Bt: Acquiring shades of grey

Published: Sunday 15 January 2006

-- Bt Cotton: A Painful Episode, Need For Thoughtful Policy Edited by Sanat Mehta Gujarat Kapas Utpadak Hitrakshak Sangh Vadodara 2005

The Indian experience with genetically modified (gm) technology is barely a decade old and limited to a single plant -- Bt cotton. The Bt experience has been varied and the arguments for and against it -- technical, ideological and political -- have been heated. The book under review joins the debate with its agenda clearly spelt out at the outset: to help find a solution that "will be beneficial to cotton growers" and terminate the "monopoly of multinationals". Octogenarian social worker Sanat Mehta has done an admirable job of putting together essays by scientists and activists, and newsreports over the decade the Bt controversy has raged, especially by representing both sides of the argument.

Among those who train their guns on the government, the companies that market Bt cotton and the scientists who try to give it the seal of their approval are well-known activists: Anil Gupta and Vikash Chandak, Vandana Shiva, Suman Sahai and Devinder Sharma. Some of the pieces by them and others rely more on polemic than argument to completely trash Bt -- among them are Shiva and Sharma. Others, like Sahai and Gupta prefer the middle path, using detailed research and reasoned arguments to make their case. The burden of the case that most anti-Bt advocates present relate to the following areas: the secrecy and irregularities in the way government functions to approve Bt, and the inadequacies of existing legislation -- principally the Indian Seed Act -- to address concerns about gm technology.

On the way, critics have also exposed the inadequacies of the intermediate regimes that have been put into place to oversee the function of gm technology -- the Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation and Genetic Engineering Approval Committee.

Sahai, easily the most articulate of the gm critics, presents case studies on the failure of mech 12, mech 162 and mech 184 from across the country, especially Andhra Pradesh, showing that these varieties, especially, and gm, generally, is agronomically unsuited to India -- both in terms of environment and infrastructure -- and that even a potent technology has to have the right conditions and context to be useful.

This leads to the point made by N P Mehta, retired head of the government's cotton research station at Surat: that India has always been at the cutting edge of research and innovation concerning cotton, but the government has been slow to promote such research. In the case of gm technology, he shows the government ignored the experience and expertise of a body of scientists to both its own detriment and that of the technological possibilities that gm represents. Mehta presents a wealth of little known facts about the many firsts achieved by Indian scientists in developing cotton hybrids. Unfortunately, public sector research hasn't found enough fund and fillip. As a result, Indian farmers are forced to buy costly seeds produced with costly, imported technology.

Articles on the Gujarat experience reveal interesting facts. For instance, that local firms developed hybrids with Bt traces that proved much more successful than imported Bt, and, of course, was way cheaper. For instance, the well-known story of Navbharat, a company that produced the highly popular 'Navbharat-151' variety, known as Robin Hood-Bt, which transformed Gujarat's cotton productivity from the worst in the country to the best. It succeeded because of state government support and a focus on local factors.

But the protagonists of Bt have also been represented in the book -- and they come mainly from the mainstream. Several articles -- notably by John Mason (The Financial Times), Sudha Nagraj (The Economic Times) and Sonu Jain (The Indian Express) -- present cases for Bt. Mason argues that the developing world can benefit from this technology, though he expresses the fear that it might not reach poor farmers. In what is a piece of editorialised reportage, Nagraj says gm is good and seems to be in favour of foreign technology when she calls for a ban on 'pirated' technology. But Jain seems to be the most comprehensive proponent -- rubbishing fears of environmental damage and arguing that the hoopla over terminator genes is misplaced, since Indian Bt seeds do not have them.

The Bt debate is far from over -- though the black and white verities do seem to have assumed shades of grey. This collection contributes to further nuancing the debate, even as it gives policy-makers points to ponders about what directions they should take.

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