An official report prepared by the Andhra Pradesh government on the performance of Bt cotton in 2002 - the first year of its commercialization - shows that "in North Telengana region the net income from Bt varieties was five times less than the yield from local non-Bt varieties. In Southern Telengana, the income from Monsanto's Bt crop was nearly 7 times less than what was obtained from the indigenous non-Bt cotton varieties, demonstrating the resounding failure of the Monsanto variety."
What does this report card indicate? Nothing. What future lessons it has for the blind adoption of such sophisticated technologies? Nothing. We are surely in the midst of a Jungle Raj where the private companies are the new holy cows; "see no evil, hear no evil and talk no evil" is the new unwritten refrain.
The GEAC has meanwhile turned defunct. The speed at which its chairman has been replaced puts at shame the infamous 'revolving door' concept that exists in Europe and America. Revolving door is a phrase that is used to indicate the ease with which commercial company executives and the bureaucrats switch jobs. The underlying message for the biotechnology industry is very loud and clear - come and exploit the gullible Indian farmers till the time you feel exhausted.
Writing in these columns, I have explained this elaborately. Friends of biotechnology industry however would not accept this. They went on harping about the significant economic returns that the farmer would get by cultivating Bt cotton. They talked of the benefit to the environment given the pesticide reduction figures that were very conveniently churned out. The Department of Biotechnology (as well as Mahyco-Monsanto) claimed that despite the extravagant price of the modified seed, the net gain to farmers would be in the range of Rs 10,000 from an acre. The secretary of the DBT went to the extent of claiming that the yield advantage to the growers would be as high as 80 per cent.
Such was the desperation to push the risky technology that two researchers - from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Bonn in Germany - were drawn in to justify the crop research trials that Mahyco-Monsanto carried out. They did a remarkable job, painting such a rosy picture that embarrassed even the multinational giant, Monsanto. Their paper, published in the once reputed journal Science in Feb 2003, extrapolated the flawed findings to all the crops, concluding that GM crops would increase crop yields in the developing countries by 80 per cent. Not even the die-hard supporters among the scientific community had actually claimed that so far.
The claims of stupendous crop yield gains fell flat in the very first year of commercial planting. More about this and the talk of pest resistance guffaw later. But first let us take a look at the serious environmental risks that Bt crops entail, that have actually enabled the Dutch government to apply the precautionary principle. The Dutch do not want to ruin their soil and environment and therefore would like to wait. In India, on the other hand, protection of environment and human health seems to be the prerogative of neither the government nor its people, it is a task that is left best to the Supreme Court.
Like the GEAC, the Dutch have a Committee on Genetic Modification (Cogem) that is responsible for regulating GM crops in the Netherlands. But unlike GEAC, Cogem recently sponsored a survey of nine prominent Dutch ecologists, who opined that in line with adherence to the precautionary principle, answers to ecological issues too important to be ignored are still lacking. These include outcrossing of transgenes to related plant species, effects on soil ecosystems and, in particular, impact on multiple layers of the food web.
In an excellent and thought-provoking paper "Dutch Precaution Keeps Bt Crops at Bay" Dr Mae-Wan Ho and Dr Jo Cummins say that the plants are the primary producers to be eaten by primary consumers or herbivores, which are in turn consumed by and secondary consumers, or carnivores. These feeding relationships form an intricate web of inter- and intraspecific interactions. Incorporating Bt transgenes in a plant genome results in production of delta-endotoxins, thereby reducing feeding by herbivores. But effects on other levels remain largely unknown.
Quoting entomologists Bart Knols and Marcel Dicke from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the writers say that accumulation of toxins in non-target herbivores may affect natural enemies, yielding secondary pests that may require chemical-based interventions to reduce crop losses. Persistence of toxins in the soil may affect soil arthropods, and disturbance of below ground interactions may in turn impact on the above ground food web. Further, how a plant allocates resources towards producing toxin affects its metabolism, and that may impact on herbivores and carnivores. These higher-level disturbances may favour evolution of Bt resistance in pests.
No wonder, pest resistance to Bt has already emerged all over the globe where Bt cotton is being cultivated. In India, it was observed in the very fist year of planting thereby pointing to the faulty approval to a faulty variety. In China, where more than five million hectares is under Bt cotton, farmers have to spray more pesticide to control third and fourth generation of American bollworm insects. With each passing year, the number of pesticides sprays is simply doubling. In Australia too, farmers are being advised to use more pesticides to keep the insects at bay. If the pest resistance starts to break down in the second generation itself, where is the gain? What has been the advantage of passing on this risky and expensive technology to farmers, and at what cost? Isn't it a fact that the entire gain has been to the seed industry, which has walked away with huge profits leaving the farmers and the environment in deep crisis?
Like in the Netherlands, farming in India is predominantly small-scale. And that raises additional concerns, as Drs Ho and Cummins point out, to the interaction between Bt crops and surrounding natural or semi-natural ecosystems the magnitude of which will be greater than in countries with large-scale Bt-crop cultivation like the United States. Subsequently, Bt pollen may have much larger impacts on vulnerable and/or endangered insect species, several of which are already on the verge of extinction and survive only in isolated refuge areas. At the same time, studies have shown that cultivation of GM crops has increased the incidence of some fungus and secondary pests that were not a major problem earlier.
In India, there have been no such studies. In fact, there are no serious studies to understand the consequences of the failure of regulatory system that allows unhindered multiplication and selling of seeds of inferior Bt cotton varieties. The resulting genetic contamination of the cotton has something that even the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the umbrella organization of farm research in India, is reluctant to undertake. The reason is obvious. Like the media, the industry too has annihilated the scientific institutions. Regardless of the grave fallout, ICAR watches merrily as Bt gene continues to be incorporated at will by crop scientists in any and every crop species that they can lay their hands upon.
Furthermore, the seed industry, the DBT and the plant scientists in India justified the introduction of Bt crops in the name of increasing productivity - and thereby domestic production - enabling the country to turn into a major exporter. In reality, the government is busy lowering the custom duties and tariffs to allow cheaper imports to flood the country. Ironically, while the cotton growers in the central region of the country find no buyers for their harvest, cotton imports are multiplying, more than twice in one year - from 21,000 tonnes in 1999 to 49,000 tonnes in 2000. With the United States, China and European Union refusing to reduce their subsidies to cotton growers, there is no possibility for Indian farmers to find a footing in the international market.
Cotton farmers are therefore faced with a two-pronged assault. The seed industry is luring them with expensive seed that is increasingly pushing them into bankruptcy and to the hitherto unknown 'biological treadmill', whereas the cumulative impact of the World Trade Organisation is drastically reducing international prices and allowing cheaper cotton to be dumped. Farmers are getting squeezed in the process. In this Jungle Raj, where industry and science have joined hands to take exploitation to the hilt, farmers have suddenly turned into the new and latest children of lesser gods.
But then, who cares?