupies just about 5%
of the total cropped area in the country.
the height of the so-called “green revolution” came the widespread use of
hybrid seeds, and cotton was no exception. However, with time, came the pests
as well. In the early 1980s, the fourth generation synthetic pyrethroids
surfaced as “effective” pest control measures in cotton, and with the “high
input technology” of the green revolution, the initial success rate was
spectacular. Soon, the pests outsmarted the insecticides and cotton began to
succumb to pest attack, as in the case of rice in Kuttanad, the “rice bowl” of
Kerala State, where the brown plant hopper (BPH) nearly wiped out the rice crop
from the State’s fields. And this happened following the introduction of the
“miracle” dwarf high yielding rice varieties.
high powered central team that probed the failure of the cotton crop in
northern India noted that in the cropping season (October 2000-September 2011),
the major cause for crop failure was the build up of the bollworm in northern
India, in the early part of the season, followed by rapid succession of the broods
and their epidemic outbreaks from September-October. The team strongly
recommended that use of synthetic pyrethroids be banned, at least for three
years, and that a real reprieve could be obtained only by mixing cotton crop
with others, such as maize, sorghum (for fodder), and bajra (millet), to
encourage the multiplication of the predators and parasitoids. In other words,
the central team’s report clearly proved that it was the “monoculture” of
cotton – the commodity mindset and hallmark of the green revolution – that is
at the root of the tragedy.
find an analogy in Punjab State, the “cradle” of the green revolution, where
continuous mono-cropping of rice-wheat has led to disastrous consequences –
degraded soils, dried aquifers, vanished biodiversity, and, almost unremediable
brown rust disease infestation in wheat. The social dimension is on another
plane, wherein the continuous use of pesticides (insecticides and fungicides)
has led to the maximum number of men and women falling victims to cancer.
question India must now address is: Can Bt technology save the cotton crop? To
understand this, one must critically examine what happened in the USA where it
was first introduced in 1996. Recombinant Gene Technology is a half-baked
science at the very periphery of biotechnological science. It is a biochemical
fusion between an organism of animal origin and an organism of plant origin;
the intended gene triggers an enzymatic reaction in the cotton plant that
blocks protein digestion in the gut of the insect that sucks the cotton cell
sap. The intended result is the death of the American boll worm, a devastating
cotton pest. In earlier times, direct sprays of the bacterial broth were
resorted to in the US.
after the fusion technology was perfected, the genetically engineered cotton
plant started to behave as though it created its own insecticide to control the
boll worm. Commercial exploitation started in the US in 1997 and a review of
field data from that country clearly shows that the question of decreasing or
totally eliminating insecticidal sprays to control the boll worm, as claimed by
Monsanto through Mahyco, its Indian subsidiary, is clearly exaggerated, as
shown by the field experience of Bt cotton farmers in India. Even the economics
of Bt cotton cultivation has been exaggerated. In many fields, Bt cotton yield
(both quantity and quality as judged by lint size) was shown to be less than
from non Bt cotton by almost 15 per cent.
damaging are the environmental consequences and “vertical gene transfer”, which
is the biggest risk factor for sustainable use of transgenic plants in the
developing world. Non-target plants will definitely acquire pest resistance due
to pollen transfer from Bt cotton and insects feeding on non-toxic plants in
the neighbourhood will be affected and a dramatic change in insect population,
beneficial and predatory, which is required to maintain natural balance in the
ecosystem, will be brought out. This has already begun to happen in India, and
can never be reversed now, since we have been cultivating Bt cotton for a
decade now, and this has been admitted by Monsanto itself, against its former
adverse fallout build up over time will not be seen overnight. The best analogy
is what has happened in Punjab State, “cradle” of the green revolution, where
continuous monoculture (rice-wheat rotation) has led to soil degradation,
salinity build-up due to excessive use of irrigation water, drying aquifers,
vanished bio-diversity and rendering ground water non-potable due to excessive
nitrate loading of ground water – a consequence of unbridled use of urea
fertilisers to prop up rice and wheat yields.
diversification, where more legumes which enhance soil fertility, in rice-wheat
rotations is a very welcome change. It is heartening to note that the Finance
Minister in his new budget for 2013-14 has allocated Rs 500 crores for the crop
diversification programme. It is to be hoped that this amount will be well
spent in states like Punjab, which is the most affected as a consequence of
rice-wheat monoculture backed by the high input technology of chemically-driven
most worrisome aspect of Bt technology is that it uses a unique technique
called “Gene Use Restriction Technique” (GURT) - the production of lethal
proteins in the cotton seed at the time of maturity which renders the seed
harvested from one season infertile when planted in following season, a common tradition
with farmers. Indian farmers traditionally save seeds from the previous crop
for use in the following seasons. This will no more be possible in the case of
Bt cotton. In short, Indian farmers will simply be perpetually tied to the MNC,
be it Mosanto, or any other producing the Bt cotton, and would end up as their slaves!
the question arises, should we totally dispense with this dubious technology
promoted by an alien MNC? Many are asking the uncomfortable question - why is
the Indian Council of Agricultural Research which has the mandate to steer
India’s agricultural research not taking up the issue by itself? That ICAR
embarked on a project like this and the scientific fraud that resulted may be
news to millions of gullible Indians, but not to those who are privy to the
truth. It is my considered opinion that Bt technology, as of now, is just half-baked
Bt cotton will need no more insecticidal sprays has been rubbished even in USA,
home of this dubious technology. China is slowly but surely steering away from
Bt cotton. It is not the increase in cotton yield per se that led to it’s
widespread use. It is the promise by the MNC that farmers will no more need to
protect their cotton crop with insecticidal sprays.
larger question conscientious Indians have to ask is whether we should continue
to succumb to the same lure as before and pay a far greater price in terms of
environmental integrity, with the total elimination of our numerous native
cotton varieties, some of which are highly pest and disease resistant, low
yielders but with far better lint quality? Should we make Indian cotton farmers
slaves to agribusiness giants, or choose other alternatives? There are quite a
number available. The only roadblock is we are not intent on learning.
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