excellent article

Concern Grows Over New Bt Cotton Approvals
Ranjit Devraj
Inter Press Service News Agency

NEW DELHI, Apr 22 (IPS) - Environmentalists are alarmed that the Indian government has given approval for more areas to be planted with new varieties of genetically modified Bt cotton, despite farmers suffering huge losses from growing the transgenic crop.

Bt cotton is genetically modified to include a pest-killing gene borrowed from a soil bacterium called 'bacillus thuringiensis'. While Bt cotton is sold as pest resistant seed in India, it has proved to be more vulnerable to pest and diseases than the traditional and conventional varieties.

Since the middle of April, the Genetic Engineering Approval Authority (GEAC), of the Ministry of Environment, has approved a total of six new Bt cotton hybrids for commercial cultivation in northern India, with more varieties in the pipeline.

But the GEAC is still undecided about granting extensions for several varieties already under cultivation because of crop failures that have destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of farmers across the country -- most particularly in southern Andhra Pradesh.

Approvals of three cotton hybrids developed by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Ltd expired in March but the GEAC could not grant extensions on their licenses because of adverse reports coming in not only from leading voluntary agencies but also from the state government of Andhra Pradesh.

In fact, local authorities in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh have been demanding that Mahyco-Monsanto compensate the Andhra Pradesh farmers after crop losses last year drove scores of them to commit suicide.

"The problems of the peasants started with rampant supply of spurious seeds and pesticides which continued with every stage of crop production up to the marketing stage," wrote the 'Deccan Herald' newspaper.

Voluntary agencies in Andhra Pradesh have conducted scientific studies and released damaging reports on the varieties developed by Monsanto, the global seed giant. The bodies include the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, the Deccan Development Society, the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity and the Permaculture Association of India.

The main idea behind approving genetically engineered Bt cotton as a commercial crop was that this would increase farmers' income by reducing expenditure on chemical pesticides. However, studies indicate that in the past few years the amounts spent on pesticides by Indian farmers growing the crop have actually increased by two
to three fold, because of the growing resistance of pests - especially the bollworm - to chemical pesticides.

The studies also point out that Bt cotton crops have failed in three states - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Ironically, the GEAC has chosen to ignore these findings and have gone ahead with approvals for large swathes of farmland to be planted with new varieties of Bt cotton - angering environmental activists as well as farmers' groups.

Krishan Bir Chaudhury leader of the Bharat Krisha Samaj (Indian Farmer's Association) said he could not understand how the government could give fresh approvals without getting seed companies to compensate farmers for the huge losses they have suffered.

Said Devendra Sharma, an international campaigner against genetic modification of crops: "It is a scientific fraud, in fact the biggest in modern India. It is a crime to approve Bt cotton and then impose it on farmers when it has already been seen as failing to deliver.''

Activists are now insisting that the only solution to the 'buccaneer' approach would be for India, a major agricultural country in the world, to legislate and provide itself a firm policy on agricultural biotechnology before entering into further deals with trans-national seed companies.

"It is time to examine whether it is possible to implement technology for genetic engineering in India with its requirements for segregation, labeling and identity preservation of genetically modified varieties - given the impact it has on India's small farmers," said Suman Sahai, convener of the Gene Campaign.

In 2001, the Indian government issued a new seeds policy. This policy stated that genetically modified seeds would have to adhere to norms like environmental, health and biodiversity safety before their commercial release. Transgenic seed varieties would be imported only after clearance from the GEAC and tested to determine their agronomic value by the Indian Council of Agriculture Research.

But Sahai said this was not enough.

"There are grave doubts about the competence and independence of the structures for regulation, oversight and monitoring of genetically modified crops and it is regrettable that neither farmers nor the public have been taken into confidence,'' she said.

For now, Sahai said it was vital for the GEAC and government agencies to bring in more transparency into their functioning and take the public into confidence on how they grant approvals.

In March 1995, Monsanto's Indian partner Mahyco imported 100 grams of Bt Cotton seed for field trials after obtaining permission from the Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation under the Department of Biotechnology in the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Organisations like the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology objected to this and pointed out that the import of those seeds violated the Environment Protection Act 1986, which stated clearly that only the GEAC could grant permission for bringing into the country genetically modified organisms.

By 2001, up to 10,000 hectares or more of land in western Gujarat state had been discovered to be planted with Bt cotton without the government's knowledge or approval. The Gujarat farmers said that the transgenic cotton seeds they used were supplied by an Ahmedabad-based company called Navbharat Seeds Private Ltd, and claimed that they understood they were being sold hybrid seeds resistant to bollworms.

They said they did not know they were growing genetically modified cotton until it was tested by Mahyco -- that had been waiting for government permission to grow genetically modified crops commercially in India.

The GEAC then ordered the torching of the standing crop of Bt cotton, which was almost ready to be harvested in Gujarat. It questioned Navbharat Seeds and the biotech company was asked to explain how it came to sell the cotton seeds, before the Indian government gave permission for the growing of genetically modified crops.

Many also smelt a rat in the Gujarat case. It was more than coincidence that it happened, just when a major trans-national seed company was awaiting approval for its products.

"For years environmentalists and independent scientists have been asking the government to share information on approvals and field trial data, which even ordinary citizens have the right to demand. Nonetheless, we have always been denied that right," Sahai said. (END/2005)