Pests ravage Bt Cotton: GMOs not sustainable
by Sandhya Jain on 20 Oct 2015 10 Comments

The whitefly attack on the Bt Cotton crop in Punjab and Haryana, which has decimated almost fifty per cent of the harvest, demolishes the myopic view of the Genetically Modified Organisms industry that introducing a bacterium into plant genes produces disease-resistant high-yielding crops on a sustainable basis. The devastation has triggered over two dozen suicides among farmers, though district authorities are reluctant to speak on record. Rajasthan’s Ganganagar district has also been affected.


GM seeds, nearly four times costlier than normal hybrid seeds, need expensive pesticides and fertilisers to thrive. This inflates costs and degrades the quality of soil in which GM crops are planted, which affects yields in subsequent crops. Even without chemical inputs, a study by the Australian government has found that the Bt toxin expresses itself in the plant’s root zone and affects soil biodiversity and ecosystem function, thus impacting yields of subsequent crops.


Further, GM crop productivity declines swiftly, forcing farmers to use more fertilisers and pesticides to maintain output, thus increasing costs (and debts) while continuously degrading the soil. Punjab and Haryana produce nearly 4.5 million bales of cotton annually. During 2013-14, Punjab had yields of 800 kg/ha., which plunged to 528 kg/ha. in 2014-15, while Haryana yields dropped from 761 kg/ha. to 665 kg/ha., according to industry sources. This year’s crisis was aggravated by the supply of spurious pesticides; but productivity declines annually even without untoward events. The experience in Andhra Pradesh shows that Bt Cotton can affect yields of subsequent crops (wheat, others) by as much as 30 per cent.


GM crops have failed in the past as well. In 2007, the pest, Mealy Bug, ravaged Punjab’s cotton fields; it was checked by stopping the use of pesticides which allowed its natural predator, Beetle Larvae, to thrive. At the time, the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur, found that most Mealy Bug strains were not indigenous, which suggests they came along with the Bt Cotton seeds. It was noted that the non-Bt crop survived due to natural resistance and the practice of mixed cropping, which prevented the bug from spreading between the rows – a major vindication of indigenous farming practices.


Observant farmers in Punjab uprooted their Bt Cotton crop on realising it was irrecoverable, and planted basmati rice. But the State Government has refused to buy their harvest, saying this is the domain of the Centre. The disaster affected the Chief Minister’s home district, causing the government to rush relief to the tune of Rs 8,000/acre to farmers and Rs 800/acre to farm labourers, but aggrieved farmers argue that fair compensation should be in the realm of Rs 40,000/acre to affected cultivators and Rs 20,000/acre to labourers. The afflicted area is huge: Haryana 5.80 lakh ha.; Punjab 4.50 lakh ha. Scientists at the Central Institute for Cotton Research now warn that whitefly could hit all winter (rabi) crops, most notably wheat.


The whitefly epidemic attracted national attention due to proximity to the capital, which led angry farmers to block the national highway and stop trains to Delhi for a week. Their agitation has exposed the inability of GM seeds to create new species of commercial (or edible) plants that are completely resistant to pests and disease, which is a natural and scientific impossibility.


This knocks the bottom out of the rationale for GM crops. Why should farmers pay steep prices, in every sowing season, for seeds allegedly resistant to a particular pest (but still needing costly pesticides), only to have the entire crop fall prey to a different pest? This is so obvious, yet muscular well-funded lobbying among critical sections of agricultural scientists, bureaucrats and politicians have led the nation to this pass.


Cotton is vulnerable to attack by 165 pests. Bt Cotton was adopted by India in 2002, and today Monsanto enjoys a near monopoly over the country’s entire crop. The Monsanto seed is supposed to produce its own insecticide to kill certain types of bollworms which cause maximum damage to the crop. It is claimed that two years of drought triggered the whitefly outbreak, against which the plant has no defence. The pest attacks leaves, sucking out the sap and stunting the plant’s growth. The “solution” is to pour more “approved pesticides” on the crop, but this makes the pests resistant – they subside for a week and resurface with greater virulence – and also kills their natural predators. Punjab’s excessive reliance on chemical agriculture has severely degraded its groundwater; many believe this is the cause of the rising incidence of cancer in the cotton belt.


The experience of the past decade shows that Bt Cotton has become highly vulnerable to secondary pests, while farms with desi cotton have been spared. Hence, scientists feel that sustainable agriculture must be based on harmony with crop ecosystems and the balance of nature. Currently, a committee of experts appointed by the Haryana and Punjab governments to examine the whitefly attack has suggested that the monoculture of Bt sowing must be ended. This is a blow to the GM seed industry which depends on mono-cultivation for volume, which alone can generate the desired profits.


The Bharatiya Kisan Union is now demanding a ban on Bt Cotton and withholding introduction of crops like GM mustard (an edible oilseed). It wants rigorous testing of all GM seeds before they are sold to farmers. This is justified. India’s seed market is worth over Rs 5,200 crore ($1.3 billion), the sixth highest in the world. In the last five years, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, of which the Union Ministry of Agriculture is a member, has approved as many as 135 varieties of Bt Cotton.


The GEAC endorsed cultivation of Bt Cotton varieties without carrying out adequate field tests for resurgence of secondary pests and diseases. Farmers are now paying the price for the incompetence (or worse) of this apex regulatory body. A dispute over royalty payment between Monsanto and local firms licensed to produce and market its seeds reveals that the corporation has earned over Rs 5,000 crore in trait fee collected from farmers. Even the seed companies want this moderated. If secondary bugs can wipe out a harvest, such profits are unwarranted.


In a ‘chai pe charcha’ at Yavatmal, Maharashtra, in March 2014, where farmer suicides dominated the public mood prior to the general election, Mr Narendra Modi admitted that there were divergent views on GM seeds and insisted that the interests of farmers are paramount. It is time to act on this commitment. 

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