Five and a half years ago, in December 2000, I visited the fields of nine cotton farmers in Bellary, Davangere, Koppal, Raichur and Shimoga districts of Karnataka selected by Monsanto-Mahyco in August-September 2000 to conduct Bt cotton trials. The seeds were Mahyco's hybrids incorporated with Monsanto's Bt gene Bollgard.

Original issues from 6 years ago

 •  Inadequate maintenance of buffer plots;
 •  No knowledge of the genotype (variety of seed) received;
 •  Inordinate reliance on fertilizer/pesticide agents' directives by all farmers, not just Bt ones
 •  No confidence in government agricultural extension advice, if any was extended.
 • Poor execution of integrated pest management (IPM) methods in the field, in 'non Bt' areas, pointed to inadequate dissemination by the agricultural extension system.
 •  Farmers stated that they would try Bt cotton, regardless of opposition by political parties and organisations like the KRRS or others; that 2-3 crop seasons would tell them how the seed would fare.
 •  Far better results from indigenous hybrid cotton varieties (i.e. those without one or more foreign parentage).

 •  Bt cotton farmers alert this year
 •  Understanding the Bt cotton maze

I had found no independent monitoring of the plots, in this case by the branches of the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) as stipulated by the state government. Eight of the nine farmers said nobody from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had come to inspect their fields. GEAC is the central regulator under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). The ninth farmer, Ningappa from Koppal, said a group came with the agriculture department official and had a meeting with him once during the season. And a 'Balwinder Singh' signed himself in Ningappa's book as coming from Punjab and Hyderabad.

Not one of them said any government official took soil samples, or seeds or any material for testing. On querying about GEAC's lack of presence in the fields, the then Department of Biotechnology (DBT) Secretary Manju Sharma's reply was that GEAC was responsible along with Mahyco for ground monitoring, the implications of which sounded like a government-Mahyco collaboration.

Another fundamental flaw was of late sowing due to delayed distribution of seed by the company, which resulted in the crop having missed the peak bollworm infestation period.

Field violations and the government's lack of response to them were subsequently reported in 2002, by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Centre for Budget & Policy Studies-Bangalore. They study looked at Mahyco field trials, interviewing Bt cotton farmers who had participated in the 2001 Mahyco trials together with scientists from the UAS. Their report highlighted continuing problems, including late supply of seeds by Mahyco, delaying the sowing season yet again. "It is curious that the delay should recur", said the report, considering the GEAC ordered this retrial due to NGO objections that the pre-2001 trials missed the peak bollworm season because of late sowing.

Also, farmers were permitted to harvest and sell the Bt trial crop and use its residues for various purposes, in apparent violation of GEAC conditions to Mahyco, raising serious questions of whether the GEAC was aware of how the trials were being conducted. In addition, DBT allowed Mahyco to set up, and identify, members for a monitoring committee, raising questions about DBT's credibility and competency in setting up independent regulatory systems ~ monitoring committee's checking of field trials thereafter desultory and not rigorous.

But why rehash old stories now? Six years on, despite criticism by NGOs, concerned scientists and media reports on inadequate monitoring, India's regulatory practice appears dismayingly to have offered a repeat performance of its 2000 conduct.

"The story is almost a repetition of the field trials [earlier ones]… The same kind of secrecy, the same kind of lax monitoring…. and the same kind of violations" says a field survey report compiled by a cross-country group of 20 people's organizations and NGOs that clubbed together to form the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC).

"Had we adopted a pro-small farmer biotechnology strategy, we would by now have had Bt-cotton varieties whose seeds farmers could keep and replant, unlike in the case of the hybrids marketed by private companies."

-- M S Swaminathan
The Hindu, 24 May 2006

 •  Bt cotton farmers alert this year
 •  Understanding the Bt cotton maze