ISIS Report 03/05/06
Mass Deaths in Sheep Grazing on Bt Cotton
At least 1 800 sheep reported dead from severe toxicity after grazing on Bt cotton fields in just four villages in Andhra Pradesh India
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
The Bt trail of dead sheep, ill workers and dead villagers over three years
At least 1 820 sheep were reported dead after grazing on post-harvest Bt cotton crops; the symptoms and post-mortem findings strongly suggest they died from severe toxicity. This was uncovered in a preliminary investigation conducted by civil society organisations in just four villages in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh in India. The actual problem is likely to be much greater.
This latest report confirms the findings of an earlier fact-finding investigation, also conducted by civil society organisations, on illnesses in cotton farm workers and handlers caused by Bt cotton in another cotton-growing state, Madhya Pradesh, in India (“More illnesses linked to Bt crops”, this series).
And not so long ago, we reported similar illnesses and deaths among villagers in the Philippines linked to exposure to Bt maize since 2003 (“GM ban long overdue, dozens ill and five deaths in the Philippines”, SiS 29).
It cannot be mere coincidence that similar Bt toxins from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis incorporated in the genetically modified crops are involved in all these cases; but the regulators have done nothing. Things are so bad that the European Commission levelled an accusation of bias towards the biotech industry against its own food safety regulatory body (“European Food Safety Authority criticised of GMO bias”, this series).
Grazing lands decline as commercial crops increase
Grazing lands in Warangal district have declined steeply as commercial crop cultivation expanded in recent years, and it has become customary for sheep and goats to be allowed to graze on crop residues after harvest.
This year, there have been several media reports of sharp increases in the deaths of sheep and goats after grazing in Bt cotton fields. There were similar reports in 2005, when complaints were lodged with the Joint Director of Agriculture by a few NGOs, but no action has resulted.
Between February and March 2006, the shepherds of Warangal district again reported high mortality in their flocks after grazing in harvested Bt cotton fields. Some shepherds reported to the animal husbandry department and requested confirmation on whether the deaths were due to grazing on Bt cotton.
Still getting no response, a fact-finding team of five members was constituted by the Andhra Pradesh Shepherds Union: two members from Anthra (NGO working on livestock issues), veterinary scientist Dr. Ramesh and a field researcher Mr. Apparoa; Mr. Jamalaiah, Secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Shepherds Union; and two scientists from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture working on Bt cotton issues, Mr. S. Ramprasa and Mr. G. Rajashekar.
The team travelled through three mandals in Warangal district on 22 April 2006 and met with shepherds and farmers. The villages visited were Ippagudem in Ghanapur mandal, Valeru and Unkkucherla in Dharmasagaram mandal, and Maadpalli in Hasanparthi mandal.
Twenty-five percent of sheep dead within five to seven days
The Ippagudem village in Ghanapur mandal has 100 households belonging to the shepherd community. Forty shepherds and ten farmers attended the group meeting when the team visited. They said the deaths began after their sheep grazed on Bt cotton leaves or bolls. This year was the first time some of the shepherds and farmers cultivated Bt cotton hybrids, believing in the propaganda that they can get more yield and profit. They started grazing from the end of January to March. The deaths began within a week of continuous grazing on the Bt cotton crop residues. Mr. J. Parmesh, one of the shepherds got diarrhoea after consuming the affected sheep's meat.
The shepherds said that the sheep became “dull/depressed” after 2-3 days of grazing, started coughing with nasal discharge and developed red lesions in the mouth, became bloated and suffered blackish diarrhoea, and sometimes passed red urine. Death occurred within 5-7 days of grazing. Sheep from young lambs to adults of 1.5-2 years were affected.
The shepherds took their sheep to the government veterinary hospital in Warangal for post-mortem, some shepherds also performed their own post-mortem, as is often the practice of shepherds across Andhra Pradesh. They found black patches in the intestine and enlarged bile duct and black patches on the liver. The shepherds said that the Assistant Director of Animal Health Centre in Warangal told them these deaths appeared to be due to grazing on Bt cotton fields, as she has earlier seen such cases. She prescribed some medicines for the sick sheep, but very few sheep responded, and most died.
Of the 2 601 sheep that belonged to 42 shepherds, 651 sheep died, giving an average mortality rate of 25 percent.
A shepherd in another village, Akkapalli reported that he had cultivated Bt cotton the previous year and allowed his sheep to graze, which resulted in deaths. This year, while he still cultivated Bt cotton, he did not allow them to graze on it, and his sheep did not die.
On the way to Dharmasagaram mandal, the team spoke to a shepherd Shri Kochla Malliah, who has 100 sheep, but 5 died after grazing on Bt cotton crop residues. He reported that sheep had also died in adjoining villages Molakagudam, Kunipatti and Kondaparthi
More deaths and identical symptoms in other villages
Twenty-nine shepherds participated in the meeting in Valeru village in Dharmasagaram mandel. Sheep deaths occurred during February – March 2006. The symptoms described were identical to those reported in the previous village.
Of 2168 sheep owned by the 29 shepherds, 549 sheep died, again giving an average mortality rate of about 25 percent.
In the remaining villages, it was not possible to have a group meeting with the shepherds. But the team was informed that the sheep population is nearly 1 000 in Unkkucherla village, Dharmasagaram mandal, and 150 adult sheep and 70 lambs died within 4 days of grazing on Bt cotton fields between February and March 2006. In Maadipalli village Asanparthi mandal, there are 20 households rearing some 3 000 sheep, and nearly 400 died due to grazing on Bt-cotton fields from the second week of February through to March.
They took their animals to the Warangal veterinary hospital for post-mortem. The Assistant Director at the Animal Health Centre who conducted the post-mortem advised them to stop grazing their sheep on the Bt cotton fields, saying the deaths could be due to the Bt cotton, and prescribed some medicines for the affected sheep.
The team met with the Assistant Director who conducted the post-mortems. When questioned, she replied that while it appeared that the deaths occurred after grazing on Bt cotton fields, and could be due to the effects of Bt toxin, it was not possible to arrive at a definitive conclusion, as farmers also spray different types of insecticides and pesticides on their crops, and this factor confounds the observations. She also said there were no kits or other facilities available within the Department to enable her to arrive at a firm diagnosis that the deaths were due to Bt cotton.
When asked to see the post-mortem results/reports, she said she was not permitted to show them to the team, as permission of the Joint Director was needed. But the Joint Director was not present that day.
Demands for in-depth investigation and moratorium on Bt cotton
The team concludes that “The preliminary information gathered from meeting shepherds across 3 mandals, strongly suggests that the sheep mortality was due to a toxin, and most likely Bt toxin from the foliage.” They were impressed that shepherds from villages located at 20-25 km distance from one another, reported an identical history of grazing on the Bt cotton fields continuously, identical symptoms and death within 5-7 days of grazing exclusively on Bt cotton plant residue, primarily on young leaves and pods. The post-mortem symptoms, as observed by the shepherds, suggest “severe irritation of the intestines and associated organs (bile duct, liver) connected to the absorption and assimilation of food and processing of toxins.”
The team is calling for more “in-depth exhaustive investigation on the impact of Bt toxin on the local Indian livestock”, and a “complete moratorium on Bt cotton cultivation until conclusive results show that the Bt toxin is completely harmless”. Furthermore, they call for the shepherds who suffered losses to be compensated.
What is not yet clear from the report is whether all the sheep that did not fall ill or die also grazed on Bt cotton; if not, then the mortality rate is even higher than reported.
Mortality in Sheep Flocks after Grazing on Bt Cotton Fields – Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh. Report of the Preliminary Assessment April 2006, http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=6494