Finding new markets for biotech crops has become imperative to the agri-business industry, as European farmers are moving away from genetically engineered (GE) crops, declaring their farms and regions as 'GE Free' zones. In Europe, farmers are able to access the Internet, study various reports themselves, and enter into discussion groups with fellow farmers. As a result, they have far more information on the development in the GE world, as well as its implications for them, than in developing countries like India. The GE industry has therefore decided to focus on Asia, where farmers are less suspecting of their agenda, and the media is less critical.

Indeed, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the biotech industry's lobbying organisation, held its Board Meeting in Delhi last month and decided to take some selected Indian farmers to Europe to propagate Bt Cotton to European farmers!

Recently, there has been a strident campaign in the media by some high profile management gurus to 'let biotech crops bloom'. Biotech promoters such as Dr Kameswara Rao, Dr Shantu Shantaram, Swaminathan Iyer and Bhagirath Choudhary have featured in this advocacy blitz. There have also been instances of such exhortation from others who have very little to do with agriculture, such as Gurcharan Das, who recently made a forceful argument in the Times of India for the cultivation of GE crops in India.

Shaky economics

But what exactly has Bt cotton done to the economics of the small farmer in India? Let me quote from a recent study by Ashok Malkarnekar, Hermann Waibel and Diemuth Pemsl of the Chair of Agricultural and Development Economics, School of Management and Economics, Hannover, Germany. The three distinguished researchers made a comparative study of Bt and Non Bt cotton farmers in Karnataka. The study reveals that while the Bt farmers did get a marginally higher yield, the cost of getting this improved yield was so high that they ended up making less money! Thus, while the gross margin for non-Bt farmers worked out to Rs.10,880 per hectare, the margin for Bt farmers was a paltry Rs.1435. In other words, non-Bt farmers were earning 7.5 times more than Bt farmers.

For the last five years, we in the Deccan Development Society along with our partners in the AP Coalition in Defence of Diversity, have consistently studied the performance of Bt Cotton in Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh. These are systematic scientific studies carried out from 2002-2007, and have the following data to offer:

  • Bt cotton yields were 30 per cent lower than non-Bt in 2002-2003; 3.3 per cent higher in 2003-2004; 5.3 per cent higher in 2004-2005.

  • In 2002-2003, Bt farmers lost Rs.1295 per acre while non-Bt farmers in the same year earned Rs.5368 an acre. In 2003-2004, Bt farmers managed to earn 8.9 per cent more than non-Bt farmers. But in 2004-2005 their net income once again dipped into the negative with Bt farmers losing Rs.252 per acre while their non-Bt counterparts recorded an earning of Rs.592 an acre.

This is far from the great wealth for Indian farmers that the GE advocates conjure up. In fact the small farmers in this country who took up Bt cotton suffered uniform failure. In Vidarbha, every second cotton farmer who has committed suicide was a Bt farmer. And their numbers have kept on rising year after year.

The non-Bt seeds that have consistently out-performed Bt seeds have disappeared from the market, forcing farmers towards GE options.

 •  No GM please, we are British
 •  Secretive and hasty policy

Let us now look at another argument - namely, that Bt technology has proved a miracle in tackling the pest problem on cotton. The major pest on cotton is bollworm, and farmers have over the years spent a fortune on pesticide sprays to kill this pest. In 2006 Bt cotton farmers in AP spent 41 per cent more than those cotton farmers who were practicing non-pesticidal management (NPM) methods. And what was the yield difference between the two? NPM farmers who had access to good non-Bt hybrids earned Rs.4500 an acre, whereas Bt farmers earned Rs.4408 an acre. Thus non-Bt farmers had not only spent much less on pesticides, but also earned slightly more than Bt farmers. This is not an isolated figure; this has been a consistent trend over the last five years.

But as if by the wave of a magic wand, non-Bt seeds have disappeared from the market. While Bt was consistently failing for small farmers, good non-Bt seeds were performing infinitely better. Despite this, however, seed suppliers have moved to Bt seeds because they offer higher margins; they also worry that their non-Bt seeds may be branded 'not modern enough'. Consequently, whether they are willing or not, farmers are now forced to plant Bt cotton. This situation, forced on farmers, is hailed by the industry as the great spread of Bt cotton. This is akin to President Musharaff's vision of democracy in Pakistan.

New problems

Not only were the claims hollow, with the introduction of Bt crop, previously unknown problems began to appear. When Bt stepped into the soils of Andhra Pradesh in 2002-2003, it brought a new disease called Root Rot to cotton. Farmers described this disease as something "we had never seen in our lives". Bt crop, especially the second-generation Bollgard II, had severe infestation by the symptom resembling Rhizoctonia root rot, Cercospora Leaf Spot, Black Arm, and severe Zinc deficiency. The damage is aggravated due to moderate infestation by the mealy bugs; in Punjab, these mealy bugs gobbled up the Bt cotton fields while leaving non Bt plants untouched.

In 2003 the Rhizoctonia Root Rot was reported on three per cent of soils in AP. Within five years, by 2007, it had spread to about 42 per cent of the cotton growing farms. The root rot disease does not allow a second crop such as chilli to succeed on the farms where Bt has been planted, whereas in all non-Bt cotton soils, chilli grows famously well. The failure of chilli to grow on Bt cotton soils is obviously due to the toxicity passed on by the Bt plant to the soil. In 2006, farmers in Mustyalapalle and Sikandranagar of Yadagirigutta Mandal in Nalgonda District of AP uprooted their own Bt plants in nearly 500 acres, since all of them had wilted completely because of the Rhizoctonia root rot disease. They feared that if they let the plants grow further, all their soils will get toxic.

US and Canadian data

In the USA, the mother of genetic engineering technology, as per the data published by the US Department of Agriculture [USDA], over the seven years period from 1995-2001, herbicide and insecticide use marginally increased whereas the global use of these materials actually decreased. The significance of this data is that it was during this period that US started growing genetically engineered crops while the rest of the world did not.

In Canada, there is a very revealing situation. Canada is the second largest adaptor of genetically engineered crops in the world. Farmers there have discovered something unpleasant - as their crop production goes up, their incomes come down. This strange phenomenon is due to the fact that as the technology gets more sophisticated, input costs soar. The Canadian farmers are aeons away from their Indian counterparts with bullocks ploughing two acres per family. Their farm sizes measure in thousands of hectares. They mount heavy tractors for their farming operations and are guided by sets of computers mounted in the driver's enclosure. They are what scientists want Indian farmers to be: precision farmers. But they go bankrupt at regular intervals. This is a national scandal in that country.

The same fate has met their far poorer Indian cousins. To farm Bt cotton, they pay 400 per cent more for the seed and 'reap' benefits that are scandalously marginal. They continue to go red year after year. And Vidarbha continues to happen. Besides economic collapse, they are also 'reaping' other benefits such as mounting soil toxicity, cattle death and dangers for their health.

This is not necessary. Years ago, when there was no Bt cotton on the fields in Warangal, farmers grew their own desi hybrids called RAASI or Tulsi or Banni. And scores of farmers proudly recall that they got yields ranging from 1000 kg to 1400 kg per acre. Compare these yield levels to the 2007 yield data for the Bt cotton growers in US. According to the US Department of Agriculture [USDA], Bt cotton farmers got an yield of 720 kg per acre, almost 25 per cent less than the Indian non-Bt farmers!!! So much for the yield efficiency of Bt cotton.

A common sense approach

Finally, I want to draw attention to three things, which if looked at with simple common sense, should alert all of us to the reality of GE crops in this country. One, large parts of the world - especially regions with higher consumer power - are now organising to oppose GE crops in a big way, while we are being told this is good for us. Second, the 'research' of agri-business companies is almost always a 'trade secret', whereas other studies, such as our own at DDS, are completely open to public scrutiny. Third, for small farmers in India, soils and land are the only assets; therefore, the issue of Bt cotton is not merely an issue of conflict between environment and prosperity, it quickly becomes a question of life and death when even these limited assets collapse.

Common sense tells us that we should be wondering whether we are being made guinea pigs because consumers in the West are rejecting GE foods. Common sense also tells us to be wary of people whose 'secret' information is that their product is good for us. Common sense also tells us to tread carefully on issues of life and death, prefering caution and informed progress to mindless advocacy. One doesn't need to be a management guru to see this much. Indeed, the great tragedy of Indian agriculture is that those who refuse to see this are often hailed, while the millions who must live - and sometimes die - with the consequences of such 'wisdom' are dismissed as ignorant farmers.