Science in Society Archive

Indian Cotton Farmers Betrayed

Rhea Gala travels to Andhra Pradesh to find out why small farmers are still planting GM Bt cotton when it has failed miserably since its introduction four years ago

I have been following the increased planting of Bt cotton across India for the last four years with disbelief. We have heard that the crop has failed very badly, and yet farmers are still queuing to plant Bt cotton, the only genetically modified (GM) crop with commercial approval in the country. In November last year, I finally decided to travel to Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh, to find out what's really going on.

Having arrived in Bangalore I hired an auto rickshaw and took the first of many hectic rides through the tumultuous city traffic to meet Divya Raghunandan of Greenpeace at their head office. She told me how things had been developing.

Monsanto's three Bt cotton hybrids, Mech-12 Bt, Mech-162 Bt and Mech-184 Bt were banned in May 2005 in Andhra Pradesh (though simultaneously approved for commercial production in other states!). This was the result of three years of poor performance and Monsanto refusing to pay compensation of Rs450m to the farmers (“India's Bt cotton fraud” SiS 26); and finally, the AP Minister of Agriculture Mr Raghuveera Reddy taking a strong stand after being pressed by civil society organisations, such as Oxfam and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), that had been monitoring the crop.

Though seeds for the banned hybrids are still available this year; the seeds of choice for the farmers have been the legally approved RCH-2 Bt (Rasi seeds) and Bunny-Bt (Nuziveedu Seeds) with royalties of Rs1250 per packet going to Monsanto who owns the patent for the Bt gene. A plethora of cheaper unauthorised and unauthenticated Bt seed of dubious origin have also been popular; many sold openly in the market place.

Bt cotton has miraculous powers?

Divya Raghunandan of Greenpeace, Kavitha Kuruganti of the CSA, Kiran Sakkhari of the Permaculture Association of India and others, all stressed to me at different times, how inappropriate the Bt technology is for Indian farmers.

More than 85 percent of Indian farmers own less than five acres of land, 63 percent of farms are less than three acres, and many landless people will lease land to grow a crop. The average farmer is illiterate and ignorant of the implications of planting a GM crop, but lives in the hope that money borrowed to produce a cash crop will be more than repaid after a good harvest. Farmers are also desperate to avoid the spiralling cost of pesticide, and have been taken in by Bt cotton advertising and Monsanto's extravagant claims.

Monsanto claims that yield on its Bollgard Bt cotton will be up by 30 to 40 percent on conventional hybrids, and that pesticide use will be 70 percent down because Bollgard kills 90 percent of bollworms. Bollywood personalities such as Nana Patekar attribute almost miraculous powers to the product on TV. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh has personally endorsed the Bollgard brand. There were posters promoting Bt hybrids displayed on the walls of all villages I visited. Local opinion leaders such as larger landowners get seed and pesticide discounted or free, and ‘poor farmers' who extol the virtues of Bt cotton locally have turned out not to be farmers at all.

Family livelihoods depend entirely on good decisions being made; such as which seeds to plant, and a poor farmer will seek advice or take a lead from someone who she/he thinks knows best. It seems that many people at all levels of Indian society, some knowingly, have exhorted marginal farmers to purchase a product already proven to be unsound and unsuitable and that had already caused the downfall and death of many.

Bt cotton in the ‘Pesticide capital of the world'

Having taken the overnight train to Hyderabad from Bangalore, I travelled with Kavitha Kuruganti, development consultant, and Ram Prasad, entomologist, from the CSA to look at Bt cotton in Guntur District, known as “the pesticide capital of the world”. We ascertained that around 70 percent of cotton grown in the villages was Bt cotton, including many spurious cotton hybrids sold as Bt.

Kavitha explained that in the absence of government regulation, a monitoring and evaluation committee comprising civil society organisations such as the CSA had taken on the responsibility of recording events and informing the public and government of the social and environmental tragedy unfolding.

She said that farmers had been influenced by pervasive but utterly misleading advertising emanating from Monsanto and its licensees, and endorsed by celebrities, government officials, journalists, agricultural and corporate scientists, larger landowners and seed dealers who had either jumped on a media bandwagon or had vested interests in Bt cotton sales. For example, at the point of sale, when farmers are vulnerable, seed dealers will hype up the yield of a hypothetical farmer's Bt cotton because their profit is four times greater per drum than for non Bt seed.

We went to speak to seed dealers who told us that sucking pests were low on Bt, costs were high on non Bt, due to more pesticide sprayed, and predicted a higher yield for Bt. They said no problems had been reported for the Bt crop. When questioned on the poor condition of the Bt crop they said it was due to excess rain. But what we saw was quite different.

We found Bt cotton looking stunted and wilted with dry red leaves resulting from damage due to jassids, a sucking pest. These have caused 50 to 60 percent damage to Bt cotton, but much less on non-Bt cotton. We found a variety of pests including tobacco caterpillar in large numbers only on the Bt plants, and counted an average of only 15 to 20 bolls per plant on Bt cotton compared to 40 to 50 bolls on non-Bt cotton.

The popular legal Bt cotton hybrids RCH-2 Bt and Bunny-Bt were worst hit by jassids and secondary pests like Spodoptera and Sylapta ; and are expected to give very low yields as well as a new pest crisis due to Bt technology. We questioned farmers extensively about the performance of these hybrids, Kavitha acting as translator. They were eager to share details of costs such as seed, fertiliser and pesticide, and expressed an apparently stoical acceptance that while their inputs, including pesticide costs, had been very high, their yield would be very low.

One farmer, Mr T Prasanna Kumar, who had so far harvested only two quintals of Bunny-Bt (one quintal = 100 kg), had been advertised in the paper as having harvested 15 quintals! Farmers suggested a number of different options for the next season; including other Bt hybrids. As Kavitha pointed out, without a comprehensive and independent review of the facts, this situation can only get worse.

Black is white for Bt cotton

Mr G Raja Shekar of the CSA and Mr MD Amzad Ali of Sarvodaya Youth Organisation introduced me to big and small Bt farmers in the Warangal area. Raja Shekar had found from experience that only five to ten percent of the authorised Bt cotton delivers a competitive crop, while 90 percent looks very poor and is failing badly. This matched my observation that a stunted, wilted, thin and pink-tinged crop was predictably Bt, while a tall healthy, boll heavy and verdant crop almost invariably turned out to be non-Bt.

So powerful was the belief system manipulated by Monsanto's propaganda that many farmers we spoke to tended to blame the problem on external factors, like flooding, disease, or sucking pests; though some observed that the non-Bt crop had not been similarly afflicted. In some areas, unfortunately, there were few non-Bt crops to compare.

We spoke to farmer Ravinder Reddy and his brothers, who had a larger holding that was hosting a Monsanto trial for a new Bt hybrid, with Bt and non-Bt control hybrids for comparison. The trial crop was in a very poor state with diseased bolls and dry wilted leaves. The control Bt was better but not as good as the non-Bt hybrid, which was tall, green, bollful and lush. The farmer nevertheless praised the trial crop, explaining that it did not attract insects while the non-Bt healthy plants did. “The Bt technology is superior,” he said, “it is all a question of management; the village farmers will follow my lead.” This statement, in full view of contradictory evidence, later made more sense to me when one of the bystanders turned out to be a Monsanto representative.

Bt cotton kills thousands

On the evening of my fifth day out in the cotton fields of AP, Raja Shekar, Amzad Ali and I visited the widow of a local farmer and her two young children. The farmer, Mr Rami Reddy, had killed himself early in November when it became obvious that his Bt crop would fail and he would be unable to repay his debts. Many hundreds in AP and thousands around India have come to similar grief, as the economics of Bt cotton simply do not add up.

A landless farmer will start the growing season in debt, having borrowed Rs 6 000 per acre to rent the land and Rs1 700-1 900 per acre for approved Bt seed, totalling around Rs18 000 per acre by the end of the season, after adding pesticide and fertiliser cost. The market rate for cotton ranges from Rs1 200 to 1 700 per quintal; therefore a yield of 10.5 quintals per acre sold at the best price is needed just to break even, and before including interest on the loan of between 36 and 48 percent to local loan sharks.

Seventy percent of Indian farmers are marginal and simply cannot afford expensive Bt management practises that require high pesticide and fertiliser inputs. This year, Bt cotton yields are again the lowest compared to non-Bt cotton varieties. Non pesticide management and organic cotton are performing best this year, probably because they are less prone to pests and bred to be reliable in conditions of stress (“Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt-cotton trap”, this series).

Science finds against Bt cotton

Agricultural scientists Dr Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari conducted the first independent study on Bt cotton and released their report Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh: A three year assessment in 2005. The study involved a season-long investigation in 87 villages of the major cotton growing districts - Warangal, Nalgonda, Adilabad and Kurnool. It found against Bt cotton on all counts and was vital in getting the hybrids involved banned in AP:

  • It failed miserably for small farmers in terms of yield; non-Bt cotton surpassed Bt by nearly 30 percent and at 10 percent less expense

  • It did not significantly reduce pesticide use; over the three years, Bt farmers used Rs2 571 worth of pesticide on average while the non-Bt farmers used Rs2 766 worth of pesticide

  • It did not bring profit to farmers; over the three years, the non-Bt farmer earned on average 60 percent more than the Bt farmer

  • It did not reduce the cost of cultivation; on average, the Bt farmer had to pay 12 percent more than the non-Bt farmer

  • It did not result in a healthier environment; researchers found a special kind of root rot spread by Bollgard cotton infecting the soil, so that other crops would not grow.

Co-author of the study, Kiran Sakkhari, told me that farmers buy the Bt cotton because of the extreme hype. “Farmers have been cheated before by being sold dud pesticide that looked like the real thing, and now they are trying to avoid pesticide altogether by using Bt. But the Bt gene is only partially effective against bollworm and ineffective against the dozens of other pests that routinely attack cotton, so pesticide use will continue to increase with Bt cotton. For example, the tobacco caterpillar ( Spodoptera litura) , which has caused havoc on the Bt cotton this year; though not on the non-Bt cotton, has done as much damage as any primary cotton pest.”

He also reiterated that Bt plants are intolerant of biotic and abiotic stress. “Wilt, a physiological disorder prevalent this year, is found only on the Bt crop, and tobacco streak virus, spread by the sucking pest, thrips, is a big problem; and while the non Bt cotton recovered well from excessive rain this season, the Bt crop is a shambles.” He thinks that the Bt cotton may give a good yield in laboratory conditions; but that cannot be extrapolated to larger areas. He admits this is a most generous assessment of the situation; and that many people, including himself, think that there is something basically wrong with the parent lines or the Bt technology per se .

And the Indian Government knew all along

In spite of all the evidence of its failure, the Indian Government has given Monsanto's Bt cotton the nod all around the country. A report from the Government's Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, showed that the government itself had been sitting on a study describing the faulty technology since 2003, while farmers had been going under.

The Bt cotton is genetically engineered to produce the Cry1Ac toxin that kills the main cotton pests in the US, the tobacco budworm ( Heliothis virescens ) and the pink bollworm ( Pectinophora gossypiella ), but is not particularly toxic to the Indian pests, cotton bollworms ( Helicoverpa zea and Helicoverpa armigera ) .

Government scientist and main author of the study, Keshav Kranthi, showed that the toxin is not always strong enough to kill pests; and is extremely variable across hybrids and between plant parts. The cotton boll, where the pest does most damage, is especially lacking in toxin strength, and the toxin also loses strength later in the growing season. Bt cotton showed up to 67-fold variability in toxin strength; being extremely unpredictable and unreliable, as testified by farmers countrywide for the past four years.

Nevertheless, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently stated: “I am very happy to say that US President George Bush and I have decided to launch a second generation of India-US collaboration in agriculture.”

Scientists from the CSA fear that Monsanto's Bollgard II stacked Bt hybrid, with two Bt genes, currently undergoing field trials, and said to be “ten times better” than Bollgard I, will be offered as a “solution” to the current Bt problem, even though the National Government has now formally admitted that Bt cotton has failed in a number of states, including AP.

Bt crops break all biosafety rules

Kavitha Kuruganti pointed out many violations of biosafety regulations at all the test sites that we visited, as well as among the commercial plantations. Nobody is addressing the problem of gene transfer to conventional plants; and a general disregard of separation distances between the Bt and non-Bt crop makes contamination a fait acompli . Similarly, there is a general lack of enforcement of 20 percent non-Bt refugia, designed to slow the evolution of pest resistance. The several generations of bollworm that live annually on a crop can lead to 60 percent resistance in a single year.

With no regulation of GM cotton, GM produce is entering the food and feed chain as cottonseed oil and cake. This problem will continue to grow as fourteen new GM varieties of India's staple crops have been approved for field trials that began in 2005. Since my return to the UK, a Bt okra (ladies' finger) from a Mahyco (Monsanto's Indian partner) field trial was recently harvested in Guntur and sold in the local market, instead of being burned as required by law. This only came to light due to the monitoring by the civil society groups. The farmer involved did not know that the crop was transgenic and his family were eating the vegetable. The plants were seen to be in very poor state with many pests; and the person hired by Mahyco to care for and monitor the crop had no agricultural background. He was selling the crop to make extra cash. Mahyco had not informed the state government of the trial, and has since abandoned the standing crop.

Return to organic agriculture is the real solution

The Green Revolution cotton monoculture in AP has eradicated the traditional local crop varieties, depleted natural resources and created serious pest communities that require spiralling amounts of pesticide; many carcinogenic and banned in the west. This pre-existing pesticide problem, and the hype of Bt cotton advertising, seem to be the main reasons why farmers have turned to Bt cotton.

But Bt cotton has proven to be a failure. Bt technology is set to exacerbate the pesticide problem (see also “Scientists confirm failures of Bt-crops”, SiS 28), impacting further on biodiversity while continuing to cause suffering and suicide. Bt food crops, if and when they get approved for commercial production, will be a catastrophe for Indian agriculture and the nation as a whole.

The government needs only to promote organic production for all crops to stop this nightmare, instead of putting vested interests above the needs of the people. This betrayal over GM crops, like pesticides, poisons everything in its path, especially the farmers that feed the nation.

A return to sustainable organic methods is especially suitable for small farmers, and puts the skill and creativity of the farmers back at the centre of agriculture, where they can really regain control of their destiny. (“Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt-cotton trap”, and “Poor women farmers and the crops of truth” this series).

Article first published 02/02/06

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