Science in Society Archive

GM Cotton: Corruption, Hype, Half-truths and Lies

Rhea Gala reports

Monsanto fined for bribery

Monsanto has just been fined $1.5m by the US Department of Justice for a bribe of $50 000 paid to a senior Indonesian environmental official in an unsuccessful bid to bypass the requirement for the environmental impact statement for its Bt cotton crop.

The bribe was paid by a consultant working for the company's Indonesian affiliate, but was approved by a senior Monsanto official based in the US, and disguised as consultants' fees.

The company also admitted to paying over $700 000 in bribes in Indonesia between 1997 and 2002, which was financed by improper accounting of its pesticide sales.

Monsanto had withdrawn its Bt cotton by December 2003; after a scathing report from the Indonesian government condemning the crop (see "GM fiascos around the world", this series).

Monsanto has been exposed in this one instance. But the company is aggressively pushing its GM crops in numerous other countries with the same hype, half-truths and lies.

Randy Hautea, global coordinator of the International Service for the Aquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) had to admit that Indonesia had pulled out of the global race for transgenic crops as "there was some disasters" that led to the government not extending their approval for the GM cotton. When asked whether a similar situation would happen in India with Bt cotton, Hautea refused to comment.

US based ISAAA is funded by biotech giants Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, Pioneer Hi-Bred etc., and describes itself as a not-for-profit organization with a mission to "contribute to poverty alleviation by increasing crop productivity and income generation" and to deliver "the benefits of new agricultural biotechnologies to the poor in developing countries."

Whom do you believe?

Conflicting accounts of the success/failure of Bt cotton have been coming from India for several years now. Monsanto claims that Bt cotton is great for Indian farmers, giving increased sales etc., but carefully conducted research shows the opposite to be the case: massive crop failures and uncontrollable pest infestations were also reported (see "Broken promises", SiS 22). And while politicians, seeking to appear progressive and patriotic, praised the 'advantages' of biotech, the farmers have resorted to, at times, violent protest and suicide because of losses incurred through using the GM varieties.

The Indo-Asian News Service reported that agriculture ministry sources had claimed that the large-scale plantation of GM cotton in 2004 had played a big role in helping India achieve a bumper crop. However, earlier that year, India's Financial Express reported that in spite of claims that India was a key GM crop cultivator, the actual area planted with GM cotton was miniscule compared with the total cotton growing area: about 1 %.

Monsanto commissioned a marketing organization to carry out a survey among Bt cotton growing farmers, with a single contact during the second season of GM adoption (the first had failed very badly leaving farmers in debt). In the same season, a detailed study carried out by Dr Abdul Qayoom, former joint Director of Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh, and Sakkari Kiran, involving contacts with farmers every 15 days, showed that Monsanto's Bt cotton had been out-performed again by non-GM cotton. Furthermore, the Monsanto-commissioned study had claimed for Bt cotton four times the actual reduction in pesticide use, twelve times the actual yield, and 100 times the actual profit!

Commenting on a recent ISAAA report, PV Satheesh, convenor of the Hyderabad based Deccan Development Society said "Bt cotton failed to live up to expectations in the third consecutive year in different parts of south India.

Nevertheless, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry remarked that GM crops offer the potential for huge productive gains, and hold a lot of promise for Indian agriculture. According to the ISAAA, India is categorized as a "mega-biotech country" with the highest percentage area increase under transgenic crops in the world; though only GM cotton is commercially grown. ISAAA claims that Bt cotton can reduce insecticide requirements by half, and make significantly greater savings for farmers. That is most unlikely, because farmers using Bt cotton seed are charged a 'technology fee' based on predicted savings on pesticide application; and also because Bt crops do not necessarily reduce pesticide use. Moreover, Bt cotton varieties are not always effective against local cotton pests, which can vary from one area to the next.

Misinformation

In Australia, the biotech industry and farmers are funding a group called 'Agrifood Awareness' to the tune of $AUS 100 000, via a compulsory research and development levy, with the mandate of "guiding meaningful opinions" in GMOs. Their biotech bulletin, "GM cotton adoption", which set the scene for the 12th Australian cotton conference in August 2004, also gave a misleading impression of the extent of adoption of GM cotton around the world.

Agrifood Awareness, like many official bodies and even governments, relies heavily on figures supplied by ISAAA, though their figures on GM adoption are often highly inflated, and ISAAA is very vague about how these figures are generated (see "The GM bubble". SiS 22).

There are approximately 20 million cotton farmers worldwide. In 2003, they grew 30 million hectares of cotton that produced 84 million bales of cotton. Sixty-five tropical, sub-tropical and temperate countries worldwide were involved, but ten countries account for 80 percent of the total area planted with cotton (see Table 1).

Table 1. Top ten countries for most hectares of cotton planted 2001-2002.

Country

Thousand hectares

1

India

8,730

2

USA

5,596

3

China

4,824

4

Pakistan

3,125

5

Uzbekistan

1,453

6

Brazil

750

7

Turkey

654

8

Turkmenistan

550

9

Mali

516

10

Benin

415

Total

26,613 (80%)

55 others

6,844 (20%)

World Total

33,457

The total area growing GM cotton in 2002 was 6.8 million hectares, significantly more than in 2001; this increased to 7.2.million hectares in 2003, or 21% of the 34 million hectares of cotton grown globally according to ISAAA. By 2004 7.8 million hectares of GM cotton were being grown by the three top growers USA, China and India (see Table 2). The figure for India's area of Bt Cotton grown in 2004 in table 2, at 100 000 hectares, is given by Professor Runge in a report prepared for the Council on Biotech Information. But ISAAA estimates that in 2004 the area under Bt cotton increased by 400%, in spite of failing over three seasons, to 500 000 hectares.

What the Agrifood Awareness biotech bulletin failed to mention is that only the top three cotton producing countries out of the top ten have commercial production of GM cotton, with the USA and China accounting for practically all of the GM cotton production in the world. And even by 2004, none of the other ten top cotton growers had any commercial adoption of GM varieties (Table 2).

Table 2. Adoption of GM cotton production in the top ten cotton-growing countries in 2004

Country

Thousand hectares

Thousand hectares GM

GM type

Level of development

1

India

8,730

100

Bt

commercial

2

USA

5,596

4,900

Stacked, HT, Bt

commercial

3

China

4,824

2,800

Bt

commercial

4

Pakistan

3,125

-

Bt

Laboratory /greenhouse studies

5

Uzbekistan

1,453

-

-

-

6

Brazil

750

-

Stacked, HT and Bt

Field studies

7

Turkey

654

-

-

-

8

Turkmenistan

550

-

-

-

9

Mali

516

-

-

-

10

Benin

415

-

-

-

Source columns 4-6: F Runge. The global diffusion of plant biotechnology

GM cotton adoption shows a trend towards the stacked gene varieties. In 1997, GM stacked gene cotton varieties containing both the Bt and herbicide tolerant (HT) genes were grown for the first time in the USA. According to the ISAAA, by 2001, the stacked gene variety accounted for 55 % of all the global commercial cotton containing the Bt gene, compared with 45 % with the Bt gene alone.

The Agrifood Awareness biotech bulletin further stated that by 2001, up to five million farmers grew Bt cotton, with 99 % in developing countries, implying that GM cotton bring benefits to many small farmers. At least 97 % of cotton farmers in developing countries farm on two hectares or less, with farmers in north and east China growing on less than half a hectare on average. So, the figure of 99 % of farmers growing GM cotton in developing countries, if accurate, represents a substantial number of farmers only in China. In the US, the biggest GM cotton adopter in terms of area under cultivation, the number of farmers involved is comparatively tiny.

In fact, the US, China and Argentina are the most prolific adopters of GM cotton, having taken up 73%, 62% and 20 - 60% respectively of cotton production.

Article first published 21/01/05



Sources

  1. "Monsanto fined $1.5m over Indonesia bribes" by Jonathan Birchall in New York
    6 January 6 2005 http://news.ft.com/cms/s/42d799ac-6019-11d9-bd2f-00000e2511c8.html
  2. GM cotton produces bumper hype in India. http://www.gmwatch.org
  3. GM Cotton Adoption. Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited Biotech Bulletin 9. http://www.afaa.com.au
  4. http://www.isaaa.org
  5. Runge C. Ford, Ryan B. The global diffusion of plant biotechnology: International adoption and research in 2004
  6. http://www.apec.umn.edu/faculty/frunge/globalbiotech04.pdf
  7. GMW: ISAAA admit GM "disasters". http://www.gmwatch.org

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