A decade of Bt hype
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 09 Mar 2013 2 Comments

In 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?”.


It 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). 


I 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.


The 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.


Add 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.   


Let 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.


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 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”.


This 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.


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.


Once 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”).


When 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.


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? 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.


As 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?


What 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.


Vidharba 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 farmers.


In 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.


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. 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. 


At 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.  


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 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.


We 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.


The 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.


However, 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.


More 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 claims. 


Environmental 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.


Crop 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 agriculture.  


The 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!        


So 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 science.


That 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.


The 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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