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BEHIND ALL THE FLUFF
Clearing The Air On BT Cotton

History of the controversy
The debate over Bt Cotton has been simmering since 1998, when a private firm Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (or Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a minority stake) began field trials under the supervision of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).

On learning of this, environmental activists burnt down trial fields in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. But even after three years of field trials, which did not throw up any signs of damage to animals or the environment, the government insisted on more trials, saying the previous field trials were not conducted properly - that the one-acre plots were too small for extrapolation and that the crops were sown late. Hence, the full impact of the pest attack could not be experienced and the effectiveness of the Bt gene could not be measured.

Matters came to a head in September 2001 when around 500 farmers in Gujarat were found to have planted an unapproved variety of Bt Cotton on around 11,000 acres. (Later, it was discovered that this unapproved variety of Bt Cotton had also been planted in 480 acres in Andhra Pradesh.) This unapproved variety of Bt Cotton had apparently been planted in Gujarat for two years but came to light only when a major bollworm attack left many fields with conventional cotton devastated, while the ones using the unapproved Bt Cotton variety not only survived, but thrived.

Though the illegally sown seeds were far more expensive - Rs 50 a kg against Rs 7-8 a kg of conventional seed - the yields were significantly more - 10 quintals an acre against 1.20 quintals of conventional crop. The fibre was also finer and stronger. Farmers were, understandably, jubilant. However, since the seed had not been cleared by the government, they were asked to burn standing crops, worth a significant Rs 105 crore. Meanwhile, large stocks of raw cotton had already found their way to the ginning and waving mills.

Though the flouting of the law by Navbharat Seeds (the company that sold the seed to the farmers) is regrettable, the controversy only highlighted the impatience of the farmers with government dithering on commercialising Bt Cotton. Plagued by repeated pest attacks, they were looking for some succour, which the unapproved variety of Bt Cotton provided them.

Why is BT Cotton important for India?

Cotton is an important cash crop, covering an estimated nine million hectares of cultivated area. The lives of approximately one million farmers are dependent on the fortunes of this crop. In addition, nearly 60 million people are employed along the entire cotton value chain, from weaving to textile and garment exports. Directly and indirectly, it accounts for 33 per cent of the country's export earnings.

Despite having the largest acreage under cotton - 25 per cent of the global cotton area - India ranks third among the world's cotton producing countries, accounting for a mere 12.3 per cent of global cotton production. This compares poorly with China with 22 per cent and the United States with 19.4 per cent. Worse, Indian cotton fields have the lowest yields - around 300 kg per hectare against the world average of 580 kg per hectare. Chinese cotton fields, in contrast, yield 1043 kg a hectare. Pakistan, which has only three million hectares under cotton, reports an average yield of 602 kg a hectare and Uzbekistan, with 1.4 million hectares, yields 685 kg a hectare.

Over the past decade, Indian cotton production has fluctuated, dipping severely since 1999. See Table:

Year
Production (million bales of 170 kg each)
1989-90
11.42
1990-91
9.84
1991-92
9.71
1992-93
11.40
1993-94
10.74
1994-95
11.89
1995-96
12.86
1996-97
14.23
1997-98
10.85
1998-99
12.18
1999-2000
11.5
2000-01
9.7

Source: Economic Survey, Indian Planning Experience: A Statistical Profile

For the past few years, cotton production has been severely affected by attacks of the dreaded American Bollworm. In the 2000-01 kharif season, 13 per cent of the country's cotton crop was damaged. The states most affected were Andhra Pradesh, the country's largest producer of cotton, Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, driving farmers, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, to suicide. The high cost of cultivation, the decline in production due to repeated bollworm attacks and the lack of crop insurance pushed the farmers deep into debt. Pesticides are not only expensive but also often spurious, as are seeds, and the government has done precious little to address this problem. It is indeed, ironical, that in a country where 80 per cent of the seeds used by farmers is unregistered, and the government is unable to check the sale of spurious seeds, it is insisting on an elaborate procedure for the clearance of the Bt Cotton seed.

India is the second largest consumer of cotton after China and imports have been increasing steadily - from 69,500 tonnes in 1995-96 to 212,300 tonnes in 2000-01. This is both due to declining production as well as the fact that Bt cotton in global markets is of better quality and cheaper. So even Indian cotton mills are increasingly importing their raw cotton requirements. Global cotton prices are at an all-time low of 51.6 cents per pound. The Indian cotton farmer is thus getting outpriced in both the domestic market and the global market.

How will Bt Cotton Help?

What is Bt Cotton?
It is an insect-protected variety of cotton seed into which a gene from a soil-borne bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) containing a protein that kills certain pests, has been introduced. In the case of cotton, the Bt protein acts on three major caterpillar pests - the tobacco budworm, the American bollworm and the pink bollworm.
Bt has been widely used since the 1950s in the form of an aerial insecticidal spray. The introduction of Bt into seeds in the mid-1990s provides a more biologically sustainable method of managing insect pests.

Incidentally, the Bt technology is not confined to cotton alone but has also been used successfully in the case of corn and potatoes. Experiments are also being conducted on a range of products like brinjals, cauliflower and rice by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and private firms.

Direct Benefits

1. The reduced use of conventional broad-spectrum insecticide, resulting in environmental benefits and a huge saving in costs:: All countries using Bt Cotton have reported a significant drop in the use of conventional insecticide sprays, with the total number of spray reductions per hectare ranging between 1.0 to 7.7 sprays. In China and Mexico, total insecticide use has fallen by 60-80 per cent following the introduction of Bt Cotton.

In India, cotton farmers account for the sale of nearly 50 per cent of broad-spectrum insecticides. They have found that in the case of pest attacks on conventional crops, even 12 to 14 sprayings with insecticides could not save the crop. For farmers reeling under high costs of pesticides, transgenic cotton can help save as much as Rs 1800/- per hectare on insecticides. One of the farmers in Gujarat who planted Bt Cotton says he saved Rs 5,000 an acre on pesticide. Besides, there are other unexpected benefits.

For each spray eliminated, the farmer reduces spray trips and other associated costs. In India, the number of sprays can vary from eight to 15. In severe infestation situations like 2001, farmers in the North sprayed as many as 20 times.

2. Improved yields: Since insecticides are costly, it may not make much economic sense for farmers to spray their fields when the level of infestation is low. Therefore, they may tend to write off small swathes of infected crop. With the use of Bt seeds, plants are protected all the time. So, farmers don't need to forego even small portions of the crop. Overall yield, thus, improves significantly.

In China, the average gross yields from Bt Cotton increased by 15 per cent over conventional strains. In Spain, Bt cotton trial plots offered a 12 per cent yield advantage over conventional varieties sprayed with insecticides. Even in India, field trials showed a 14 to 38 per cent increase in cotton yield.

3. Lower risks to farmers' health from sprays and to crop yields: The use of Bt Cotton more or less eliminates risks associated with potential crop losses. It reduces chances of major infestation or problems arising from poorly timed applications, or applications missing swathes of crops, washing off of insecticides by rains or development of resistance by pests.

The biggest benefit reported by farmers in China, most of whom have small holdings like Indian farmers, is the health benefit to themselves and farm labour from the substantially reduced number of sprays. The danger of health risks from insecticides is considerably greater in India where adulterated sprays abound.

The reduced costs and higher yields will obviously translate into improved profitability for farmers.

Indirect Benefits

1. Beneficial insects are not harmed: The in-plant Bt technology does not harm beneficial insects, which conventional insecticides do.
2. Runoff of insecticides is reduced: With the use of transgenic cotton seeds, the possibility of insecticides being washed away into local water bodies is drastically reduced. Water contamination chances are minimised and so is danger to animals and organisms in streams, rivers and ponds.
3. Improved sustainable development: With the need to spray insecticides drastically reduced, there are major environmental benefits in terms of considerably less pesticide being added to air, water and soil. These benefits and the improved health of farm workers and the local population are incalculable.

How widely used is Bt Cotton?
The resistance to Bt Cotton within India is inexplicable, given the fact that the seed is being extensively used in all major cotton producing countries since the mid-1990s with no perceptible adverse effect on man or beast or the environment.

Apart from the United States, which first commericalised Bt Cotton in 1996, other countries where Bt Cotton is grown are Mexico (where one-third of the cotton area is under Bt Cotton), Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Indonesia and China. China has close to 3 million hectares under transgenic cotton, a huge jump from the 60,000 hectares in 1998. Even Indonesia, an extremely minor player in the world cotton market and, therefore, with far less at stake than India, commercialised BT Cotton in 2001 and this variety now covers around 4,000 hectares.

How safe is it?

1. Opponents of Bt technology have argued that the bollworm pest can develop resistance to the Bt toxin in genetically modified cotton. The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering claims there are 26 species of insect pests that have developed substantial resistance to Bt proteins.
In 1997, scientists in Arizona found the frequency of a resistance gene in the pink bollworm was about 1 in 10, which was roughly 100 times higher than estimates for other pests of BT crops. They, therefore, projected rapid increases in resistance levels in subsequent years. However, the estimated frequency of resistance did not increase from 1997 to 1999.

The jury is still out on the question of bollworms developing resistance to Bt Cotton. In any case, good resistance management can delay or prevent the onset of resistance. Methods used to accomplish this include refuge management, developing new products (with different modes of action) proper monitoring of performance in the field and optimum dosage in terms of protein expression in the plant.

Also, this concern applies to conventional insecticides as well. That is why it is important to continue research into and experimentation with Bt Cotton so that it is possible to find solutions to these problems on a continuous basis.

2. The alien gene in Bt cotton seed can be transmitted to other plants, endangering other plant varieties.

Cotton is predominantly a self-pollinating crop, but can be cross-pollinated by certain insects. However, outcrossing of the Bt gene to other species is unlikely because, for one, cultivated cotton is incompatible with several other varieties and so cannot produce fertile offspring. Although outcrossing to wild or untamed species can occur, commercial cotton production generally does not happen in the same geographical locations as these varieties. Finally, there are no identified non-cotton plants that are sexually compatible with cultivated cotton.

3. The effect of the genetic marker used to insert the gene in the seed is not known. The Bt protein or toxin used to kill the bollworm could enter the food chain through cotton oil and oil cake used to feed cattle.

Tests conducted in the United States show that before cotton is processed, the Bt protein is present in pollen at levels just above the limit of detection. After processing, this was found to be present in non-detectable levels in major cottonseed processed products like refined oil and cottonseed meal.

Who loses if Bt Cotton gains?

No one but the dreaded bollworm.

Who gains if bollworm loses?

The farmer, whose profitability improves with assured production of higher and improved quality yields and reduced input costs. Also, the exposure of farmers and farm labourers to pesticide sprays is reduced.
The consumer, who gets a better quality product at a lesser cost.
The environment which continues to be sprayed with pesticides now.
The Indian cotton industry which wants better home-grown cotton.

So the use of BT Cotton will be a win-win situation for all.

Unshackle Technology
Any government is ill-placed to judge the merits and the potential of any frontier technology. The vetoing power of the government is susceptible to being misused by vested interests who concoct pseudo-scientific arguments and often use unethical means for influencing government's decisions.

Every technology has its advantages and disadvantages and experience shows that the less savoury aspects of a particular technology are remedied by further technological advancements and not by reverting to the imagined world of pristine naturalism. Closing doors on technology is a recipe for disaster. The most important thing is to remove all obstacles in the path of free access and comprehensive trials of a new technology.

References:
"Bollgard Cotton: An assessment of global economic, environmental and social benefits" by Julie M Edge, John H Benedict, John P Carroll and H Keith Reding; Journal of Cotton Science 5:1-8, 2001
www.indiaonestop.com/cotton.htm
Economic Survey, 2001

 

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