Science in Society Archive

GM Cotton in India Exposes Rot in Science

The scientific echelons of India have been bulldozed by 'unscientific claims' to thrust an untested and unproven technology onto gullible farmers. Devinder Sharma, food and trade policy analyst, ran an internet campaign which succeeded in delaying the commercial growing of GM cotton in India. She is calling for serious instrospection in the scientific community, with regard to their role in possible cover-up on behalf of private companies, before the nation loses faith in scientific claims.Like the politicians, who have lost touch with the masses, agricultural scientists too have lost touch with the farmers. The line between science and industry is increasingly blurred, with the scientific institutions becoming the mouthpiece for industry.

After three years of 'satisfactory' field trails and experimentation, we were told, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) was ready to seek approval to commercialise the first GM crop in the country. The stakes were very high, as commercial release was being sought by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco), the Indian subsidiary of the multinational giant Monsanto. A green signal was given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests to the controversial Bt cotton, which has a gene inserted from a bacterium Bacillus thuriengiensis (Bt) to act as a 'natural' insecticide.

Intensive cultivation practices and indiscriminate use of conventional as well as fourth generation pesticides such as synthetic pyrethroids have created resistance among some of the key pests, including the American bollworm. Dependence on chemicals has been so heavy that farmers often resort to a cocktail of several pesticides, and it is not uncommon to spray more than 30 times per season. And as the crop fails because of weather conditions and/or pest resistance, an increasing number of farmers have been known to consume the same chemicals to end their lives and escape the humiliation of mounting debts. More than 2000 cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab have committed suicide in recent years.

For the scientists, the easy way out is to take another equally harmful route: incorporating a toxin within the plant so that when the American bollworms feed on the crop, they are killed. It sounds perfectly logical, but what does it actually mean for the environment and the farmers?

About 162 species of insects are known to devour cotton at various stages of growth, of which 15 are considered key pests. The most dreaded is the American bollworm. Over the past few decades, the pesticides industry, aided and abetted by the agricultural scientific community, has made us believe that spraying ever more potent chemicals is the only answer. The result is that the insect pests have developed resistance to all kinds of chemical and pesticide cocktails.

We are now being told that GM cotton is the only solution to the growing menace of pesticide resistance. What we are not told is that the Bt cotton is unsafe for the environment as well as animal and human health (see "Monsanto GM cotton not safe" ), and that the introduction of Bt cotton will push the country from a 'pesticide treadmill' onto a hitherto unknown and dangerous 'biological treadmill'. What will happen when the insect develops resistance to the Bt cotton? Will we introduce scorpion genes into the plant then, as has been done in maize in the United States? And what about the biological pollution that Bt cotton will unleash? After all, unlike the chemical molecule, the alien gene that flows into the nature is a living form and has the potential to multiply.

The DBT tried to address those issues by asking Mahyco-Monsanto to conduct experiments over the past three years. The first trials were held in 1998, and after approval came from the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC), the results were put before the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), and finally before the GEAC. Next year, in 1999, the crop was sown two months late due to delayed permission from the State governments. And yet, the results reportedly showed positive performance. Both the committees, were said to be 'satisfied'. The next year, the crop was sown late by three months and again, the two committees approved the results.

The process and manner in which the approvals were granted is completely unscientific. If the crop can be sown two to three months late and yet provide a higher yield, why doesn't the Ministry of Agriculture advise farmers to sow the crop late? Also, if an exception can be made to Mahyco for conducting the experiments in a slip-slod manner, why shouldn't the same criteria be allowed to thousands of agricultural scientists working in the universities? Moreover, the suggestions by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) for some of the environmental tests to be undertaken on a long term basis, were also deemed to be satisfied on the basis of data collected for only one crop season. All these glaring flaws in monitoring, evaluation and approval certainly raise questions regarding the competence of these two committees.

It has been repeatedly said that Bt cotton is not a solution to the entire problem of pest infestation in cotton, but is a part of the integrated pest management (IPM). But where is the IPM package, into which the Bt cotton fits? In fact, the Ministry of Agriculture has no programme that encourages IPM in cotton. When the GEAC was told of an experiment in Madhya Pradesh (in central India) wherein 1,100 farmers were growing cotton without chemicals and still getting higher yields, scientists present in the meeting said that that they had never heard of it. The tragedy is that like the politicians, who have lost touch with the masses, agricultural scientists too have lost touch with the farmers.

Scientists are keen to jump onto the biotechnology bandwagon. With the public sector being starved of research funding, and with research increasingly getting into the hands of private companies, scientists too have to join the chorus to remain employed. The line between science and industry is increasingly blurred, with the scientific institutions becoming the mouthpiece for industry. As a scientist, I am greatly dismayed to see the slow and steady decline of scientific institutions and still worse, the manner in which the present leadership in Indian science is refusing to stand up and be counted.

For further details, email Devinder Sharma at: