A decade of Bt hype
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 17 Apr 2012 12 Comments

In August 2002, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (rechristened Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) was manipulated by Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company, albeit through the back door, with clandestine support from vested interests in the scientific community and open support of a vocal Rajya Sabha Member. The GEAC then granted approval for the commercial cultivation of the first “Bollgard” I cotton in India, the very first genetically engineered crop in the country.

At the time I wrote an article, “Bt Cotton – Boon or Bane?” (The Hindu Business Line), which elicited spectacular enthusiasm from the reading public in India and also overseas. Sudliche Zuzammenarbeit, Berlin, a highly respected and vocal global advocacy forum, requested permission to translate the article into German and publish the same in their highly respected and well read magazine. 

At the time, I had strongly argued that the Bt cotton in India was bound to fail. A decade later, my prediction has come true. My main scientific reasoning was that the recombinant technology that was used is a technique where there is much that is not clearly understood, because it is at the very periphery of science, and results from such a technique in plant breeding is loaded with uncertainties and danger.

But half baked science, as is its wont, finds its own lobbyists for personal and pecuniary reasons. The so-called “green revolution” is another classic example in India. I had warned, even 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 the vanishing bio-diversity due to continuous monoculture of rice-wheat with “imported” high yielding varieties (HYVs), is testimony to this.  

Add to this the cancer spread in Gurdaspur district, where uncontrolled pesticide use, an adjunct of the green revolution, has spread the disease scare like a tornado. Go to Punjab, “cradle” of India’s green revolution, or Haryana or western Uttar Pradesh, and you will understand what I mean. Sure we produced more food grains for a while, but at what environmental and human cost?

The innumerable farmers’ suicide due to unsustainable input costs leading to bankruptcy is another feather in the green revolution lobbyists’ cap!  And now the very same messiah, who in the first instance peddled this scientifically unsound strategy, is speaking of an “ever green revolution” and God knows what is meant! This is not the central theme of this article, but the Bt cotton and the Bt hype seems to have come full circle.   

Let us first see how the “science” behind Bt technology has failed. When you transpose an alien gene (in this case from a soil habiting bacterium, Bacillus thurengiensis or 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.  

That, 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 millions of other bacteria thrive, many quite beneficial to the host plant. Without going into the intricacies of microbial science, I can say that what happens is “soil fatigue”.

This is 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 fertilizers that the soils simply could not sustain crops any more. Yields declined or plateau-ed. This 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.

We can take an analogy from automobile technology. Though the ‘internal combustion engine’ is the “basic” foundation of a four wheeler, the exterior “dressing” that the automaker 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).  

As we attempt to understand the analogy better, we realize that when the “resistance” to bollworm breaks down, it will 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.

Take 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? All have been wiped out. For 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 stood 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.

As of now, Bt cotton covers around 90% of the total cotton cropped area. In 2011-12, the productivity of Bt cotton is 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?

What we forget is that wherever yield “increase” was reported, it was under “high intensive” agriculture – ample supply of water, fertilizers, and supplemental insecticidal sprays to protect the crop against bollworm. Remove this cover, you have the crop faltering. This is the tragedy of the Vidarbha 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.

Go to Vidarbha, Maharashtra’s “cotton belt”. The maximum farmers’ suicides are of cotton farmers. Why? They were financially broke after taking huge loans 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 per 500 gram, while this author noted while in China the same year, Monsanto was selling the same quantity for just US $ 2, or Rs 100 at the prevalent exchange rate. This speaks volumes about the kind of financial fleecing this MNC and its Indian subsidiary have inflicted on Indian cotton farmers.

This raises an important question. Should we totally dispense with this dubious technology promoted by an alien MNC? Many ask why the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which has the mandate to steer India’s agricultural research, is not taking up the issue? ICAR itself embarked on a project like this, and a major scientific fraud that resulted.

It is my considered opinion that Bt technology, as of now, is just half baked science. That Bt cotton will need no more insecticidal sprays has been rubbished even in USA, the 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 leads to widespread use. It is the promise by the MNC that farmers will no more need to protect their cotton crop with insecticidal sprays.

The larger question we, as conscientious Indians, have to ask is, should we succumb to the same lure as before, and pay a far greater price, in terms of environmental integrity in the years to come, and 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.

The author is a Kerala-based international agricultural scientist, and formerly Professor, National Science Foundation; The Royal Society, Belgium; & Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Fellow, Federal Republic of Germany
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