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Synthesis/Regeneration 35   (Fall 2004)

Broken Promises:
GM sweet potato project turns sour

by Lim Li Ching,
Institute for Science in Society

“Monsanto’s showcase project in Africa fails,” runs the headline in New Scientist, pronouncing the project to develop genetically modified (GM) sweet potatoes a flop.[1] The GM sweet potatoes, modified to be resistant to the feathery mottle virus, were as vulnerable to the virus as ordinary varieties, and sometimes their yield was lower. “There is no demonstrated advantage arising from genetic transformation,” Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) researchers Drs. Francis Nang’ayo and Ben Odhiambo were quoted as saying.[2] The Kenya national newspaper, Daily Nation, wrote: “The transgenic material did not quite withstand virus challenge in the field.” Furthermore, “all lines tested were susceptible to viral attacks.” And control (non-GM) crops yielded more tuber compared to the GM sweet potato.

Kenyan biotechnologist Florence Wambugu had been involved in the early stages of the GM sweet potato project, and has been traveling the world promoting it. Media reports have given the impression that the GM sweet potato was already in commercial use and bringing real benefits. A typical report said: “While the West debates the ethics of genetically modified food, Florence Wambugu is using it to feed her country.”[3] It went on to claim that the GM sweet potato yields “are double that of the regular plant” and that the potatoes were bigger and richer in color, with more nutritional value.

“The transgenic material did not quite withstand virus challenge in the field … all lines tested were susceptible to viral attacks.”

A recent report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics cited the project as evidence of the potential benefits of GM crops to developing countries, saying of the GM sweet potato, “it is expected that yields will increase by approximately 18–25%” and that, where sold, “the increased income will be between 28–39%.”[4] And, “the use of GM virus-resistant sweet potatoes could prevent dramatic and frequent reductions in yield of one of the major food crops of many poor people in Africa.” This report is what the UK government turns to when questioned about impacts of GM crops on developing countries. But the yield claims are difficult to verify, as there has been little field data. In fact, early descriptions of the GM sweet potato project had overstated the potential gains from GM by under-reporting the average yield in conventional production. Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex has said, “Accounts of the transgenic sweet potato have used low figures on average yields in Kenya to paint a picture of stagnation. An early article stated six tons per hectare—without mentioning the data source—which was then reproduced in subsequent analyses. However, FAO statistics indicate 9.7 tons, and official statistics report 10.4.” [5]

Thus, if as Wambugu has been claiming, the GM sweet potato produces 10 tons per hectare, then rather than increasing yields, it is performing no better than the conventional crop[6], as the recent reports on the field trials confirm.

Monsanto isolated a viral coat protein responsible for virus resistance, and donated it to KARI, royalty free, to use in its sweet potato improvement program.

However, the researchers had erred in concentrating on resistance to an American strain of the virus.[1] In any case, the GM sweet potato introduced in Kenya did not address the crop’s major problem, “weevils,“ and the virus in question was only one small factor among many that constrain production.[5] Furthermore, there are virus-resistant local varieties that farmers already use. In short, the GM sweet potato does little to address Kenyan farmers’ needs.

Over the last 10 years, Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government have poured an estimated $6 million into the project, which has yet to fulfill its promises. In contrast, conventional breeding in Uganda has produced a variety of virus-resistant sweet potato in less time, at a small fraction of the cost, and reported yield gains of 100%.[5]

“Bt cotton planting has given us more harm than good.”***

In December 2003, Indonesia, the first Southeast Asian country to commercially approve Bt cotton, was pulling the plug on that GM crop, and switching to a locally-developed non-GM cotton variety.

Monsanto had claimed that Bt cotton was environmentally friendly, used less pesticide, and would ensure an abundant harvest and increase farmers’ welfare. The reality was very different. In the first year of planting, the crop succumbed to drought [7] and hundreds of hectares were attacked by pests.[8] The drought had led to a pest population explosion on Bt cotton, but not on other cotton varieties. As a result, instead of reducing pesticide use, farmers had to use a different mix and larger amounts of pesticides to control the pests.[9] Furthermore, the Bt cotton—engineered to be resistant to a pest that is not a major problem in Sulawesi—was susceptible to other more serious pests.

The drought had led to a pest population explosion on Bt cotton, but not on other cotton varieties.

Bt cotton did not produce the promised yields [7, 9], which Monsanto had boasted to be as high as three tons per hectare. The average yield was only 1.1 tons per hectare, and 74% of the total area planted to Bt cotton produced less than one ton per hectare. About 522 hectares experienced total harvest failure. Despite the problems, the government extended its approval for Bt cotton commercialization by another year, with equally dismal results.

The poor yields trapped farmers in a debt cycle [10]; some 70% of the 4,438 farmers growing Bt cotton were unable to repay their credit after the first year of planting.[9] In the year 2002, farmers planting Bt cotton had lower income compared to farmers planting non-GM cotton.[11]

To make matters worse, the company unilaterally raised the price of the seeds. The initial agreement between the farmers and the company set the price of the seed at Rp 40,000/kg (about $4.50/kg); but this increased to Rp 80,000/kg in the second planting season.[11] Furthermore, the company initially bought the cotton from the farmers for Rp 2,600/kg, but this later decreased to Rp 2,200/kg.

Because the company could refuse to buy the farmers’ cotton harvest, many had no choice but to agree to the higher seed prices, by signing a letter of agreement with the company.

Farmers burnt their cotton fields in protest and refused to sign the letter, although others had no choice but to agree to the unfair deal, and continue planting Bt cotton to try and escape the vicious debt cycle. Eventually, many farmers refused to pay the outstanding credit, resulting in the ousting of Monsanto from the region.

It is farmers—those whom GM crops supposedly benefit—who have had to bear the consequences of the poor harvest and unfulfilled promises of Bt cotton. In contrast, the company abandoned the region, without being held liable for the problems it caused.[9]

“Bt cotton unfit for cultivation and should be banned.”

The Indonesian experience is mirrored by that of many farmers in India, where three varieties of Bt cotton were commercially planted for the first time in 2002 in the central and southern parts of the country.

Reports from state governments, academic researchers, NGOs and farmers’ organizations indicate that, in many areas, Bt cotton performed poorly, and at times failed completely in the 2002/2003 growing season[12-15], so much so that a panel set up by the state of Gujarat government under the Joint Director of Agriculture (Oilseeds) said that Bt cotton “is unfit for cultivation and should be banned in the State.”[16]

There were reports of failure to germinate, damage in drought conditions in the state of Madhya Pradesh [17], susceptibility to root-rot and leaf curl virus [18], and increase in non-target pests. Bt cotton was reportedly attacked by pests it is supposed to resist. Farmers experienced economic losses overall, due to the higher price of Bt cotton seed, little savings in pesticide use and lower total yields.[19] Moreover, Bt cotton fetched a lower price in the market, due to its smaller boll size and staple length.

Farmers experienced economic losses overall, due to the higher price of Bt cotton seed, little savings in pesticide use and lower total yields.

Overall, a non-Bt farmer obtained Rs 6,663 (about $146) more per acre than the Bt farmer. The study further revealed that 71% of Bt farmers experienced losses compared with only 18% of non-Bt farmers, and 50.7% of the Bt farmers surveyed said that they would not plant Bt cotton again.

Despite these negative experiences, the Indian regulatory authority has approved another variety of Bt cotton for cultivation in central and southern India.[20] A further 12 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids have just been approved for large-scale field trials and seed production.[21]

How many more broken promises will have to be borne by farmers?


1. Monsanto’s showcase project in Africa fails, New Scientist, 181, 2433, 7 Feb. 2004.

2. GM technology fails local potatoes, by Gatonye Gathura, Daily Nation (Kenya) 29 January 2004.

3. Millions served, by Lynn J Cook, Forbes, 23 Dec. 2002, http://www.forbes.com/global/2002/1223/064.html

4. Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries, 2004 http://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/filelibrary/pdf/gm_crops_paper_final.pdf

5. deGrassi A. Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence, 2003, www.twnafrica.org/docs/GMCropsAfrica.pdf

6. See http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=131 for a deconstruction of the hype around the increased yield claims of the GM sweet potato.

7. Friends of the Earth International. Genetically modified crops: A decade of failure [1994-2004]. February 2004.

8. Pests attack genetically modified cotton, The Jakarta Post, 29 June 2001, http://www.thejakartapost.com/yesterdaydetail.asp?fileid=20010629.A06

9. Jhamtani H. Bt cotton in Indonesia: A case for liability, Konphalindo. Paper presented at the Third World Network side event Liability and Redress: Lessons from Real Life during the First Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, 26 February 2004, Kuala Lumpur.

10. GMO brings hardship to S. Sulawesi, farmers claim, The Jakarta Post, 1 June 2002, http://www.thejakartapost.com/yesterdaydetail.asp?fileid=20020601.L03

11. Bt transgenic cotton a total failure, Konphalindo Press Release, Jakarta, 27 Mar.2002.

12. Bt cotton failed in giving expected results say seed breeders, UNI, 18 December 2002.

13. Mahyco’s Bt cotton variety “not up to the mark,” The Hindu, 18 December 2002, http://www.hinduonnet.com/stories/2002121902041700.htm

14. Bt cotton dashes hopes of ryots, The Hindu, 30 December 2002, http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/2002/12/30/stories/

15. GM crops under fire after cotton venture fails, Bangkok Post, 12 November 2002.

16. A lesson from the field, Asha Krishnakumar, Frontline Vol. 20 (11) May 24-June 06, 2003, http://flonnet.com/fl2011/stories/20030606005912300.htm

17. Bt cotton - bitter harvest, The Hindu, 24 August 2002, http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/2002/08/24/stories/2002082400081000.htm

18. Bt cotton prone to leaf curl virus in North India, Business Line, 20 August 2002.

19. Abdul Qayum & Kiran Sakkhari. Did Bt Cotton Save Farmers in Warangal? A season long impact study of Bt Cotton - Kharif 2002 in Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh. AP Coalition in Defence of Diversity & Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad, 2003.

20. Rassi seeds receives nod for cultivation of Bt cotton, by Ashok B Sharma, Financial Times India, 4 April 2004 www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=56343

21. Bt cotton hits more fields: Trials, seed production of 12 varieties developed by Monsanto get go-ahead from GEAC, by Ashok B Sharma, Indian Express, 15 April 2004, http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=45127

This article can be found on the I-SIS website at http://www.i-sis.org.uk/

The Institute of Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 OXR telephone: [44 20 8643 0681] [44 20 7383 3376] [44 20 7272 5636] General Enquiries sam@i-sis.org.uk Website/Mailing List press-release@i-sis.org.uk ISIS Director m.w.ho@i-sis.org.uk

[18 oct 04]

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