Stepping onto a booby trap
By Devinder Sharma
"Isn't it like sending a soldier to the battle front and then asking him not to use the latest sophisticated assault rifle," a British radio journalist asked me the other day. He was obviously referring to the Indian government's initial decision to burn down the illegally grown genetically modified cotton on some 10,000 acres of farmland in the Gujarat State.
"It will certainly be tragic to deprive a soldier of the latest weapon. But it will be more sinister and criminal to provide the soldier with an AK-47 gun and then deliberately make him step onto a booby trap," I replied, adding that Bt cotton - containing a gene from a soil-borne bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is an attractive biological trap, more potent than the toxin it produces that kills the dreaded bollworm pest. Experience has conclusively shown that gullible cotton growers have been continuously pushed over the past few decades into "a vicious circle of poison". The only difference being that the "chemical treadmill" is now being replaced with a more dangerous and hitherto unknown "biological treadmill".
"But then a majority of cotton growers are happy with the standing crop even if the seed was clandestinely supplied," asked the journalist, stating that there is a growing demand that the genetically modified crop, which has proved to be effective against the bollworm insects, should not be destroyed. "Yes, you are very right," I replied. "This is exactly what had happened when the fourth generation pesticides synthetic pyrethroids were introduced in the country less than 20 years ago. And since then over 10,000 cotton growers have committed suicide."
Who will be responsible if and when thousands of cotton growers again take the fatal route once the insect develops resistance to the Bt gene, I asked? Will the secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), who appears to be more than eager to hasten the process of commercialisation, be held responsible for the resulting deaths? After all, suicides by thousands of farmers resulting from the targeted pest developing immunity against the chemical or the gene are not "collateral" damage? It is a heavy price that the Indian farmers have paid and are more likely to pay in future with the introduction of Bt varieties.
The kind of jubilation that was expressed by cotton farmers in the early 1980s when the synthetic pyrethroids were introduced in the cotton growing areas throughout the country did not last long. For the first two or three years, the farmers were visibly happy. The chemical killed almost everything and that included the American bollworm, as the main pest is generally called. The euphoria, however, was short-lived. The insect gradually began to develop resistance and in the next few years while the number of costly and environment-unfriendly sprays increased, so did the resistance against the chemical. In 1987, Andhra Pradesh recorded 37 suicides by cotton growers from crop failures, all result of the chemical equation going wrong, and forcing the farmers into mounting debt. Unable to withstand the humiliation that comes along with increased debt, these farmers drank the same pesticide that was unable to kill the insect.
Ten years later, a serial death dance began. Starting from Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh once again, the suicides spread to the neighbouring districts, and then onto Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana. Government denials notwithstanding, more than 10,000 cotton growers have perished so far. No scientific institution, no chemical industry and no chief minister have been held accountable for arguably the greatest man made human disaster to have struck independent India.
It didn't end here. In fact, the same arguments, the same rhetoric, and the same vested interests are desperately pushing in genetically engineered crops as the ultimate savior of the farming community. No one has questioned, not even the Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC), the highest regulatory authority in India, as to how many more thousand farmers need to be sacrificed at the altar of development? Who is responsible for the families of those farmers who end their life abruptly as victims of commercial agriculture? After all, thousands of farmers ending their lives is not a small price for scientific experimentation.
And that is reminiscent of the dilemma that the former Indonesian President Suharto was faced with in the mid-1980s. Indonesia's rice crop, its staple food, was devastated by brown plant hopper insects. No pesticides were effective against the menacing pest. After trying all kinds of permutations and combinations, President Suharto finally sent an SOS to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Manila in the Philippines. The international scientific community responded and for once with a sensible and sustainable alternative. It suggested an immediate ban on spraying of chemicals on rice.
President Suharto understood the importance of integrated pest management techniques that the scientists wanted him to adopt on a mass scale. Under a presidential decree, 57 pesticides were banned. The chemical industry, led by the American Embassy in Jakarta, were up in arms saying that the decision would be suicidal and Indonesia would be pushed into the throes of hunger and starvation. After all, rice was and is still the staple food of Indonesia. President Suharto refused to accept the industry's prescription. Instead, he simultaneously launched a countrywide integrated pest management programme.
In the next two years, contrary to all projections, rice production increased by 18 per cent. Pesticides consumption was drastically reduced by 65 per cent. The cost of cultivation slumped and the environment became much safer.
For cotton too, there is no other escape route. Over the years, indiscriminate use and abuse of pesticides have pushed the farmers into a vicious trap. The more the insect attack, the more potent and repetitive are the number of chemical sprays. Farmers have been forced to apply all kinds of pesticides (much of it spurious) and its cocktails to control the bollworm insects. So devastating is the "circle of poison" that Punjab farmers are known to have sprayed chemicals worth Rs 3,200 million in 1998-99 to harvest Rs 2,800 million worth of cotton lint. While the farmers are the sole victims of the exploitative system that cotton has spun, even the lesser-known insects like white fly have now become a major pest of cotton thereby bringing in more pesticide sprays.
What is deliberately overlooked is the fact that in the same cotton field there exist 27 natural predators or the benign insects that feed on the American bollworm. But when the chemical sprays begin, it is the benign insects that first get knocked down. By the time the American bollworm appears on the scene the cotton field is bereft of its natural enemies. American bollworm than has a field day merrily devouring crops.
Bt cotton too is a faulty prescription. It is widely accepted that in case of Bt cotton, the third generation of the pest is the most problematic. It is true that in southern China farmers have been growing this variety. But what is not known is that now they have to spray pesticide to control third and fourth generation of American bollworm insects. In Australia too, farmers have now been advised to go in for more sprays because of a drop in expression levels. With the insect increasingly developing immunity against the Bt toxin in the plant, scientists are now trying to introduce genetically manipulated varieties with two Bt genes. It may then be the turn of a gene from scorpion, and then from a snake. The "biological circle of poison" is certainly going to be more dangerous than the chemical cycle that farmers have been forced to live with.
There is a practical solution. Make the secretary of the Department of Biotechnology and the chairman of the GEAC responsible for any suicides that may result from Bt cotton introduction. Accountability has to be the hallmark of scientific decision making process or else farmers will continue to pay a heavy price.
(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst.