Aflatoxin and potential Bt cotton toxicity put animals at risk

The Pakistan government has advised farmers to feed livestock GM Bt cotton waste as a way to eradicate the pink bollworm pest, despite warnings from local and international organisations that such feed could harm animals, according to the article below.

The article highlights concerns that feeding livestock with the waste of cotton that has been attacked by pink bollworm may cause aflatoxin poisoning. Aflatoxin fungus can build up in the holes left by the bollworm attack.

However, there is another reason why feeding livestock Bt cotton waste in particular may be harmful. This is because in 2006-7 in Andhra Pradesh, India, shepherds reported serious illness and deaths in sheep grazed on Bt cotton fields.

No proper investigations were ever conducted. Claims that the effects may have been due to the chemicals used in all cotton cultivation (thus implying that no specific toxicity could be attributed to Bt cotton) remain unsubstantiated.

However, according to the veterinarian Dr Sagari R. Ramdas, shepherds had been grazing their animals in fields of chemically grown cotton for 12 years prior to the introduction of Bt cotton, without such problems being observed.

A report by K. R. Kranthi, director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur cited various “feeding studies” with Bt cotton material that “did not show any toxicity symptoms that could lead towards extreme toxicity symptoms or mortality”. But these appear to be unpublished and non-peer-reviewed studies and no details of funding sources are provided.

There are other problems with the studies cited. Increased organ weights were found in Bt cottonseed-fed lambs compared with lambs fed non-GM cottonseed, but the researchers concluded, apparently without justification, that there were no detrimental effects. No histopathological examination of organs seems to have been carried out in any of the experiments.

Also, none of these experiments were long-term. That might be said not to matter in light of the effects reported by the shepherds, which seem to have been acute – rapid and dramatic in onset. But long-term experiments and histopathological examinations can give important information about what is actually happening in an animal’s body when it eats a GM plant. There is no excuse for failing to do such experiments.

Tests commissioned by the Bt cotton developer Monsanto and presented by company representatives as evidence of Bt cotton’s safety were irrelevant, as pointed out by the veterinarian Dr Ramdas in what is probably the most authoritative report on the problem:

“All the feeding trials experiments presented by Monsanto, involved feeding Bt-cotton seed meal or crushed cotton seed to buffalos, goats, fish, chicken, cows and none of the trials involved feeding fresh plant material (stem, leaves, pod, seed etc). None of the trials involved grazing sheep/cattle on standing harvested plant material continuously. The field mortalities of animals had occurred after grazing on standing plant material. Hence the above studies were invalid as far as fresh materials.”

In 2007 the Andhra Pradesh government rightly advised farmers not to allow animals to graze on Bt cotton fields, though it is unclear whether it still holds to that advice.

Govt asks farmers to feed livestock Bt cotton waste despite warnings

Jamal Shahid
Dawn, 3 January 2016

The government has advised farmers to feed livestock cotton waste, as a way to eradicate the Pink Bollworm, despite warnings from local and international organisations that such feed could harm animals.

On Jan 1, the Agriculture Extension and Adaptive Research department of the Punjab government, issued pamphlets recommending that farmers let goats and sheep graze on unpicked Bt cotton leaves and bolls left in the fields after the final picking.

The department believed that the measure would help control the Pink Bollworm, which has development resistance against the first and second generations of Bt, or genetically modified cotton.

Genetically engineered cotton was officially introduced in Pakistan in 2010, and makes up 86pc of all cotton sown in the country.

However, the Integrated Pest Management Programme of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources has warned against feeding livestock Bt cotton waste.

The programme believes that a toxic fungus is produced after the Pink Bollworm, or Gulabi Sundi, eats through the cotton boll of the plant. It leaves holes that expose the interior of the boll to heat and humidity, which causes the growth of a fungus called aflatoxin.

In May 2015, the Okara Military Farms administration also expressed concerns over the toxic contamination of animal feed made from genetically modified cotton seed, which it says was deteriorating the health of its pedigree cattle.

The Centre of Excellence for Bovine Genetics (CEBG) an independent organisation of the Pakistan Army near Okara, said that aflatoxin had made cattle feed bitter and had attacked their reproductive system, especially that of bulls, lowering sperm count. The military farm said that aflatoxin contamination in milk for human consumption was 10 to 50 times higher than the permitted level of 2 milligrams (or 200 parts per billion)

Aflatoxin is a carcinogenic substance, which can result in liver cancer after entering the human body, as well as causing damage to the immune system and lowering sperm count in both humans and cattle.

A multinational biotech seed production company has also warned the United States Environment Protection Agency of aflatoxin found in cotton boll following a Pink Bollworm attack.

“Cottonseed production in Arizona (and regions in which pink bollworm is a significant insect pest) typically have high levels of aflatoxin due to the boll damage caused by the pink bollworm. Often the levels are sufficiently high that the seed cannot be used for animal feed,” Monsanto said in a report available with Dawn.

A senior official from the Agriculture Extension and Adaptive Research department, however, maintained that aflatoxin had nothing to do with Bt cotton. “Due to different schools of thought, aflatoxin is related to Bt cotton when it is not so,” the official said. Under the offseason Pink Bollworm management initiative, farmers have been advised to feed their livestock Bt cotton waste.

The official said the waste becomes a breeding ground for the Pink Bollworm. “We are facing extraordinary circumstances. The Pink Bollworm management programme will lessen the spread of this pest by the next sowing season.”

The official said the exercise is nothing new, and has been in play for several years.