Bt-by-Bt assessment

On November 10, 2002, people wearing 'Bollgard' caps visited cotton farmer R Narsimha Reddy at his home in Aleru, a village in Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh. Bollgard cotton (Bt cotton) is Monsanto's proprietary gene technology developed to defend the pest-prone cotton crop from the notorious bollworm. Seeds impregnated with a toxic gene from the bacterium Bacillus thurigensis (Bt) are marketed in India by the Mahyco-Monsanto joint venture, in which the US agrochemical giant holds a 26 per cent stake. Reddy's visitors were interested in knowing how his Bt cotton crop was faring

 
By Nityanand Jayaraman
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Bt-by-Bt assessment

-- On November 10, 2002, people wearing 'Bollgard' caps visited cotton farmer R Narsimha Reddy at his home in Aleru, a village in Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh. Bollgard cotton (Bt cotton) is Monsanto's proprietary gene technology developed to defend the pest-prone cotton crop from the notorious bollworm. Seeds impregnated with a toxic gene from the bacterium Bacillus thurigensis (Bt) are marketed in India by the Mahyco-Monsanto joint venture, in which the us agrochemical giant holds a 26 per cent stake.

Reddy's visitors were interested in knowing how his Bt cotton crop was faring. It was mid-season, and this year's kharif harvest was the first legally sown commercial Bt cotton crop in the country. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac) had cleared Bt cotton for commercial planting in March 2002. The approval, observers say, was "based on illegal field trials, confidential performance data, and an evaluation process shrouded in secrecy."

A pioneer of sorts, and a well-to-do farmer, Reddy is known in his village as someone who manages good yields in the worst of times. But like many farmers who planted Bt this year, Reddy is disappointed with Bt's performance. "I expected a good yield. The flowering was vigorous. But I can't sell flowers," he says. "The company promised 20 quintals per acre [4,940 kilograms (kg) per ha]. I think I'll get about 10-11 quintals per acre [2,470-2,717 kg per ha]." He said as much to the visitors.

The visitors, it turns out, were members of an expert team constitutedby geac to investigate the reportedfailure of Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh and other states. The 'Bollgard' caps were compliments from Mahyco-Monsanto. The team's first rendezvous, it appears, was with representatives of Mahyco-Monsanto.

Significantly, the team's official report -- geac visit to Andhra Pradesh -- fails to mention that the field assessment was carried out in collaboration with Mahyco-Monsanto representatives. In fact, the report does not even mention that Mahyco-Monsanto was contacted during the visit. A senior geac official, who was part of the expert team, confirms this fact: "Some people from the company were there."

The story doesn't end there. The report fails to record Reddy's problems with the Bt crop. "I told them that the boll was small, that the yield was poor and that the refugia is a waste of land," Reddy recalls. (Refuge plantation: a non-productive buffer of non-Bt cotton meant to contain the potentially dangerous side-effects of the technology.)

"I never said I expected 15 quintals per acre [3,705 kg/ha]," says Reddy countering the geac report's claim of "average yield of 15 quintals per acre in Bt cotton" from his field. Farmers' statements and reports from various places suggest that the average yield of Bt cotton ranges from 1,729-2,964 kg/ha. That, according to many farmers, is at par with or below yields recorded with non-Bt hybrids like 'Tulsi' and 'Bunny'.

Hyderabad-based Centre for Resource Education (cre), Sarvodaya Youth Organisation and Greenpeace also investigated the performance of farms the geac's team visted in Warangal. They speak of similar inconsistencies in the team's report. "They have listened to what they want to listen. The farmers' statements are not reflected in the expert team's report," saysD Narasimha Reddy of cre.

Monsanto has responded to media reports citing its own investigations that response from 70 per cent of the farmers was 'overwhelming'. However, six out of seven farmers contacted by this writer in Nalgonda were dissatisfied with the seed's performance.

"Neither the government nor the company can be trusted," says Reddy. "Monsanto expectedly says the crop has done well. They have a financial stake in projecting that viewpoint, regardless of the facts. If they're truly interested in sharing facts and fostering a healthy public debate, let them release the data of the field trials, based on which they got the permission, and let them furnish details of their study, which concludes that 70 per cent of the farmers are overjoyed with Bt."

Unfortunately for geac and Monsanto, other expert team members too have updated their assessment of Bt's performance. "That [November] report is too early," says expert team member and Andhra Pradesh commissioner of agriculture Suthirtha Bhattacharya. He concedes, "We have been getting feedback from various quarters that Bt yield has not really gone up, and that the crop's resistance to sucking pests is not significantly better."

What's the real story then? What did Bt cotton promise? What has it delivered? In the Indian context, what's the wisdom of adopting this technology? Importantly, what is the Indian context?

Worldwide, India has the largest area under cotton. But yields are less than half the world's average. Pests and lack of water security are responsible for eroding productivity. And farmers have no control over any of the risk factors. A good crop doesn't guarantee a good income. Market prices are beyond the control of Indian producers and buyers, thanks to the World Trade Organization (wto). With liberalisation, India is not allowed to protect the domestic market. And when cheaper or subsidised cotton imports invade India, the market price for local cotton takes a beating. And despite wto rhetoric, the us heavily subsidises its cotton farmers. Besides, risk factors and input costs -- for seeds, pesticides, fertilisers or water -- are so high in modern cotton farming that farmers from modest backgrounds are quickly driven into a spiral of crippling debts.

In spite of all the marketing hype surrounding Bt cotton, it addresses but one of the many uncontrollable risks faced by the Indian cotton farmer: pests. Not all pests. Bt provides resistance against the bollworm alone. It provides no protection against other sucking insects (white mosquitoes, aphids and jassids) that plague the crop.

"Overall, there are fewer bollworms this year," says M Mohan Reddy, also from Aleru. "We must have sprayed insecticides about 10 times [Bt and non-Bt]. The white mosquito appeared first, and only on Bt. Aphids and jassids were present on both, but more on Tulsi," Mohan Reddy recalls.

Other farmers report that Bt has significantly reduced the number of sprays for bollworm. But, they say, the resulting savings are offset by higher seed costs, lower quality of cotton and a yield that is not different from that of non-Bt hybrids. In fact, both Narasimha and Mohan Reddy concur that the Bt plant is delicate -- "a city-dweller" compared to the "robust, rustic hybrids" and traditional varieties. Mohan's theory is: "The Bt yield is lower because it's very water-dependent. With more water, it's better. Non-Bt is good even with less water."

Agriculture experts such as A Padmaraju, director of research at the Acharya N G Ranga Agricultural University in Hyderabad, agree. "Bt or hybrids are not recommended for dry areas like Mahboobnagar or Warangal. They should only grow straight [traditional] varieties, not even hybrids."

caveat 1: Bt is not for non-irrigated lands. This caveat was not advertised when farmers purchased the seed, or when the technology was approved.

The technology is replete with hidden costs. In Narasimha Reddy's farm, for instance, out of 1.21 ha set aside for Bt cotton, only 0.91 ha will be harvested. The remainder is set aside for refugia. "Who will pay for the loss of land to refugia?" asks Narasimha Reddy.

Curiously, the geac team report has chosen to report this concern. "Farmers want only 2-3 rows of refuge non-Bt cotton." Truth is, the farmers don't want any refuge. Former geac chairperson A M Gokhale said last March that if the refugia is not maintained, Bt could become 'infructuous' (unfruitful, ineffective) after two years.

The magic figure of 5 rows was arrived at to provide pest immunity to the Bt toxin, and also some semblance of protection from genetic pollution. Given the way things go, one shouldn't be surprised if geac decides to do away with the environmental protection or reduce refugia to 2-3 rows despite Gokhale's warning. Gokhale had also said that, ideally, about 30 per cent of the farm ought to have non-transgenic cotton refugia. "The implied message," he had warned, "is that if the land holding is small, don't go in for Bt cotton."

caveat 2: Bt is not for small lands.

What about the quality of Bt cotton? Farmers are unhappy with Bt cotton -- rougher texture and shorter fibre length. "I have kept non-Bt separate from Bt. I don't want its market value to be compromised by mixing it with Bt," says Reddy, who expects to harvest 3,000 kg from 1.21 ha of Bt, and 6,500 kg from the 2.42 ha planted with non-Bt hybrids.

caveat 3: Bt cotton is a 'medium long staple' a variety that is not in demand. Even Monsanto acknowledges this. But, the company confidently assures, the demand is bound to go up.

Needless to say, nobody saw it fit to let farmers in on these caveats before they forked out Rs 1,600 per 450 gram packet of Bt seed. Based on Monsanto's figures, 55,000 farmers in the country have planted 42,301.4 ha with Bt cotton; a variety known to have lower market value. Farmers say they could lose as much as Rs 2 per kg on Bt cotton, as compared to non-Bt cotton. Reddy says, "I may be saving on pesticide costs. But if yields are low and the quality is poor, it's not worth it."

Unfortunately for farmers, Monsanto and geac failed to mention that Bt seeds would solve their problems only under certain conditions: plenty of water; sufficient land; after the market preference changes from long staple to medium long; and after wto is dissolved. Until then, farmers are encouraged to invest in the Monsanto- geac experiment to develop new and improved editions of Bt cotton, much in the same manner that many of us invest in Microsoft's experiment to develop new and improved editions of the Windows software.

Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist investigating environment, human rights and corporate crime

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