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Fire In The Cotton Fields

by Keya Acharya

Reprinted with permission from the 15th electronic bulletin of CAAM-Net,
the Centre for Alternative Agricultural Media, Dharwad, INDIA


Noted environmental journalist, Keya Acharya looks into the much-discussed Bt cotton field trials being undertaken in Karnataka. The curious contradiction between the government and Monsanto-Mahyco combine professing willingness to share information on the positive impacts of Bt technology on the one hand, and their perceptions of confidentiality on the other, has bedevilled the entire issue of Bt cotton in India. What is of significance is that there are very successful trials (12 quintals/ acre yield) of non Bt, indigenous hybrid varieties being conducted at UAS, that are less susceptible to pests because of their indigenous strength, she observes.

India is in the midst of a transgenic debate in academic circles, and in a consuming controversy about it in the field. And all this at a time when Indian agriculture is in crisis anyway with a glut of produce that has no marketing infrastructure to ensure a competent price to the small farmer.

In academic and administrative circles, authorities speak with enthusiasm of the need to keep up with the latest in technology abroad, which they view is the new world of transgenics, or the transference of alien genes into food crops, supposedly for better yields and disease-resistance.

The most visible proponent of this belief is the State of Karnataka. Anxious to keep up with its progressive 'IT image,' it would now like to link this field up with biotechnology, another area where it has pioneered. "We want to make Bangalore the Biotech destination of Asia," said Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman of Karnataka's Biotechnology Task Force. The State's and indeed the country's official enthusiasm over Bt cotton has to be viewed within this perspective of keeping up with the latest.

In April 1998, the Indian seed company Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company) in collaboration with the multinational Monsanto (which owns 26% equity in Mahyco, bought at 24 times the paid-up value) was given permission to conduct small trials of Bt cotton (100g per trial) by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and its Department of Biotechnology (DBT) at 7 sites countrywide, including Karnataka. "We have a built-in level of mechanical checks to prevent import of unwanted materials", said DBT Secretary Manju Sharma in defence at the consequent uproar on Bt cotton, at a Transgenic Conference in December 1998, at UAS, Bangalore.

The matter went underground till July 2000 when DBT allowed Mahyco to conduct large-scale field trials, including seed- production at 40 sites in six States totalling 235 ha. Dr. Sharma says research findings of the previous small trials are "totally confidential data" submitted to the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the MoEF), but that they draw a "clear inference" that Bt is safe.

This curious contradiction between the government and Monsanto-Mahyco combine professing willingness to share information on the positive impacts of Bt technology on the one hand, and their perceptions of confidentiality on the other, has bedevilled the entire issue of Bt cotton in India. According to the Karnataka Agriculture Commission (KAC) Report, the main findings of Mahyco's research submission (which could relate to Dr. Sharma's version of "built-in level of mechanical checks") on its previous small trials, to RCGM (Review Committee on Genetic Pollution) on 12.2.2000 are:

  • Incorporation of Bt gene holds promise in cotton crop by controlling bollworm and reducing insecticide needs that are environmentally unsafe

  • Specific experiments indicate Bt hybrids are superior to non-Bt counterparts in terms of boll worm infestation Control of bollworm through Bt hybrids did not influence behaviour of the pest in adjacent non-Bt plots.

  • Bt recorded higher yields

  • Bt could be an important part of IPM (Integrated Pest Management) RCGM, on the strength of these findings, allowed Mahyco (letter of 4.5.2000) to approach the GEAC for further steps.

Thereafter Mahyco approached GoK (govt. of Karnataka) for permission, (ref.no. TNS/MKJ/MMB/561/00). This letter was referred to the Karnataka Agriculture Commission on 7.8.2000 for examination and submitting of views. The KAC convened concerned scientists from the two State Agricultural Universities (UAS) who said "The seminar dispelled the apprehension that all biotechnology is the same as terminator technology" (KAC Report 2000), and 'okayed' Bt cotton trials, stating that the state agricultural universities needed to be involved.


Pic © Greenpeace

The status in the field shows that both the UASs in Dharwad and Bangalore have not been given permission to get involved in Mahyco's field trials which are currently being conducted without independent assessment. As per Mahyco's records, there are currently nine sites at farmers' fields in Bellary, Davangere, Koppal, Raichur and Shimoga Districts. These sites belong to: Subba Reddy (Annapurneswari Camp, Odatti Post, Bellary), V. Hanumantha Rao (Bowring Camp, Siddamanahalli Post, Bellary), Tippe Rudra Gowda (Kammarchedu, Bellary), D. Ravindra Babu (Laxmi Nagar Camp, Soma Samudra Post, Bellary), K. Karibasappa (Kumaranahalli, Harihar, Davangere), Ningappa Angadi (Ojanahalli, Koppal), M. Gopal Reddy (Bagyanagar Camp, Sindhanur Raichur), Ramalinga Reddy (Ariginmara Camp, Ariginmara Post, Sindhanur,Raichur), Shivappa (Puradal Post, Shimoga).

All the plots were sown between September 4 - 17, 2000, well past the planting season of June. Personal visits to these sites found these records somewhat inaccurate as a number of farmers had not opted for trials due to the delay in planting. Two others whose names were not listed have Bt trials on their fields. Additionally, there are 14, and not nine sites, in total. All plots are of 10 "guntas," or one-fourth of an acre, pieced into three segments, with Bt being sandwiched between two non-Bt plots of presumably the same varieties of seeds. There are no boards delineating seed variety, or genotype or any other details.

The overall status of the plants in these trials is poor. Plants are stunted due to late sowing, show heavy infestation of whitefly and aphids while some plots have bollworm infestation. In all the Bt fields visited (including the two farmers whose names are not on Mahyco's records), non-Bt plants in the trial-plots were of better quality. Bt germination in most plots is poorer than non-Bt. Of equal significance is that hybrid cotton in all the four cotton districts of Karnataka, show an estimated average yield (10-15 quintals/acre) that is higher than what will currently be harvested from Bt plots ( estimated at 5-6 quintals/acre by experienced cotton-farmer Shivaramma Reddy of Bellary). The reason for this could very well be due to delayed planting however. What stands out in this confusion though, is that hybrid plants were far healthier.

There is, in addition to Mahyco's field trials, an independent trial being conducted at UAS, Dharwad, under an Indian Council of Agricultural Research - World Bank project. Bt Seeds for the project were given by Mahyco and were of the following varieties:

MECH 12 Bt and Non-Bt

MECH 162 Bt and Non-Bt

MECH 184 Bt and Non-Bt

These trials too were sown late. They showed poor germination of Bt varieties, with the non-Bt ones being definitely healthier but the latter more susceptible to aphids. Dr. BM Khadi, Senior Scientist in charge of the trials said he would not be able to get the correct picture from these trials because one whole pest-load, and a very crucial one in the month of August, had been missed out due to the delay in availability of seeds.

What is of significance is that there are very successful trials (12 quintals/ acre yield) of non Bt, indigenous hybrid varieties being conducted at UAS, that are less susceptible to pests because of their indigenous strength. (Karnataka's cotton history has shown hybrids of foreign parentage given to tremendous bollworm infestation) The problem as Khadi agreed, is their unsuccessful dissemination to farmers in the field. The "Extension" wing of the government's Agriculture Department in Karnataka, as in the rest of the country, is a failure. Some of these varieties are DHH 11, DHB 105 and "Sahana." The indigenous variety Arboreum herbaceum with built-in bollworm resistance needed no spraying at all and yielded 5-6 quintals/acre.

The message then is clear: that hybrid varieties are capable of producing equal, if not better results than Bt. Though farmers in the entire cotton belt are not averse to trying out the seed again in the next season many questions arise. Farmers say they will know its environmental impacts within 2-3 cropping seasons and change the seed if necessary, but the freedom of choice gets limited when Bt appears to be entering the State (and the country) through a private monopoly.

With the current situation of exploitation, especially in Raichur in the cotton trade, and the small-farmer's tendency to listen to seed/pesticide/ fertiliser companies, Mahyco's monopoly could well be a virtual reality that makes Chief Minister S. M. Krishna's argument of the farmer's personal choice as a "fundamental right" seem unrealistic. Moreover, copious amounts of cotton, without a competent marketing infrastructure will not help the farmer. There will continue to be more suicides and dumped cotton.

And, finally, the current manner of conducting and the indifferent condition of the field trials raise immediate doubts on their efficacy for coming to any concrete conclusion of the impacts of Bt into both Karnataka, and India. Under GEAC's terms for granting of field trials, Mahyco had been asked to undertake the following:

a) nutritional studies in buffaloes and cows to determine whether transgenic cotton seed as well as cotton-seed oil had any effect on animal health, milk-production and quality vis a vis the health of people;

b) insect-resistance studies on other plant-pests;

c) toxicity studies on other animal species such as poultry, fish etc. under Indian conditions;

d) to generate data on the stability of the CRY 1 Ac gene;

e) to undertake fresh studies on gene flow/pollen and the assessment of impact on such migration on non-transgenic cotton;

f) to get authentic report from an Indian lab that Bt seeds do not contain Terminator gene to reassure the public and NGOs;

g) to make available socio-economic data like costs of transgenic cotton, projected demand and the area to be covered under cultivation.

GEAC also said it would "rigorously monitor" the field trials for the next one year (from announcement of trial permission in July 2000) and that the Monitoring cum Evaluation Committee (MEC) set up by DBT would continue to monitor large-scale field trials with the possible exception of f) which became public after the flurry of controversy surrounding BT cotton in India in late 1998, the status of other studies meant to be conducted are not known. Neither is the government nor Mahyco transparent.


Keya Acharya can be contacted at keyaa@bgl.vsnl.net.in

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