At a press conference in New Delhi today the Director of The Ecological Foundation, Dr Devinder Sharma, released the text of a letter to the Prime Minister of India, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, warning of the potentially devastating impact GE cotton seeds could have on farmers in India and the scientific fraud involved in the way the research trials have been conducted and monitored - perhaps, Dr Sharma warns, "the biggest scientific scam" to have ever hit India.
We have previously reported aspects of how this scam has been carried out with the field trials for Bt cotton sown two months late in 1999. The attatck of the American bollworm, the relevant insect pest for Bt cotton, is in the first two months of the crop being sown. By sowing the crop late, the entire insect profile is changed. In 2000 the crop was sown late once again. The resulting data has been hyped as showing wonderful results!
It is vital that the truth gets out as there has been a massive pro-industry campaign underway which is trying to use the current confused situation to promote the early introduction of Monsanto's Bt cotton.
***Please support the Ecological Foundation letter by asking for a high level enquiry into the scandal of the flawed scientific trials and the way they have been hyped by the department of biotechnology, amongst others.***
Contact the Indian Prime Minister online via the following url:
Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Hon”šble Prime Minister,
New Delhi-110 001.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED COTTON ---- PUSHING FARMERS INTO A DEATH TRAP ?
Respected Prime Minister,
The Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as the Department of Biotechnology under the Ministry of Science & Technology is currently reviewing the procedural norms for the controversial genetically modified cotton, popularly called Bt cotton. The decision on its commercial approval, expected to be formalised by February 2002, will have profound consequences for farmers, human health and environment.
Perhaps no other scientific decision since India's independence generated so much of heat and debate as the likely introduction of Bt cotton has. Add to it the illegal introduction of Bt cotton seeds in over 10,000 hectares in Gujarat, ostensibly to create a suitable environment for the immediate release of the genetically modified cotton, shows how crucial science policy decisions are being manipulated for the sake of Å’profit security”š of a few private seed companies.
Amidst the heat and din that has been raised by the pro-industry scientists and the critics of the unproven and risky technology, what is very conveniently being pushed under the carpet is the damming impact Bt cotton seeds will have on farmers. We have been told that the cotton farmers who grew the transgenic cotton on the sly (in Gujarat) are visibly happy with the results. We are also being told that since the farmers are happy the country should waste no further time in approving transgenic cotton for commercial cultivation.
I am sure your Government, which has always stood for human dignity, and is striving hard to Å’wipe every tear from the eyes of the poor and downtrodden”š will not like to add on to the misery of the small and marginal farmers. The BJP-led coalition will surely not like its saffron flag to be sprinkled with blood of the poor and toiling farmers. I am sure your Government will not take any decision in undue haste that eventually pushes thousands of farmers into a virtual death trap.
Why I am saying so is because a faulty decision in the mid-1980s to introduce fourth generation chemical pesticides synthetic pyrethroids has so far resulted in the death of an estimated 10,000 cotton growers throughout the country. The spiral death dance that began from Andhra Pradesh, first in 1987 and then again in 1998-99, has so far taken a heavy toll. The suicides by cotton farmers had subsequently spread to Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajastha, Haryana and Punjab. Perhaps the large-scale suicides by cotton growers would rank amongst the biggest man-made tragedies in independent India.
These suicides, if one were to examine the reasons, were spurted by the resistance the American bollworm insect developed to all kinds and cocktails of pesticides. Some 15 years back, cotton growers and agricultural scientists had rejoiced for the first two and three years as the potent chemical killed the insects. We had even then warned that spraying more deadly chemicals is not the answer to the menace of American bollworm. And no sooner the insect began developing resistance, farmers once again became a victim of the circle of poison or what is called the pesticide treadmill.
Bt cotton is no different from other chemical pesticides. It too will cause a temporary reduction of pesticides in the first few years and then the insect will develop resistance to the toxin gene. If the past experience is any lesson, the resulting biological treadmill will force farmers again to commit suicides. Dear Prime minister, who will be responsible for those families whose only bread-earner will prefer to end his life? Isn’t the death toll from the cotton conundrum already too high for the nation to draw a lesson from its past follies? How long should cotton farmer continue to give their lives for the "experiments" that agricultural scientists and now the department of biotechnology continues to conduct in their name?
The insect has already begun to develop resistance to Bt gene in cotton in Australia and China where genetically modified cotton was introduced in a large-scale. Farmers are now being advised to increase the number of sprays of chemical pesticides on the genetically manipulated cotton. In case of India, the chances of the insect developing immunity against the Bt gene are still more considering the small land holdings and the resulting management problems. Agribusiness companies are now inserting two Bt genes to keep the insect under check and it would not come as a surprise to find companies using genes from scorpion and snakes to ward
off pests in future.
Equally more distressing is the way the department of biotechnology conducted the "scientific" research trials. In fact, what is more baffling is despite your Government’s commitment to bring in the right to information, the department of biotechnology has maintained complete secrecy over the research trials results and the lack of transparency in itself is an indication that the trials were not conducted in a scientific manner. It is with lot of pain and anguish that we would like to bring to your notice the fraudulent manner in which the research trials have been conducted and monitored. This may go down in contemporary history as the biggest scientific scam to have hit the country.
* Even before the limited research trials first began in November 1997, the secretary department of biotechnology, Mrs Manju Sharma, has been saying that Bt cotton will soon be introduced in the country. Even last week, she told Reuters that procedures for the commercial release of Bt cotton are being streamlined and the genetically modified crop would be approved for farmers planting by December 2001. Interestingly, the approval for the genetically modified crops have to come from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) an apex body constituted by the Ministry of Environment & Forests. This raises the obvious question as to why is Mrs Manju Sharma so keen to push the genetically modified crops? Is she on the board of directors of the multinational seed company or the head of the government’s main regulatory body?
* It is primarily for this reason that the research data from faulty trials has been accepted. In none of three years of the crop being sown for research, was the Bt cotton sown even once in time. Last year, in 2000, the crop was sown as late as two months late and yet the results have not only been accepted but the secretary DBT has gone on record saying that the yields were as high as 80 per cent. This is completely untrue for the simple reason that first of all such research data has to be summarily rejected. Secondly, when the crop is sown late by two to three months, the crop escapes the peak insect attack. And when the insect attack is not there, Bt cotton would obviously look to be very effective. Thirdly, if the crop yields so high after being sown so late why doesn’t the government advise cotton growers also to sow the crop
two to three months late?
* In June 2001, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) had asked GEAC for two more years of research trials. Mahyco-Monsanto, the promoter of the genetically modified seed, had objected to this saying that the data so compiled by them was correct. Interestingly, a compromise was then reached and the company was asked to go in for one more year of trials. This may perhaps be the first case when a compromise has been reached in scientific research!!
* It is clear that the research so far conducted is completely unscientific”š and should be rejected out rightly. Why is the DBT still legitimising the data and that too in the name of scientific research? In any case, the entire expenditure for research into nine genetically modified crops, amounting to Rs 60-crore, has been incurred by the private companies. How can such data be accepted at its face value?
* Worse is the scientific inadequacy when it comes to environmental and human health risks. In the case of gene flow, which measures the distance the pollen flies, the DBT says that it is only two metres. The company says that it is 15 metres and latest studies by the US Department of Agriculture ascertain that it is three miles. Perhaps the DBT is not aware that there is quite a massive gap between two metres and three miles, which obviously casts doubts about the efficacy and credibility of the research so far conducted. Moreover, the plot size was so small that pollen dispersal data from such plots cannot be accepted.
* There are no creditable and conclusive studies conducted on the nutritional impact on buffaloes and cows to ascertain whether transgenic cotton and transgenic cottonseed has any effect on animal health, milk production and quality of milk, which in turn affects human health. This can only be established on the basis of long-term studies and the DBT unfortunately is willing to go ahead on the basis of inconclusive data from one year of trials.
* Studies on the development of resistance of other plant pests, toxicity studies on other animal species like poultry and fish, studies on the gene flow and pollen dispersal and an assessment of the impact of such migration on non-transgenic crop have not been studied. Nor has the DBT studied the stability of the Bt gene.
Sir, you will agree that in view of the glaring flaws that have been deliberately overlooked, and since genetic engineering involves big companies and mega-bucks, the manner in which the so-called scientific research trials have been conducted is not only deplorable but shocking. This also has put a big question mark on the credibility of Indian science and the regulatory authorities. We shall therefore be grateful if you can order a CBI inquiry into the whole sordid affair.
Director, The Ecological Foundation
7 Triveni Apartments, A-6 Paschim Vihar, New Delhi-110 063, India.
Dec 12, 2001