"IN A major triumph for environmentalists, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has withheld environmental clearance for large scale cultivation of transgenic Bt.cotton."
So said India's business paper, The Economic Times, on Thursday.
Two days earlier, India's development information service, SAMANVAYA, was in despair with the likes of The Economic Times confidently predicting the aptly named GE Approval Committee would quietly push through Bt cotton commercialisation on the nod:
"Today, (19th, June 2001), the environment ministry plans to give the go ahead for the Monsanto's Bt Cotton (the first ever transgenic crop) to be commercially released in India. Today, the hopes of millions of farmers of not just India, but many other smaller countries - whose policy makers would be steam-rolled by corporates with India being held as an example will die.
Repeatedly, over the last year various Scientists, NGOs, Media and groups from across the country and many from around the world have been documenting so much against the Bt Cotton, yet, does the system ever listen? ...
Today, in quiet a few bars across the capital, corporates will celebrate their victory yet again over the 'Green Brigade'...
...From today, many million farmers will be approached by the company seeds man across India with his new 'package' of seeds that would give him the great yield he has not seen. He will be sold the dreams of sons going abroad to 'phoren' countries, his daughters getting married to wealthy grooms. And he will believe them too. The corporatisation of the Bt-Cotton, with repeated failing of the crop in the recent years could push more farmers to suicide. How many more farmers' lives will it take? Do we care to protest or take others' protests seriously?" http://www.indiatogether.org/press/btcotton.htm
While the expected commercialisation of Monsanto-Mahyco's GM cotton in India would have been, as SAMANVAYA noted, a disastrous precedent for many other developing countries, Thursday's 'Economic Times' noted the international aspect to India's unexpected rejection of GM cotton commercialisation. According to the paper, "sources" were "worried over the signal given worldover...". http://www.agbios.com/_NewsItem.asp?parm=neIDXCode&data=1976
In the light of the unexpected decison to unspin the yarn, SAMANVAYA was by now more upbeat:
Read the latest at http://www.indiatogether.org/press/btcotton.htm
Good work, GreenPeace, Devinder Sharma, KRRS, RFSTE, and all others out there. During the course the last few days of deliberation, for the first time (that I can recollect), there was a mention of "hundreds of e-mails" pouring in to the various ministries concerned. Good on-line work too!
But while Monsanto's regulatory coup has failed, its Bt cotton trials in India go on.
The first piece below, "Fire in the cotton fields", is an excellent background article on the previous field trials undertaken in Karnataka.
The second item is a press release from the KRRS who made it abundantly clear earlier in the week that many in India had absolutely no intention of being "steam-rolled by corporates".
According to the leader of the KRRS, representing 'Ten Million Farmers in the State of Karnataka', if Bt cotton got the go ahead, "farmers' organisations across the country would resort to the direct action".
1. Fire in the cotton fields
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.
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 missedout 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 SM Krishna’a 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:
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;
insect-resistance studies on other plant-pests;
toxicity studies on other animal species such as poultry, fish etc. under Indian conditions;
to generate data on the stability of the CRY 1 Ac gene;
to undertake fresh studies on gene flow/pollen and the assessment of impact on such migration on non-transgenic cotton;
to get authentic report from an Indian lab that Bt seeds do not contain Terminator gene to reassure the public and NGOs;
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 the government nor Mahyco is transparent.
1. PTI says 28%, Vandana Shiva's article in EPW says 26%. Shiva's EPW story also states Monsanto paid 24 times the paid-up value of the share (a ridiculously high rate).
Personal visit to Bellary, Koppal, Raichur, Shimoga, Harihar, Dharwad and Davangere, studying cotton, and visiting the Mahyco-Bt cotton fields. January 2001. Under assignment for Gemini News Service. Also on a research assignment for Greenpeace India on the status of cotton-trials in the field in Karnataka. January 2001.
Personal talks with Farmers at all of these districts, with agricultural officers, with the Dir. of Agriculture at Shimoga, with representatives of Monsanto at these places, with pesticide representatives and with Monsanto’s R&D Head, Dr. Manjunath at IISc, Bangalore.
Also interview with Dr. TN Prakash of UAS (Agricultural Economics ) who is the only person on the KAC who had serious objections to the inadequate study of risk assessments at bringing Bt into Karnataka and commercialising it so soon.
Interview with Kiran Mazumdar Shaw , Chairman Biotechnology Task Force, Karnataka. She thinks that the earlier tests have already proved its safety and that biotechnology is one sector of science which is extremely careful of risks.
2. PRESS RELEASE FROM KRRS
KRRS Represents Ten Million Farmers in the State of Karnataka.
Bangalore, June 18(UNI) The Union Government should declare at least a five-year moratorium on the genetically modified seeds in India till a ban was considered like many other countries, Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha(KRRS) President M.D.Nanjundaswamy demanded today.
Taking strong exception to the Union Government rushing through the procedure of giving permission for marketing BT(Bacillus Thuringiensis) Cotton, he told UNI that Union Environment Minister T.R.Balu had called a meeting in New Delhi today, almost a month in advance, to accord biosafety clearance to the BT cotton. The Union Agriculture Ministry was meeting tomorrow to give the clearance for the cotton. The Government is in a hurry to give clearance to enable the multi-national companies to introduce the seeds from this sowing season itself, he charged.
Pointing out that most of the advanced and developing nations had banned genetically engineered crops, he said the Government should follow the precautionary principle of the biosafety protocol it signed last year in Cartagena in Columbia. If the Government allowed the sale, it would be violating the protocol, which says that if there were scientific uncertainties, they should not be released commercially.
Besides, a petition filed by noted environmentalist Vandana Shiva on genetically modified organisms with particular emphasis on BT cotton was still pending before the Supreme Court. Morally, the Government should wait till the petition is disposed of. Legally, it may not because there was no stay, Prof.Nanjundaswamy, who was spearheading a campaign against genetically modified seeds and crops said.
Quoting statistics, he said the worldwide sales of genetically modified foods were on the decline. He claimed that Shiv Sena had agreed to join their struggle against the genetically modified seeds. I have already held discussions with Sena supremo Bal Thakrey and the response was positive, he said and stressed that Maharashtra was one of the major Cotton growing states in the country. He said the farmers' organisations across the country would resort to the direct action if the seeds were allowed to be sold in the shops. Already the National Coordination Committee, which included Bharatiya Kissan Union, would be launching the agitation, he added.
He pointed out that over 310 scientists from 36 countries had expressed their concern about the hazards of genetically modified organisms to biodiversity, food safety, human and animal health and demanded a moratorium by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development Conference on Sustainable Development,
Conference on Sustainable Agriculture on Environmental releases in accordance with the precautionary principle.
KRRS Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha
2111,7th-A Cross,3rd Main, Vijayanagar 2nd Stage, Bangalore-560 040-India