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Synthesis/Regeneration 33   (Winter 2004)

Biodevastation 7

Failure of GMOs in India

by Dr. Vandana Shiva and Afsar H. Jafri,
Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology

On April 25, 2003, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, denied commercial clearance to Monsanto’s Bt cotton for the northern Indian states. This vindicates the apprehensions of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) and others who have warned the government about the severe repercussions to Indian farmers and their livelihood if further clearance to the Bt cotton had been allowed in view of its large scale failure in the first year of its commercial planting in approximately 40,000 hectares.

This is a third consecutive victory for the people for their food security and food safety after the denial to ProAgro-Bayar for the commercial clearance of GE mustard as well as the rejection of import of 10,000 million tons of corn soya blend suspected of containing Bt “Starlink” corn as food aid by two NGOs—CARE India and Catholic Relief Services. This was achieved despite the massive media campaign in favor of transgenic mustard by ProAgro-Bayar as well as the massive pressure from USAID and the US Embassy. They tried hard to subvert the GEAC’s decision-making process through the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) by seeking a special audience in the official meeting of the GEAC.

…yields have been as low as 20 kgs in one acre.

This decision of the GEAC is welcomed by RFSTE and others because, GMO’s or no GMO’s, Monsanto seeds are spreading disaster. Recently, Monsanto hybrid maize seeds failed in more than 350,000 acres in about 11 districts of north Bihar. Farmers of these districts are in deep distress because Monsanto sold its 700 metric tons of “Cargill hybrid 900M” maize seeds in the flood- prone areas of north Bihar. Similarly, the water- intensive hybrid maize seeds were introduced in the drought-prone regions of Rajasthan, which has put an extra burden of chemical inputs and water on the Rajasthani farmers. Monsanto India Ltd., a subsidiary of the US multinational, has been barred from selling seeds in Bihar for allegedly marketing substandard products.

Bt cotton failed in India

The GEAC denial to commercialize Bt cotton in the northern states comes after the massive failure of Bt cotton in the southern states of India. The GEAC, in spite of being aware of ecological hazards and GM corporations’ false claims of reduced pesticide use and higher yields, had given permission to Monsanto Mahyco to commercialize Bt cotton in the southern states on March 26, 2002, and asked for a year’s additional trials in the north. Though the official version about the Bt trials by Punjab Agricultural University is not available, independent studies by a citizen group found that the Punjab farmers have rejected the first ever genetically modified commercial cotton hybrid seed, Bt cotton, due to its poor harvest. Malwa, a cotton- rich area in southern Punjab, is highly dependent on this cash crop, but successive failures have left farmers in the lurch. Bt cotton had found many takers among farmers in Punjab when it was introduced. Though the Punjab Agriculture University was against the sowing of Bt cotton seeds, several farmers smuggled Bt cotton seeds from Gujarat hoping for better results. The yield was, however, lower than claimed. The Daula village sarpanch Mr. Darshan Singh said, “ ... We had to spray chemicals 4–5 times on Bt cotton. The crops were attacked by various pests, specially the American Bollworm. The Bt cotton yield was lower than that of the local varieties, which are more profitable.”

Moreover, the Bt cotton seeds are costlier. Farmers who sowed Bt cotton got a yield of 250 kg per hectare while the local variety yielded almost twice that. The Bt cotton, however, requires less spraying than the local variety. “The local variety yields bigger cotton bales, which are preferred by traders. And it fetches more money for us. Marketing Bt cotton is difficult due to apprehensions regarding it,” said Mr. Nidhan Singh, a farmer.

RFSTE conducted a study in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka which showed that not only did Monsanto’s cotton not protect the plants from the American Bollworm, but there was an increase of 250–300% in attacks by non target pests like Jassids, aphids, white fly and thrips. In addition, the Bt plants became prey to fungal diseases like root rot disease or fusarium. The Bt cotton varieties gave very low yields. Even the staple lengths of what little cotton was produced were so short that the cotton fetched a very low price in the cotton market.

The incomes of Bt cotton farmers suffered not just because of low yields, but also because of staple size.

Bt cotton does not give higher yields

Bt cotton was sold with the claim that it would give 15 quintals [1 quintal = 100 kgs] of yield per acre. However yields have been as low as 20 kgs in one acre. On average, yields of Bt cotton are 1.2 quintals per acre in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; nowhere did Bt cotton yield exceed 4 quintals/acre at the end of the harvest.

In Madhya Pradesh, in Badwani, Khargaon, Dhar and Khandwa districts, almost half the 42 farmers visited reported that their crop had failed. Khargaon farmers faced total crop failure. In the other districts, only one expected a yield of 12.5 quintals. The average yield expected by the others was 4.01 quintals, as compared to the 15 quintals promised by Monsanto Mahyco.

…with Bt cotton, there are associated adverse impacts on parasitic natural enemies of cotton bollworm.

In Karnataka, 15 of the 40 farmers visited in Bellary, Sirippupa, and Haveri/Dharwad districts expected a total failure of their crops. The average yield expected by remaining farmers was 3.82 quintals per hectare (ha, 2.47 acres).

In most of the fields visited in the month of late October 2002, the Bt cotton plants were in a stage of maturity with leaves turning red before dropping off. The non Bt on fringes looked far healthier, taller and more green than Bt plants. The early maturity of the Bt crop could be caused by the toxin gene and not due to environmental conditions since non-Bt varieties and other hybrid cotton plants were healthy and lush green in October while Bt cotton plants had started reddening.

It means that unlike other hybrid cotton, which yields up to March, Bt cotton farmers could not get any yield after November–December.

In our view, this maturity factor could be caused by genetic engineering or genetic engineering processes through which the Bt cotton has been developed. This could also be due to the toxic gene in the Bt cotton plants. Even the CICR is expecting a maximum yield of 4 quintals per acre in 10 acres of Bt cotton being grown under the Institute Village Linkage Program (IVLP). Bt cotton disappointed its growers and the yield was much below their expectation.

Bt cotton does not increase farmers’ income

The failure of Bt cotton has completely exposed the companies who are trying to market their genetically engineered seeds at the cost of the farmers’ lives and livelihoods and calls into question the GEAC clearance given to an unreliable, untested, hazardous variety. The failure or drastically reduced yield of Bt cotton has devastated Bt cotton farmers, who are faced with penury.

The incomes of Bt cotton farmers suffered not just because of low yields, but also because of staple size. Monsanto Mahyco claimed a staple size ranging from 26–29 mm. In actuality, it is hardly 15–20 mm and fetched the rate of a short staple cotton (around 1500 Rupees per quintal), while the normal rate offered for best quality cotton is Rs. 2000 to 2200 per quintal. One of the buyers in the Warangal Cotton Market, Mr. Sarangpani of K.N.R. Enterprises, said that Bt cotton staples are only 6–7 mm long while the staples of good quality cotton are 32 mm.

The only paper that bolsters Monsanto’s claim to Bollgard (their Bt cotton seed product) is a study by Matin Qaim (University of Bonn’s Center for Development Research) and David Zilberman (Professor at the University of California in Berkeley), published in the journal Science, which said that the Indian experience with Bt is positive and yields have increased by 80%. Qaim and Zilberman have used data provided by Monsanto-Mahyco, which is still not in the public domain, to substantiate their claims. These claims have been rebutted by internationally renowned scientists and experts. Shanthu Shantharam, a scientist who has worked as a regulator with the USDA and is an authority on “pest resistant genes in managed ecosystems” states that such an increase cannot be attributed to a single Bt gene, calling it a “preposterous idea.”

The study is also rebutted by Dr. Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign, who said that this paper extolling the outstanding performance of Bt cotton is based exclusively on data supplied by the company that owns the Bt cotton, Monsanto-Mahyco. Bt cotton, the first GM crop to be grown in India, was given approval for commercial cultivation in March 2002, so this is the first harvest of the Bt crop. The data presented in this sensational paper are, however, not based on this harvest as one would expect but on a few selected trial plots belonging to the company. No data from farmers’ fields or from the All India Coordinated Variety trials conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have been included.

The Indian experience with Bt cotton shows that it neither gives higher yields nor does it increase farmers’ incomes.

This amounts to manipulating data since trial plots are experimental fields with optimal conditions. The performance in real fields under normal cultivation conditions is very different. Nowhere near these kinds of results are seen anywhere else in the world where Bt cotton is being cultivated. In the US and China, 10–15% yield increase is recorded. These sensational data have led to a spate of media reports about the “superlative” performance of Bt cotton both nationally and internationally. Such misleading reports can end up influencing policy makers in a direction that could ultimately be detrimental to farmers, and therefore must be publicly denounced.

Farmers, who according to GEAC’s earlier statements that they would earn an additional income of Rs. 10,000 per acre with Bt cotton, actually lost more than this amount by planting Bt varieties. Not only is the cost of the seed higher than that of non Bt varieties but also Monsanto’s varieties need more fertilizer and water.

The Indian experience with Bt cotton shows that it neither gives higher yields nor increases farmers’ incomes.

Adverse environmental impacts of Bt cotton

Research conducted during the past few years at four domestic academic institutions shows that Bt cotton is effective in controlling the primary pest of cotton—bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera Hbner)—especially in the seedling stage of cotton. However, laboratory experiments and field research also demonstrate that there are adverse environmental impacts associated with the cultivation of Bt cotton.

1. In Chinese studies there are no significant impacts on predatory natural enemies associated with Bt cotton. However, there are associated adverse impacts on parasitic natural enemies of cotton bollworm. Consequently, the populations of parasitic natural enemies in Bt cotton fields are significantly reduced.

2. Bt cotton is not effective in controlling many secondary pests, especially sucking pests. Field experiments showed that the populations of secondary pests such as cotton aphids, cotton spider mites, thrips, lygus bugs, cotton whitefly, cotton leaf hopper and beet armyworm increased in Bt cotton fields after the target pest, bollworm, had been controlled. Some pests replaced bollworm as primary pests and damaged cotton growth.

Some pests replaced bollworm as primary pests and damaged cotton growth.

3. The diversity indices of the insect community, the pest sub community and the pests’ natural enemies sub community, as well as the evenness index of Bt cotton fields, are all lower than those in conventional cotton fields. However, the pest-dominant concentration in Bt cotton fields is higher than in the conventional cotton fields. Therefore, the possibility of outbreaks of certain pests in Bt cotton is much higher.

4. Both laboratory tests and field monitoring have verified that cotton bollworm can develop resistance to Bt cotton. Laboratory tests for selection of Bt resistant bollworm indicated that susceptibility of bollworm to Bt cotton fell to 30% after 17 generations under continuous selection with a diet of Bt cotton leaves. The resistance index of the bollworm increased 1000 times when the selection was continued to the 40th generation. Based on these results, the scientists concluded that Bt cotton would probably lose its resistance to bollworm in fields after the Bt cotton has been planted for 8–10 years continuously.

5. Bt cotton demonstrates excellent resistance to the second generation bollworm and chemical control is not generally needed for the seedling period of Bt cotton.

6. However, the resistance of Bt cotton to bollworm decreases over time, and control is not complete in the third and fourth generations. The fact that farmers must use chemicals 2–3 times to control bollworm, particularly from mid July to the end of August, has been commonly recognized in China, but there are not yet effective measures to postpone resistance development or to resolve the resistance problem. A high dose of the Bt toxin protein is considered difficult to obtain, and the refuge mechanism is not easily implemented.

Note: The complete 19-page report with references is available on the Synthesis/Regeneration web site, at: http://www.greens.org/s-r/33/shiva.pdf (pdf format)

[22 dec 03]

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