14 April 2003

Will GM cotton go north? India’s dilemma
Ashok B Sharma
Financial Express, India

New Delhi, April 13: The Indian government's genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) is likely to meet soon to take a decision on whether to approve the cultivation of Bt cotton seeds for the coming kharif (summer) season in the northern regions of the country namely Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) which conducted field trials through its Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) has already submitted its report.

Several experts feel that the GEAC may face hurdles in giving green signal for the cultivation of Bt cotton in the northern region, given the conflicting reports about the performance of Bt cotton crop in the southern states in the last season. Previously, GEAC was unable to approve the genetically modified (GM) mustard seeds, developed by ProAgro in collaboration with Aventis & PGS, due to stiff opposition from within its members. GEAC, therefore, has asked for opinions from different Central government ministries on the issue of GM mustard seeds. Some experts feel that the GEAC may approve Bt cotton cultivation in the northern region as it has allowed the conditional cultivation of this crop in the southern part of the country. This may thus be just a political issue - not to deny any region of the country in cultivation of Bt cotton.

Though Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB) India Ltd, the sole proprietor of Bt cotton seeds in the country, has claimed that the yields have increased by an average of 30 per cent in the last season in the southern states, pesticide use has declined by 65 to 70 per cent and the farmers have earned an extra income of Rs 7,000 per acre, several farmers’ organisations, NGOs and scientists have refuted this claim. Recently, Dr Suman Sahai, convenor of Gene Campaign has written to Union agriculture minister Ajit Singh stating that the Bt cotton crop has failed in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra in the last season and the MMB India Ltd should be made to pay adequate compensation under Indian law to those farmers who have recorded crop losses. She said that under section 39 (2) of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001, compensation to farmers can be paid by the seed company if the seeds sold failed to realise the expected potential as claimed.

Though Union environment minister TR Baalu told the Upper House of Parliament on December 13, 2002 that the performance of Bt cotton has been satisfactory, the Andhra Pradesh agriculture minister said on the floor of the state assembly that if it is proved that farmers have suffered losses due to Bt cotton, then they should be adequately compensated.

Dr Aseesh Tayal, a scientist with the Greenpeace India said that his organisation had conducted a survey in Raichur, Haveri and Dharwad districts of Karnataka and has found that the average yield of Bt cotton was in no way better than the non-Bt hybrid cotton. The average yield per acre in quintals for Bt cotton was 5.55 in Raichur, 3.76 in Haveri and 5.3 in Dharwad as against 6.94 for non-Bt hybrid in Raichur, 2.37 for non-Bt hybrid in Haveri and 5.0 for non-Bt hybrid in Dharwad.

The labour and input costs for farmers who have sown Bt cotton was much higher which ate into the net income. An average of nine sprays of pesticides were used in case of Bt cotton as against 15 sprays over non-Bt hybrids. Similar was the case in certain districts of Andhra Pradesh where Greenpeace India conducted their study, he said.

A study conducted by agriculture scientists, Dr Abdul Qayoom, former joint director of agriculture in Andhra Pradesh and Mr Sakkari Kiran of Permaculture Institute of India in 11 villages of Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh proved that Bt cotton has totally failed, said Mr PV Satheesh, convenor of Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity. Mr Satheesh said that the yields of Bt cotton and non-Bt hybrids were almost the same at four to five quintals per acre. But non-Bt plants had a life of two to three months more and are expected to yield another 3 to 4 quintals. Therefore, non-Bt cotton produces at least 30 per cent more cotton. The pesticide use has shown a marginal difference.
"The point that genetic engineering merely extends conventional breeding is often mooted but it will not do. GM and other biotechnologies, notably cloning, take us into the age of the "designer" organism. Both were solemnly declared to be "biologically impossible" until about 10 years before they became reality. Nowadays, nothing that does not break the laws of physics can be considered biologically impossible. Only the laws we make ourselves, and our own morality, can hold us back. If people in high places cannot see that this is a qualitative shift, requiring a new mandate, then they should not be in charge of political strategy."

"The consequences of dropping exotic genes into genomes, and exotic transformed plants into ecosystems, can hardly begin to be anticipated.

"...GM is not about feeding people. It is about commerce. Its advocates do not occupy the moral high ground. They believe they do, but only because they have not looked carefully at the evidence.

Colin Tudge, visiting research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics