Bt Cotton: Monsanto’s Devious Game
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 04 May 2012 7 Comments

On 12 February 2012, the Justice Department and the US Department of Agriculture held a meeting in Ankeny in the suburb of Iowa, the American “corn belt”, to probe into the alleged “competitive dynamics of the seed industry”. Outside, a huge coalition of families of farmers, consumers and other critics of corporate agriculture gathered chanting “bust up big ag (agriculture)” and demanding the ending of the stranglehold of Monsanto on the seed industry through unfair market manipulations. Monsanto controls the US commercial seed market via unfair, and in quite a few cases, illegal practices. Our own experience is no different. Look at the following developing scenario in India.


In November 2009, Monsanto’s scientists detected unusual survival of the dreaded pink boll worm (Pectinophora gossypiella) in Bt cotton fields, thrashing it’s very stand that Bolgard I, which was officially released for commercial cultivation in India by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) on March 26, 2002, was quite resistant to this insect attack.

This author was the first agricultural scientist in the country to raise an objection on the GEAC’s decision, based on incontrovertible scientific facts. A heated debate had followed in the country, including a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court. In January and February 2010, samples taken from the fields were tested in Monsanto’s own laboratories, confirming the fact that the Bt cotton was, indeed, susceptible to the pink bollworm attack, and the pest is now resistant to the pest killing protein in Bolgard I.

Until 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. Eight years down the line Monsanto is admitting its failure. The million dollar question is why? 

Before answering this crucial question, it is in the fitness of things to record certain important facts. When Bolgard I was released by Monsanto, through its Indian subsidiary, Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), a 450-gram packet was sold for an unheard of price of Rs 1950 each. Monsanto garnered a sale totalling Rs 260 crores in just one single cotton season. The company justified the price on the basis of “trait value”- a euphemism to fleece the farmers. This author, who was in China, just about this time, noted that the same Bt cotton seed was being sold there for a paltry sum of US $2 a packet (equivalent of about Rs 100 at the then exchange rate) – a far cry from the Rs 1950 charged to Indian farmers.

An outcry followed, and the government of Andhra Pradesh, where cotton is an important crop, intervened, invoking the Monopolistic Restrictive Trade Practices (MRTP) law and succeeded in bringing down the price to Rs 750/packet. Still, the company made huge profits. The company had no scruples fleecing Indian farmers, while in China the strategy wouldn’t wash.

This was not because Monsanto loved the Chinese more than it did the Indians, but, by then, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences had succeeded in bringing out its own Bt cotton, offering stiff competition to the Monsanto seed. In contrast, the Indian monolith, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI), both propped up at enormous expense to the national exchequer, chose to sleep over the urgent task of developing our own desi Bt technology. And when it did, quite recently, the whole effort was shrouded in fraudulent science; what a shame. So much for the efficiency of Indian “scientific expertise”!

The country now spends close to Rs 1600 crores on cotton pest control through sprays of insecticides, which is about 50 per cent of the total spent on all crops put together. Cotton occupies just about 5 per cent of the cropped area in the country. At the height of the so-called green revolution came the 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, as with the “high input technology” agriculture, the hallmark of the green revolution, the initial success was “spectacular”. Soon, the pests outsmarted the insecticidal sprays and cotton crops began to succumb to pest attack.

The high powered central team that probed the failure of the cotton crop in northern India noted that in the cropping season (October 2000- September 2001) 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 to October. The team strongly recommended that the 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 predators and parasitoids.

In other words, the central team’s report clearly proved that it was the “monoculture” of cotton – hallmark of the green revolution – or the “commodity mindset” – that is at the root of this tragedy. The human toll it took in terms of the number of farmers who committed suicide in Vidarbha district, the cotton belt of Maharashtra, where poor farmers purchased Bt cotton seeds at prices three to five times more than that of local hybrids, and also supported the crop with insecticidal sprays, is there for all to see.

Can Bt technology save the cotton crop?

The question India must now dispassionately examine is: Can Bt technology save the cotton crop? To understand this, we must critically examine what happened in the US, where it was first introduced in 1996. 

Bt cotton owes its name to the transfer of a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium – Bacillus thuringiensis into the cotton plant cell through “recombinant gene technology”. It is a biochemical fusion between an organism of plant origin and another of animal origin, and the introduced gene triggers an enzymatic reaction that blocks protein digestion in the gut of the bollworm when it feeds on the cotton plant.

In earlier times, direct sprays of the bacterial broth were resorted to in the US. However, after the fusion technology was perfected, the genetically engineered cotton plant started to behave as though it created its own insecticide. 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 eliminating insecticidal sprays – as claimed by Monsanto through Mahyco, its Indian subsidiary – is clearly exaggerated as shown by the field experience of farmers of Bt cotton in the whole of 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 in non Bt cotton by almost 15 per cent.

More damaging are the environmental consequences and “vertical gene transfer” which is the biggest risk 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 change now since we have cultivated the Bt cotton extensively for almost eight years now. This has been admitted by Monsanto, against its former claims. 

But, the most worrisome aspect of Bt technology is that it uses a technique called “Gene Use Restriction Technique” (GURT) – the production of lethal proteins in the cotton seed at the time of maturity, which will render the seed harvested from one season infertile so it cannot be used in the next season. Indian farmers traditionally save seeds from the previous crop for use in the following season. This simply will not be possible. In other words, Indian farmers will be perpetually tied to the MNC. 

The unveiling Monsanto strategy

The company introduced Bolgard II in 2006 and is now getting ready with an insecticide “Round Up Ready Flex” (RRF) and Bolgard III. RRF is an insecticide marketed by Monsanto and its use is selective to Bt cotton. In other words, the MNC is laying the foundation to tie the Indian farmer permanently to its seed and insecticide. The strategy is to completely eliminate all Indian cotton varieties in the future, perhaps, 10-15 years from now.

This will be suicidal to Indian cotton crop. It is the same strategy followed in the case of Bt brinjal, whereby the company planned to eliminate all the wide and varied (nearly 5000) Indian brinjal varieties, some of which are long, others round, some so tasty, some with medicinal properties and others which can be eaten raw, as in some parts of north India. It is a long term strategy to completely emasculate the biodiversity Indian agriculture and introduce a monoculture system that best suits Monsanto’s interests.

Hence, Monsanto’s belated “admission” of failure of Bolgard I is a clever and devious business strategy rather than an unequivocal admission of technology failure. Carefully note the following: while releasing the statement, Monsanto India, had suggested that Indian farmers should now switch to Bolgard II to delay the resistance build up by the insect. And, it also claimed that 80 per cent of Indian cotton farmers would plant Bolgard II by 2010. Needless to add, Bolgard II would be priced much higher for the “trait value”.

The Supreme Court had ordered Monsanto to sell Bolgard I at a reduced price until the issue of royalty (or “trait value” as spelt out by Monsanto) is resolved. In one sweep, Monsanto has shot down two birds: leave the Bolgard I behind and the competition that cropped up from other private seed vendors who bought the technology from Monsanto, and go for a kill by the “new” product, Bolgard II.

In this context, it must be noted that the US Justice Department has launched an anti-trust investigation against Monsanto, which controls over 90 per cent of the biotech crops worldwide. In the US, the first generation of its genetically modified soybean seed will lose its ability to draw royalties (“trait value”) after 2014, and reports suggest that Monsanto is trying to get farmers to switch to a second generation of seed instead. In a nutshell, a grand strategy to keep the farmer yoked to the Monsanto plough in perpetuity!      

What is the future of Bt crops in India?

The most recent controversy and moratorium by minister of environment and forests Jairam Ramesh on Bt brinjal, along with the admission of Monsanto on the failure of Bt cotton, must be a real eye opener to Indian planners and agricultural scientists.

Technology is not “uni dimensional” and biotechnology is never. Bt technology is rooted in recombinant gene technology which is only at the periphery of real good science. The recent Nobel Prize for Chemistry for ribosome research by the scientist trio including India-born American Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, illustrates how little we know of the entire gene science.

Recognize that the Nobel was for Chemistry and not for Medicine, though the research has very great potential in the field of medicine. The same analogy holds for molecular biology, and, in particular, Bt technology. Without a very good grounding in biochemistry and biophysics, one can never hope to become a good molecular biologist. A pure plant geneticist or botanist will never succeed in becoming an excellent molecular biologist.

In India, by and large, scientists have a very wrong notion on this, implying that a good geneticist or plant breeder can become a good molecular biologist. There is so much biochemistry involved in gene transfer. These days, one reads articles from all kinds of persons, politicians, activists, half baked scientists, on Bt crops. Bt technology is not the same as molecular biology. Until we have committed and knowledgeable scientists, here in India or elsewhere, we only will end up with products like the Bt cotton. The larger question is: does India need this half baked science?    

The author is former Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium and Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany and Chairman, Independent Expert Committee on Bt brinjal

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