New findings on Bt cotton
CONFIRMATION OF FEARS
By DEVINDER SHARMA
DECCAN HERALD, Friday, June 14, 2002
In a great turnaround, China too has accepted its mistake in the Bt cotton front. With the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences under the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), admitting that "the Bacillus thurengensis (Bt) cotton which makes up for 35 per cent of China’s cotton crop, is damaging the environment," the can of worms has once again been opened for public scrutiny. And once again, the mainline agricultural scientists and institutes in communist China have begun to question the veracity of the claims. When the report was made public the biotechnology industry was quick to react.
Terming the study as a collaborative work with Greenpeace, scientists were quick to demand that the findings be rejected. In India, the civil society was up on its feet demanding the sacking of the secretary of the department of biotechnology for pushing in a risky and untested technology onto gullible farmers.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Chinese study has raised serious pointers to the environmental damage that the genetically engineered cotton has inflicted on nature. The study states that the plant harms the population of natural parasitic enemies of bollworm and seemed to encourage other pests. It adds that the diversity index of the insect community in the Bt cotton fields is lower than conventional cotton fields, while the pest dominant concentration index is higher. Bt cotton did not resist bollworm after being planted to eight to 10 years continuously.
The Chinese scientists have merely reaffirmed the fears that have been sounded for long, and have been very conveniently swept under the carpet, like in India. But at the same time, Chinese scientists have given a loud warning of the damages in store if the scientific administration toes the line of the biotechnology industry.
Glance at past
It is here that one has to examine the recent protests all over whenever there have been pointers to flaws in genetic engineering technology. The underlying pattern of protests, challenges and counter claims is similar in all the cases. Only a few months back, the industry-sponsored scientists created such a flutter over the finding that genetically modified corn had contaminated the centre of diversity of corn in Mexico, that even a respectable scientific journal like Nature was forced to take an unprecedented step of withdrawing a paper by University of California scientists, Ignacio Chapela and David Quist. In fact, some industry scientists had even gone to the extent of saying that such contamination will actually add to diversity. Ironically, while the scientific community was divided depending upon the extent of industry sponsorship, the Mexico government accepted the findings saying that the centre of diversity had actually been polluted.
Let us move back a little. A University of Cornell study that pointed to mortality in monarch butterfly larvae when exposed to transgenic crops was again debunked by the industry. In fact, industry scientists have remained pre-occupied in finding alibis, raising accusations and terming any research that is not digestible by the industry to be faulty. Knowing the set pattern, it may be only a few weeks before the importance of the Chinese study is also diluted under orchestrated counter claims. Sadly, modern science has come to such a decline that there is no space now for any dissent. The world has been left with no other option but to accept what the industry claims is true.
Chinese scientists have demonstrated what the environmentalists have been saying for long. The report has also said very clearly that the refuge system that the farmers are supposed to follow to ensure that the insect doesn’t develop resistance has not been effectively followed. In India, unfortunately, there is no mechanism to ensure that the farmers adopt the guidelines that have been specified by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). In fact, the GEAC has gone a step ahead by asking the industry to monitor insect-resistance in transgenic cotton fields. Perhaps the GEAC didn’t want any objections from the industry if such a study was conducted by an independent institute.
Interestingly, China's planting of genetically modified cotton was cited as one of the reasons that influenced GEAC's decisions to go in for the commercialisation of Bt cotton. Again, this was a flawed analogy. China grows the genetically modified crop in a demarcated area to minimise the environmental damage. And still, the Chinese study has shown that the damage was indeed very high. In India, where cotton cannot be grown in a secluded area, the environmental damage is bound to be more. But then, in India we do not have a tradition to hold the GEAC accountable for any serious lapses primarily if the decision was taken ignoring the threats that were voiced very clearly and loudly.
China does cultivate Bt cotton in about 35 per cent of the total are under cotton. But what is not being told is that there is no significant difference in the productivity of Bt cotton with that of the non-genetically modified cotton. Also, another important factor that is not at all being evaluated is that the water requirement of Bt cotton increases manifold in case of the transgenic crop. For a country like India, where cotton is traditionally grown as a rain-fed crop, the requirement of water will remain a major factor in its productivity and growth.
With the new startling findings coming from China, will the GEAC once again open the can of worms? The answer is no. And the reason is simple. It isn’t for no apparent reason that the American government has suddenly developed more faith in GEAC than even the ministry of agriculture. The Americans have challenged the decision of the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Ajit Singh, when he stopped the import of genetically modified soya oil from the United States. It says the Minister has no authority to stop the imports. The final word has to come from the GEAC. And we always thought the GEAC was a committee appointed by the Indian government, in this case the Ministry of Environment & Forests.
(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst)
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