Category Archives: Bt cotton

Bt Cotton in India is a GMO Template for a “monumental irreversible catastrophe”

Cotton is the only genetically modified (GM) crop that has been officially approved in India and has been cultivated (illegally then legally) in the country for more than 20 years. Although GM mustard has been approved for commercial cultivation by India’s apex regulatory body for GM crops (the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, GEAC), a public interest litigation led by Aruna Rodrigues is before the Supreme Court challenging that decision and commercialisation of the crop is on hold.

The push to drive GM food crops into India has been happening for many years. Back in February 2010, the government placed an indefinite moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal after numerous independent scientific experts from India and abroad had pointed out safety concerns.

Minister Jairam Ramesh therefore rejected the commercialisation of Bt brinjal. He imposed a moratorium on its release till such time independent scientific studies establish the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and the environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in India.

The moratorium has not been lifted and the conditions Ramesh set out have still not been met. Regulatory processes have been shown to lack competency, possess endemic conflicts of interest and demonstrate a lack of expertise in GMO risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts.

Not to be deterred by any of this, the GEAC is now facilitating final-stage trials of a new Bt brinjal (event 142). It also seems dismissive of the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) Final Report in 2013 which was scathing about the prevailing regulatory system for GM crops. As a result, the TEC recommended a 10-year moratorium on the commercial release of all GM crops.

Immediately after the 2010 moratorium was announced, the GEAC carried on regardless and went straight ahead and sanctioned fresh trials for the new Bt brinjal. It appears that developers-cum-lobbyists were actually sitting on regulatory bodies as event 142 was proceeding, granting biosafety clearance and claiming all tests are complete, despite data being kept out of the public domain.

I recently contacted Aruna Rodrigues to discuss the current situation.

Colin Todhunter: The government has asserted that hybrid insecticidal Bt cotton in India has been an outstanding success and argues that it is a template for the introduction of GM food crops.

Aruna Rodrigues: The metric used to pronounce the grand success of hybrid Bt cotton is adoption/total production data as opposed to the real measure of performance, which is yield expressed as kg lint/ha and for the farmer, total net income/ha. The error is so basic that it is embarrassing that supposedly leading public sector scientists can err in such manner. But this is deliberate because the official agenda to promote GMOs is being openly espoused without any factual data or science to back a decision of such profound importance and irreversible ramifications.

They want to use hybrid Bt cotton as the model to introduce other Bt crops, principally food crops. And indeed, thousands of field trials of Bt crops have never been stopped, not even when the central government overturned the commercial approval of Bt brinjal a decade ago and imposed an indefinite moratorium.

CT: Renowned international experts have argued that we now have definitive evidence of the failure of Bt cotton in India, not least in terms of stagnant yields, pesticide use that is back to pre-Bt era levels, increasing pest resistance and rising input costs.

AR: The scientific evaluation of Bt cotton is the work of eminent scientists: Prof Dr Andrew Gutierrez, with Dr Hans Herren (World Food Prize Laureate), Dr Peter Kenmore (former head of FAO Plant Protection) and Dr Keshav Kranthi (former Director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, India’s apex cotton institute). Together, they have nailed the data and analyses of hybrid Bt cotton to provide conclusive proof of its definitive failure. (See ‘International scientists highlight failure of GM Bt cotton in India’ on and ‘International Webinar on Bt Cotton in India: Myths & Realities’ on YouTube)

The use of hybrids has played an important role in the failure of hybrid Bt cotton, the development of the yield plateau in India, high production costs and low productivity. The data show that suicides increase with economic distress, (Gutierrez et al; ‘Bioeconomics of hybrid Bt cotton and suicides’ in the process of being published by Environmental Sciences Europe) – low yield, rising costs and low net income. The low yield is related to inappropriate hybrid Bt varieties and low planting densities and falling net revenues due to stagnant yield, unstable cotton prices and escalating costs of production.

Also entering this equation are insecticide-induced pests and insecticide resistance, increasing resistance in pink bollworms to Bt toxins and the vagaries of weather on hybrids. American bollworm resistance is also increasing.  By 2013, pre-Bt era of 2002 levels of insecticide use were surpassed. It should be noted that reducing insecticide use was the raison d’etre for the Bt technology; it has no trait for yield.

Most hybrid cottons are long season of 180-200 day duration that increases the opportunities for pest resurgence and outbreaks. Additionally, hybrids require stable water and more fertiliser.

In 13 years, the cost of cultivation increased 302%. In 15 years, there was a 450% increase in labour costs. Costs of hybrid seed, insecticide and fertiliser increased more than 250 to 300%. And net profit was Rs. 5971/ha in 2003 (pre-Bt) but plummeted to net losses of Rs. 6286 in 2015. Kranthi: Cost of cultivation).

CT: How does the performance of Bt cotton in India compare with elsewhere?

AR: Hybrid Bt cotton was designed to increase yield and quality, but India’s global rank is 36 in terms of yield out of the 75 cotton growing countries. This ranking leaves India behind at least 21 major producing countries, including many in Africa, which do not employ GM cotton and cultivate only open pollinated varieties. The top eight producers use high density plantings of appropriate varieties that are approximately six-fold higher than commonly used in India. Herein lies the solution for India in the potential of high-density short-season cotton.

CT: The use of long-season hybrids in India seems unique. You and others have argued that the only reason to combine GM technology with hybrids was to serve as a value capture mechanism: for the seed companies to extract profit at the expense of farmers because in India international property rights on seeds cannot be enforced like they are in the West through signed contracts. But there have been other implications. Can you say something about these hybrids?

AR: The use of hybrid cotton is unique to India, being sold as a value-capture mechanism to enable seed companies to safeguard their profit and side-step intellectual property rights concerns. The hybrid technology disallows seed saving by millions of small farmers who cannot be controlled by threats of lawsuits. There is no other reason why hybrid technology was used; but it added significantly to the failure of Bt cotton.

Non-hybrid cotton varieties in other cotton growing countries are grown at densities of more than 100,000 plants per hectare, which is at least five times higher than India’s national average density of 18,500 plants per hectare.

Scientific trials conducted with non-Bt varieties in all the cotton growing states of India and in more than 6,894 demonstrations in farmer fields by government agencies during 2012 to 2016 unequivocally show that high density planting results in higher yields compared to the most popular high priced Bt cotton hybrids.

Furthermore, long staple desi cotton varieties also give consistently high yields above the national average of Bt cotton hybrids. The high price of hybrid Bt seed engenders low planting densities in India that contributes greatly to low yields.

High-density short-season planting of non-GM straight line varieties of desi cotton and American cotton species that interrupt the lifecycle of the pink bollworm is required. This simple insight has important implications and provides the basis for a proven solution against pests.

CT: Bt is a toxin encoding gene. And yet the proposal is to incorporate it in brinjal, a vegetable that is eaten across all sections of Indian society. Can you say a little about Bt toxicity and the implications for brinjal?

AR: The question of the toxicity of Bt proteins is circumvented by the regulators accepting a discredited version of cry toxicity based on a Monsanto myth that Bt toxins are only toxic to alkaline gut systems of insects, not the acidic stomachs of mammals. There is plenty of proof that Bt proteins are indeed toxic to both humans and animals (Schubert letter of Nov 2009 to Minister Jairam Ramesh, when he called for a scientific review of Bt brinjal). Failed Bt cotton is indeed the model for hybrid Bt brinjal and for monumental catastrophe.

CT: Bt brinjal has been sanctioned for final-stage field trials. If, in 2010, Hybrid Bt brinjal was deemed unsuitable for India, given that these trials are going ahead, what if anything has changed?

AR: Nothing has changed. The Bt gene is still a Bt gene and it is a toxin. It is worth reading an excerpt from the letter Prof David Schubert wrote to Jairam Ramesh in 2009:

It is virtually certain that within the vast Indian population a large number of people eating Bt brinjal are going to be or will become allergic to this foreign protein; this number cannot be predicted and some of the immune responses will likely be severe, causing anaphylaxis and possibly fatalities. Since there will be no way of tracking these adverse reactions within the population, and since once Bt brinjal is commercially grown, its genetic presence within a major calorie source for the Indian population is irreversible, a simple decision has to be made. Is the negligible benefit of Bt brinjal worth the clear risk?  My conclusion is that it is not worth the risk and that it would be a profound disservice to India if Bt brinjal were allowed to enter her food supply.

We now have the immeasurable advantage of the definitive assessment of the failure of hybrid Bt cotton across all relevant measures. We must use this knowledge to the benefit of our nation and Indian agriculture. Bt Brinjal Event 142 is also planned in hybrids that will increase seed costs and prevent seed saving.

One thing is crystal clear and it is worth repeating for warning and emphasis: hybrid Bt cotton is a negative model for hybrid Bt brinjal; for a monumental irreversible catastrophe.

Virtually no safety testing/risk assessment protocols were carried out for Bt brinjal more than 10 years ago. It stands as the only test case where the raw data was subsequently assessed by several eminent international scientists. They found a virtual vacuum. None of this engenders confidence in the regulators as responsible or trustworthy.

Furthermore, GMO contamination in what is a centre of diversity is of paramount importance. Our regulators have an uncanny ability to focus on two crops (mustard and brinjal) of great genetic diversity. There are about 9,000 accessions of mustard in our gene banks and India is a centre of origin/diversity of brinjal with the richest germplasm in the world.

I only have questions of our regulators because the things they do are fundamentally in error. And the list is endless. They also want to open up Indian agriculture to the second front of GM technology, herbicide tolerant crops, when chemicals (e.g., glyphosate) are documented to pose serious environmental and health risks.

The only option is to stop all environmental release of GMOs, because we are at serious risk from our own regulators. This is not just petitioners’ stance in the Supreme Court. Four official reports support the petitioners and two of them belong to the Parliamentary process in India of Parliamentary Standing Committees (PSCs), which are appointed across party lines. Both PSCs were unanimous that Indian regulation is seriously awry, both for a lack of expertise and an endemic conflict of interest. Both PSCs recommended a moratorium on GMOs.

CT: Given the vast genetic diversity of mustard and brinjal in India, developed over millennia, it is clear that ‘need’ has not been established for these (or any other) GM crops. Why is the government pushing so hard for GMOs?

AR: We don’t have independent regulation in India, not just in the sense of the regulators themselves, but also attendant ministries and institutions are rife with conflicts of interest. They promote GMOs. The glaring example is the regulatory body called the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation of the Department of Biotechnology, in the Ministry of Science and Technology (DBT). In this case, the DBT funds GM mustard development and also promotes it. The GEAC has historically had a serious conflict of interest with the line between the regulators and the regulated difficult to distinguish and partly explains why the government is pushing GMOs so hard.

• Aruna Rodrigues is the lead petitioner in a public interest litigation currently before the Supreme Court in India. The case is challenging a Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s apex regulator for GM crops, decision to commercial GM mustard which could be India’s first GMO food crop and open the floodgates for the introduction of other such crops that are in the pipeline.

The post Bt Cotton in India is a GMO Template for a "monumental irreversible catastrophe" first appeared on Dissident Voice.

From Cotton to Brinjal: Fraudulent GMO Project in India Sustained by Deception

Insecticidal Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton is the first and only GM (genetically modified) crop that has been approved in India. It has been cultivated in the country for more than 20 years. In a formal statement to the Supreme Court of India, the Indian government has asserted that hybrid Bt cotton is an outstanding success. It therefore argues that Bt cotton is a template for the introduction of GM food crops.

However, over the last week, two important webinars took place that challenged the government’s stance. The first was on Bt cotton and involved a panel of internationally renowned scientists who conclusively debunked the myth of Bt cotton success in India. The webinar, organised by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and Jatan, focused on an evidence-based evaluation of 18 years of approved Bt cotton cultivation in India.

The second webinar discussed the case of Bt brinjal, which the country’s apex regulatory body, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has brought to the brink of commercialisation. The webinar highlighted deep-seated problems with regulatory processes in India and outlined how the GEAC is dogged by secrecy, conflicts of interest and (scientific) fraud: participants outlined how the GEAC has been colluding with crop developers and seed companies to drive GM crops into agriculture.

Bt cotton failure

The panel for the Bt cotton webinar (YouTube: Bt Cotton in India: Myths & Realities – An Evidence-Based Evaluation) on 24 August included Dr Andrew Paul Gutierrez, senior emeritus professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California at Berkeley; Dr Keshav Kranthi, former director of Central Institute for Cotton Research in India; Dr Peter Kenmore, former FAO representative in India, and Dr Hans Herren, World Food Prize Laureate.

Dr Herren said that “the failure of Bt cotton” is a classic representation of what an unsound science of plant protection and faulty direction of agricultural development can lead to.

He explained:

Bt hybrid technology in India represents an error-driven policy that has led to the denial and non-implementation of the real solutions for the revival of cotton in India, which lie in HDSS (high density short season) planting of non-Bt/GMO cotton in pure line varieties of native desi species and American cotton species.

He argued that a transformation of agriculture and the food system is required; one that entails a shift to agroecology, which includes regenerative, organic, biodynamic, permaculture and natural farming practices.

Dr Kenmore said that Bt cotton is an aging pest control technology:

It follows the same path worn down by generations of insecticide molecules from arsenic to DDT to BHC to endosulfan to monocrotophos to carbaryl to imidacloprid. In-house research aims for each molecule to be packaged biochemically, legally and commercially before it is released and promoted. Corporate and public policy actors then claim yield increases but deliver no more than temporary pest suppression, secondary pest release and pest resistance.

Recurrent cycles of crises have sparked public action and ecological field research which creates locally adapted agroecological strategies.

He added that this agroecology:

… now gathers global support from citizens’ groups, governments and UN-FAO. Their robust local solutions in Indian cotton do not require any new molecules, including endo-toxins like in Bt cotton.

Prof Gutierrez presented the ecological reasons as to why hybrid Bt cotton failed in India: long season Bt cotton introduced in India was incorporated into hybrids that trapped farmers into biotech and insecticide treadmills that benefited GMO seed manufacturers.

He noted:

The cultivation of long-season hybrid Bt cotton in rainfed areas is unique to India. It is a value capture mechanism that does not contribute to yield, is a major contributor to low yield stagnation and contributes to increasing production costs.

Prof Gutierrez asserted that increases in cotton farmer suicides are related to the resulting economic distress.

He argued:

A viable solution to the current GM hybrid system is adoption of improved non-GM high-density short-season fertile cotton varieties.

Presenting data on yields, insecticide usage, irrigation, fertiliser usage and pest incidence and resistance, Dr Keshav Kranthi said that a critical analysis of official statistics ( and shows that Bt hybrid technology has not been providing any tangible benefits in India either in yield or insecticide usage.

He said that cotton yields are the lowest in the world in Maharashtra, despite being saturated with Bt hybrids and the highest use of fertilisers. Yields in Maharashtra are less than in rainfed Africa where there is hardly any usage of technologies such as Bt, hybrids, fertilisers, pesticides or irrigation.

It is revealing that Indian cotton yields rank 36th in the world and have been stagnant in the past 15 years and insecticide usage has been constantly increasing after 2005, despite an increase in area under Bt cotton.

Dr Kranthi argued that research also shows that the Bt hybrid technology has failed the test of sustainability with resistance in pink bollworm to Bt cotton, increasing sucking pest infestation, increasing trends in insecticide and fertiliser usage, increasing costs and negative net returns in 2014 and 2015.

Dr Herren said that GMOs exemplify the case of a technology searching for an application:

It is essentially about treating symptoms, rather than taking a systems approach to create resilient, productive and bio-diverse food systems in the widest sense and to provide sustainable and affordable solutions in it’s social, environmental and economic dimensions.

He went on to argue that the failure of Bt cotton is a classic representation of what an unsound science of plant protection and a faulty direction of agricultural development can lead to:

We need to push aside the vested interests blocking the transformation with the baseless arguments of ‘the world needs more food’ and design and implement policies that are forward looking… We have all the needed scientific and practical evidence that the agroecological approaches to food and nutrition security work successfully.

Bt brinjal – the danger is back

The government’s attempt to use a failed technology as a template for driving GMOs into agriculture has been exposed. Nevertheless, the GEAC has been moving forward with late-stage trials of Bt brinjal, while ignoring the issues and arguments against its commercialisation that were forwarded a decade ago.

In February 2010, the Indian government placed an indefinite moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal after numerous independent scientific experts from India and abroad had pointed out safety concerns based on data and reports in the biosafety dossier that Mahyco, the crop developer, had submitted to the regulators.

The then Minister of the Ministry of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh had instituted a unique four-month scientific enquiry and public hearings. His decision to reject the commercialisation of Bt brinjal was supported by advice from the renowned scientists. Their collective appraisals demonstrated serious environmental and biosafety concerns.

Jairam Ramesh pronounced a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010 by stating:

It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal, till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country.

The moratorium has not been lifted and the conditions he set out have still not been met. Moreover, five high-level reports have advised against the adoption of GM crops in India. Appointed by the Supreme Court, the ‘Technical Expert Committee (TEC) Final Report’ (2013) was scathing about the prevailing regulatory system and highlighted its inadequacies. The TEC went a step further by recommending a 10-year moratorium on the commercial release of all GM crops.

The regulatory process was shown to lack competency, possessed endemic conflicts of interest and demonstrated a lack of expertise in GMO risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts.

Ten years on and regulators have done nothing to address this woeful state of affairs. As we have seen with the relentless push to get GM mustard commercialised, the problems persist. Through numerous submissions to the Supreme Court, Aruna Rodrigues has described how GM mustard is being forced through with flawed tests (or no tests) and a lack of public scrutiny. Regulators are seriously conflicted: they promote GMOs openly, fund them and then regulate them.

And this is precisely what the webinar ‘Bt brinjal – the danger is back’ (watch on YouTube) discussed on 27 August. Organised by the Coalition for a GM-Free India, the webinar was arranged because the regulators have again brought to the brink of commercialisation a new Bt brinjal ‘event’ – a different Bt brinjal than the 2010 version. Also included in the webinar were the experiences of Bt brinjal introduction in Bangladesh.

Dr Ramanjaneyulu (Centre for Sustainable Agriculture) highlighted how need has never been established for Bt brinjal of which India is a recognised centre of diversity. The argument for Bt brinjal in the run-up to Jairam Ramesh’s moratorium was that pesticide use is a problem in containing the brinjal fruit and shoot borer. He noted that Bt brinjal was promoted by Monsanto, USAID and Cornell University, but serious protocol violations, environmental contamination concerns and potential adverse health impacts were discovered.

He outlined simple non-pesticidal, agroecological management practises that can and are being used to deal with the brinjal fruit and shoot borer.

Farida Akhter of UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative) outlined how the introduction of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh was not needed but imposed on the country, which has 248 varieties of brinjal. Where pesticide use is problematic, she argued that it concerns hybrid varieties rather than traditional cultivars of which 24 varieties are resistant to fruit and shoot borer.

Akhter said that poor quality brinjal and financial losses for farmers have been major issues. Many have abandoned Bt brinjal, but farmers have received incentives to cultivate and where they have done so, fertiliser use has increased and there have been many pest attacks, with 35 different types of pesticides applied.

The Bill Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations entity that promotes GM agriculture, and USAID, which serves the interests of the GMO biotech sector, tried to sell Bt brinjal on the basis it would ‘save’ people from the overuse of pesticides and related illnesses. But Akhter argued that Bangladesh was targeted because the Philippines and India had rejected Bt brinjal. Again, protocol violations occurred leading to its introduction and Akhter concluded that there was no scientific basis for Bt brinjal: its introduction was political.

As for India, event EE1, the initial Bt brinjal, has now been replaced by event 142, a different Bt brinjal. Kavitha Kuruganti (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture) explained this in the webinar and notes that the GEAC, immediately after the 2010 moratorium was announced, went straight ahead and sanctioned new trials for this Bt brinjal. The GEAC basically stated that the moratorium did not apply to this version, while ignoring all the criticisms about lack of competence, conflicts of interest, non-transparency and protocol violations. It was effectively business as usual!

With event EE1, Kuruganti implied that the GEAC acted more like a servant for Mayco and its Monsanto master. Nothing has changed. She noted the ongoing revolving door between crop developers (even patent holders) and regulators. As before, developers-cum-lobbyists were actually sitting on regulatory bodies as event 142 was proceeding.

Under public-private-partnership arrangements, event 142 has been licensed to private companies for biosafety testing/commercialisation. Despite major concerns, the GEAC has pressed ahead with various trials. In May 2020, under lockdown, Kuruganti notes that the GEAC held a virtual meeting and sanctioned what were effectively final trials prior to commercialisation. She explains that important information and vital data is not in the public domain.

According to Kuruganti, the regulator sits with the crop developer and the companies and grant biosafety clearance, claiming all tests (soil, pollen flow, toxicity, etc) are complete. What is also disturbing is that these licensed companies have closed and opened under new names (with the same people in charge), thereby making accountability and liability fixing very difficult if something were to go wrong further down the line.

She concludes that the story of event 142 is even worse than event EE1:

Once again, they are certainly hiding things that they don’t want conscientious scientists and aware citizens to see and know.

Taken together, the two webinars highlighted how hybrid Bt cotton is being deceptively used as a template for rolling out GM food crops: a fraud being used to promote another fraud in order to force unnecessary GMOs into Indian agriculture.

The post From Cotton to Brinjal: Fraudulent GMO Project in India Sustained by Deception first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Pushing GMO Crops Into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success

On 6 July 2020, an article extolling the benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops appeared on the BloombergQuint website based on an interview with Dr Ramesh Chand, a member of the key Indian Government think tank Niti Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India) . On 17 July, another piece that placed a positive spin on GM crops and gene editing technology (Feeding 10 Billion People will Require Genetically Modified Food) appeared on the same site.

According to Prof Andrew Paul Gutierrez, Dr Hans R Herren and Dr Peter E Kenmore, internationally renowned agricultural researchers, the pieces reported “sweeping unsupported claims” about the benefits of and need for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and related technologies in agriculture in India.

The three academics felt that “a responsible and factual response” was required and have written a letter — containing what could be described as the definitive analysis of Bt cotton in India — to Dr Ramesh Chand, Dr Rajiv Kumar (Niti Aayog Vice Chancellor) and Dr Amitabh Kant (Niti Aayog CEO).

Chand is reported as saying that there is no credible study to show any adverse impact of growing Bt cotton in the last 18 years in the country (India’s only officially approved GM crop). This is simply not the case. Moreover, Gutierrez et al argue that all of the credible evidence shows any meagre increases in cotton yield after the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002 were largely due to increases in fertiliser use.

Before proceeding, it is pertinent to address the claim that ‘feeding 10 billion people will require genetically modified food’. If we take the case of India and its 1.3 billion-plus population, it has achieved self-sufficiency in food grains and has ensured that, in theory at least, there is enough food available to feed its entire population. It is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses and millets and the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnuts, vegetables and fruit.

However, food security for many Indians remains a distant dream. Hunger and malnutrition remain prevalent. But that is not because farmers don’t produce enough food. These problems result from other factors, including inadequate food distribution, social and economic policies, inequality and poverty. It is a case of ‘scarcity’ amid abundance (reflecting the situation globally). India even continues to export food while millions remain hungry. Productivity is not the issue.

And while proponents say GM will boost productivity and help secure cultivators a better income, this too ignores crucial political and economic contexts; with bumper harvests, Indian farmers still find themselves in financial distress. India’s farmers are not experiencing hardship due to low productivity. They are reeling from the effects of neoliberal policies and years of neglect. It’s for good reason that the calorie and essential nutrient intake of the rural poor has drastically fallen.

Yet the pro-GMO lobby has wasted no time in wrenching these issues from their political contexts to use the notions of ‘helping farmers’ and ‘feeding the world’ as lynch pins of its promotional strategy.

Valid concerns

The Chand interview occurred at a book release event for a new volume titled Socio Economic Impact Assessment of GM crops: Global Implications Based on Case Studies from India edited by Sachin Chaturvedi and Krishna Ravi Srinivas of the Delhi-based Research and Information System (RIS) for developing countries – a policy research think tank in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Gutierrez et al state that what Niti Aayog and RIS representatives say and write are existentially important because of their deep links to Indian policy makers: their views can have a large impact on the future development of policy in the area of genetic engineering and related technologies such as genomic editing, which will affect the long-term health, livelihood and welfare of Indian farmers and the nation.

Chand posits that opposition and uncertainty to GM technology lingers because it has created fear in the minds of people. He appears to imply this is one reason why the Indian government did not embrace the technology and that media reporting has relied more on activists than on scientists.

GMO biotech lobbyists have often stated that science has been sidelined by activists who have swayed the policy agenda.

In the journal Current Science (September 2019), Dr Deepak Pental responded to a previous paper in the same journal by eminent scientists P C Kesavan and M S Swaminathan, whose piece cited good evidence that questioned the efficacy of and the need for GMO agriculture in India. Pental argued that the two authors had aligned themselves with environmentalists and ideologues who have “mindlessly” attacked the use of GM technology and that aspects of their analysis are a reflection of their “ideological proclivities”.

However, in India it was a unique four-month scientific inquiry, not activism, that led to the rejection of the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal in 2010. And if we look at Europe, robust regulatory mechanisms are in place for GMOs as it is agreed they are not substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts. Numerous studies have highlighted the flawed premise of ‘substantial equivalence’. Furthermore, from the outset of the GMO project, the sidelining of serious concerns about the technology has occurred and, despite industry claims to the contrary, there is no scientific consensus on the health impacts of GM crops.

Both the Cartagena Protocol and Codex share a precautionary approach to GM crops and foods in that they agree that GM differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GMOs are used in food or released into the environment.

These concerns cannot be brushed aside as being non-science based. Such accusations are political posturing, part of a strategy to slant the policy agenda and divert attention away from evidence that leads to the questioning of the safety, environmental impacts and record of GM crops.

False narrative of Bt cotton

Gutierrez et al also comment on the Chaturvedi–Srinivas book in their letter and note that, in contrast to pro-GMO statements about the book reported in the press, most of the chapters contain some points that temper or criticise this over-simplified enthusiasm.

In reviewing the book, the three researchers note the general policy position, that Bt cotton benefits smaller and poorly connected farmers, is not always supported by the case study data presented. Moreover, Bt cotton yields were not necessarily higher (than non-Bt cotton) for all farmers and even when economic gains occurred, it was not demonstrated that those gains came from Bt traits: higher fertiliser levels usually increased yields.

Bt cotton is also not scale neutral: it has mainly benefited larger farmers and high Bt cotton seed prices are a big concern for many farmers as are monopolistic pricing practices.

Gutierrez and his colleagues conclude that the RIS volume cited gains in yield and reductions in insecticide use in Bt cotton that are inaccurate.

They add:

… a failed picture emerges of an unsustainable eco-social Bt cotton system based on a dystopic relationship between those who control and sell the inputs, and the vast majority of farmers… Nowhere in the volume is there mention of potential viable non-GMO alternatives.

The three researchers note that at least 25-30 peer reviewed papers have been published recently in India from almost all the agricultural universities dealing with cotton, validating the short-season high-density (SS-HD) concepts using non-Bt varieties. In all the studies, SS-HD plantings invariably got the highest yields, clearly pointing to the inappropriateness of the current long-season low-density hybrid system. Yet, none of these studies were cited in the Chaturvedi–Srinivas RIS volume.

Gutierrez et al note that hybrid cottons unique to India were introduced in the mid-1970s purportedly to increase yield and quality, but the hybrid seed is considerably more expensive, the plants require more fertiliser and stable water and the hybrid technology serves as a value capture mechanism requiring annual purchases of seed.

They argue that Indian farmers are planting inappropriate long-season hybrid cotton varieties at inappropriate low planting densities due to high seed costs, which contributes to low yield stagnation.

They also provide an overview of how, in long-season hybrid cotton, insecticide use caused ecological disruption, inducing outbreaks of secondary insect pests:

Farmers were spending money on insecticides to lose money from (insecticide) induced pests… While the Bt technology initially solved the bollworm problems, outbreaks of secondary pests not controlled by the Bt toxins began to occur, again increasing insecticide use in Bt cotton that by 2013 surpassed pre-2002 levels. This caused ecological disruption and induced outbreaks of still newer secondary pests… and increased levels of resistance to insecticides. By 2013, Indian farmers were solidly on both the insecticide and biotechnology treadmills.

The three researchers conclude that Bt cotton did not increase yields but did contribute to increased cost of production in the face of stagnant yields, leading to economic distress.

They argue that hybrid Bt cotton in India is a failure or at best very suboptimal for farmer welfare and say that HD-SS non-GMO pure line rain-fed cotton varieties have been developed in India that could double yield and triple net income. The potential exists for development of even higher yielding HD-SS non-hybrid non-GMO varieties in India, which would allow seed saving by Indian farmers.

However, they assert that this approach has been sidelined: we now see hybrid Bt cotton falsely being used as an example of success and as a template for rolling out GMOs, gene editing and other technologies across Indian agriculture.

On 12 August 2013, an article in The Hindu (‘Nip this in the bud’) noted that the Ministry of Agriculture, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research and the Ministry of Science and Technology were deeply compromised due to their strong and active ties with the GMO biotech industry. Indeed, Monsanto had been granted access to agri-research public institutions, which had placed that company in a position to seriously influence policy. By 2014, 95 per cent of cotton grown in India was GM and non-GM seeds had almost disappeared from the market.

The push is now on to see a similar value-capture scenario take root with genetically engineered food crops based on a myth of Bt cotton success, which has in recent years been promoted by a number of government officials in India. Science and reason (and farmers and the public) are in danger of being sacrificed for the “ideological proclivities” of key figures and bodies directly linked to national policy making.

The letter mentioned in this article can be read in full on the website. It contains a more in-depth analysis of Bt cotton in India than presented here, including numerous graphics and references to key studies.

Dependency, Distress and No Durable Agronomic Benefits: The Story of Bt Cotton in India

In the early 2000s, genetically modified (GM) Bt insecticidal cotton was being heavily promoted in India on the basis that it would cut pesticide use dramatically, boost yields and contribute to the financial well-being of farmers. Private sector Bt cotton hybrids now cover over 90% of the area under cotton.

Supporters of Bt cotton have wasted little time in claiming that GM technology has increased cotton yields, reduced pesticide use and has been of enormous benefit to farmers due to increased crop profitability. If we consider Prof Glenn Stone’s 2012 paper ‘Constructing Facts: Bt Cotton Narratives in India‘, however, it becomes clear that such claims are too often weaved from flawed data and studies and merely serve to bolster vested interests.

In an attempt to shed further light on the role of Bt cotton in India, Glenn Stone (Washington University in St Louis) and his colleague K R Kranthi (International Cotton Advisory Committee) have jointly authored a new paper – ‘Long-term impacts of Bt Cotton in India’ – that appears in the journal Nature Plants (March 2020). Unlike previous assessments, the paper is quite unique as it is based on a long-term analysis that spans a period of 20 years.

While proponents of Bt cotton say that GM technology is responsible for tripling cotton production between 2002 (when Bt cotton was commercialised in India) and 2014, Stone argues that the largest production gains came prior to widespread GM seed adoption and must be viewed in line with changes in fertilisation practices and other pest population dynamics.

Stone says:

There are two particularly devastating caterpillar pests for cotton in India, and, from the beginning, Bt cotton did control one of them: the (misnamed) American bollworm. It initially controlled the other one, too – the pink bollworm – but that pest quickly developed resistance and now it is a worse problem than ever.

He adds that Bt plants were highly vulnerable to other insect pests that proliferated as more and more farmers adopted the crop.

According to Stone:

Farmers are now spending much more on insecticides than before they had ever heard of Bt cotton. And the situation is worsening.

Although yields in all crops jumped in 2003, the increase was especially large in cotton.

However, Stone says:

… Bt cotton had virtually no effect on the rise in cotton yields because it accounted for less than 5% of India’s cotton crop at the time.

Stone argues that any changes in productivity have more to do with huge increases in insecticides and fertilisers and that farmers in India are now spending more on seeds, more on fertiliser and more on insecticides.

So, what has been the overall impact of Bt cotton in India?

Stone says that Bt cotton’s primary impact on agriculture will be its role in making farming more capital-intensive, rather than any enduring agronomic benefits. And this conclusion appears to confirm what others have been saying in recent years.

During a September 2019 media event in Delhi, for instance, Aruna Rodrigues and Vandana Shiva showed that pesticide use is back to pre-Bt levels and yields have stagnated or are falling. Moreover, they noted that some 31 countries rank above India in terms of cotton yield and of these only 10 grow GM cotton. They concluded that farmers now find themselves on a (capital-intensive) chemical-biotech treadmill and have to deal with an increasing number of Bt/insecticide resistant pests and rising costs of production.

Their data indicated that overall net profit for cotton farmers in the pre-Bt era had plummeted to average net losses in 2015, while fertiliser use kg/ha had exhibited a 2.2-fold increase. As Bt technology was being rolled out, costs of production were thus increasing. And these costs have increased in the face of stagnant yields. They too indicated that increased fertiliser and insecticides along with high-yielding hybrid trait value (independent of Bt technology) and increased acreage under cotton cultivation were responsible for any increase in productivity.

In fact, based on his own research, Prof A P Gutierrez argues that Bt cotton has effectively put many farmers in a corporate noose. Although Bt cotton hybrids perform better under irrigation, 66% of cotton in India is cultivated in rain fed areas, where yields depend on the timing and quantity of highly variable monsoon rains. Unreliable rains, the high costs of Bt hybrid seed, continued insecticide use and debt have placed many poor (marginal) smallholder farmers in a situation of severe financial hardship.

Based on extensive field research in India, cultural anthropologist Andrew Flachs argues that independent cultivators have become dependent on corporate products, including off-farm commodified corporate knowledge. In the past, they cultivated, saved and exchanged seeds; now, as far as cotton cultivation is concerned, they must purchase GM hybrid seeds (and necessary chemical inputs) each year.

While Bt cotton farmers are losing their traditional knowledge and skills due to increasing market dependency, they are now trapped in a scenario of debt and rising input costs. In the meantime, maybe one in four seasons a farmer will attain a good enough yield to break even. Flachs notes that negotiating risk and gambling on seeds, weather and pesticide use have become an integral part of the corporate cotton seed and chemical treadmill.

It all begs the question: just who has benefitted from Bt cotton? For the answer to this, let us turn to Imran Siddiqi from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, who notes that India opted to use hybrids seeds for Bt technology. Hybrids are made by crossing two parent strains having different genetic characters and the plants have more biomass than both parents and capacity for greater yields. But they also require more inputs, including fertiliser and water, and require suboptimal planting (more space).

Siddiqi notes that all other cotton-producing countries grow cotton not as hybrids but varieties for which seeds are produced by self-fertilisation. He argues that  the advantages of non-hybrids are considerable: twice the productivity, half the fertiliser, reduced water requirement and less vulnerability to pest damage due to a shorter field duration. He concludes that agricultural distress is extremely high among Indian cotton farmers and the combination of high input and high risk has likely been a contributing factor.

The introduction of hybrids disallowed seed saving, forcing farmers to purchase new, expensive hybrid Bt cotton seed each year, as hybridisation – unlike pure line varieties – affords one-time vigour. The use of hybrids in India gave pricing control to seed companies and Monsanto that issued licenses for the technology, while ensuring a continuous market.

When viewed in this light, Bt hybrid cotton technology has been integral to what veteran rural reporter P Sainath terms the ‘predatory commercialisation of the countryside’ by corporate interests. Its main role from the outset has been value capture and the creation of market dependency. It this respect, Bt cotton has been an outstanding success.

Bt Cotton: Cultivating Farmer Distress in India

Later this month, India’s Supreme Court will hold a lengthy hearing on the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) mustard, which would be the country’s first GM food crop. The court has asked the chair of the Technical Expert Committee to be present and says that the decision on GM mustard cannot be kept pending. The TEC has come out against using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Indian agriculture.

As lead petitioner in a public interest litigation challenging the government-backed push to commercialise this crop, Aruna Rodrigues has over the past few years submitted much evidence to the court alleging the science and field tests for GM mustard have been fraudulent and the entire regulatory regime has been dogged by malfeasance and a dereliction of duty.

To date, cotton is the only officially sanctioned GM crop in India. Those pushing for GM food crops (including the government) are forwarding the narrative that GM pest resistant Bt cotton has been a tremendous success which should now be emulated with the introduction of GM mustard. Ever since its commercialisation in 2002, however, the issue of Bt cotton in India has been a hotly contested issue. Bt cotton hybrids now cover over 95% of the area under cotton and the seeds are produced by the private sector. But critics argue that Bt cotton has negatively impacted livelihoods and fuelled agrarian distress and farmer suicides.

In a recent piece appearing in The Hindu, Imran Siddiqi, an emeritus scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, argued that India’s cotton yields fall behind those of other major cotton producing countries. He attributes this to the decision to use hybrids seeds made by crossing two parent strains having different genetic characters. These plants have more biomass than both parents and capacity for greater yields. But they also require more inputs, including fertiliser and water, and require suboptimal planting (more space). Siddiqi notes that all other cotton-producing countries grow cotton not as hybrids but varieties for which seeds are produced by self-fertilisation.

A key difference is that varieties can be propagated over successive generations by collecting seeds from one planting and using them for the next. For hybrids, farmers must purchase seed for each planting. Using hybrids gives pricing control to the seed company and also ensures a continuous market.

Siddiqi says that the advantages of varieties are considerable: more than twice the productivity, half the fertiliser, reduced water requirement and less vulnerability to damage from insect pests due to a shorter field duration. He concludes that agricultural distress is extremely high among cotton farmers and the combination of high input and high risk has likely been a contributing factor.

Meanwhile, seed companies and Monsanto that issued licenses for its Bt technology have profited handsomely from an irresponsible roll-out to poor marginal farmers who lacked access to irrigation and the money to purchase necessary fertiliser and pesticides. Bt hybrids perform better under irrigation, but 66% of cotton in India is cultivated in rain fed areas, where yields depend on the timing and quantity of variable monsoon rains. Unreliable rains, the high costs of Bt hybrid seed, continued insecticide use, fertiliser inputs and debt have placed many poor smallholder farmers in a situation of severe financial hardship.  Prof A P Gutierrez argues that Bt cotton has effectively put these farmers in a corporate noose.

Cultivating knowledge 

It was against this backdrop that Andrew Flachs conducted fieldwork on cotton cultivation over four consecutive cotton growing seasons during 2012-2016 and a later visit in 2018 in the South Indian state of Telangana. His new book Cultivating Knowledge: Biotechnology, Sustainability and the Human Cost of Cotton Capitalism in India (University of Arizona Press 2019) is based on that research.

A trained environmental anthropologist and assistant professor at Purdue University in the US, Flachs draws on anthropology and political ecology to show how the adoption of GM seeds affects livelihoods, values and identities in rural areas. By looking at everyday relationships and how farmers make choices, Flachs avoids falling into the pro/anti-GMO dichotomy that has polarised the debate on Indian cotton for the past 18 years. Instead, he looks at farmers’ aspirations, what it means to ‘live well’ and what ‘sustainability’ means in the everyday world of cotton cultivators.

Although some critics of GM cotton claim that the technology is directly responsible for fuelling suicides and farmer distress, Flachs is careful to locate the narrative of agrarian crisis against the overall backdrop of neoliberal reforms in Indian agriculture, the withdrawal of public sector extension services and exposure to commercial seed, pesticide and unstable global commodity markets (and spiralling input costs).

In an increasingly commercialised countryside, independent cultivators have become dependent on corporate products, including off-farm commodified corporate knowledge. In the past, they cultivated, saved and exchanged seeds; now, as far as cotton cultivation is concerned, they must purchase GM hybrid seeds (and necessary chemical inputs) each year.

Flachs mentions former Minister of Agriculture Sharad Pawar who once stated that farmers decide to use GM cotton seeds based on rational decision making because GM gives better yields. Indeed, this kind of thinking underpins much of the rhetoric of the pro-GMO lobby. But such decision making is far from the truth (moreover, Prof Glenn Stone has shown how ‘facts’ about yields have been constructed and that these ‘facts’ become mere distortions of the actual reality)

With hundreds of different GM seed brands available in local seed stores, it becomes clear in Cultivating Knowledge that environmental learning and the type of decision making referred to by Pawar do not exist. Confusion, social learning, ‘herding’ and emulation are the norm. Seed choices are not based on rational, cost-benefit decision making whereby farmers plant and compare crop performances and opt for the best ones. Their choices of seeds are based on the advice of (unscrupulous) seed vendors, newspaper reports, advertising and what other farmers are opting for.

Caste and social status play a major role in who is listened to, who is emulated and who is given short shrift by seed vendors. If a (high status) farmer opts for a certain seed, for example, another farmer will emulate. But even the high status farmer is not necessarily basing his seed decision of testing in the field: he too is emulating others, opting for whatever brand is ‘popular’ that season.

Similarly, Flachs notes that if your neighbour sprays pesticides four times a day, you do it five times to be ‘responsible’, to make sure you are taking care of your crop; to make sure you don’t become infested and are then seen as the culprit for allowing your neighbours’ fields to be infested too. This, even though you overuse dangerous chemicals and become contaminated with pesticide spray or your food crop that your kids will eat becomes contaminated.

As Flachs implies – in a runaway neoliberal landscape, these types of risks (the overuse of pesticides, taking out loans, seed preferences) become regarded as ‘natural’, as the outcome of individual choices, rather than the expression of political structures or macro-economic policies. In the brave new world of neoliberalism that India began to embrace in the early 1990s, responses to the ‘invisible’ hand of the market, the performance of questionable on-farm practices and financial distress have therefore been internalised and have become associated with a notion of personal responsibility, which can result in self-blame, shame and even suicide.

Flachs notes that many cotton farmers also grow food crops. Here, in stark contrast to cotton, farmers still activate their own indigenous knowledge and environmental learning about seeds and cultivation, not least because they tend to still save their (non-corporate) seeds. For now, at least, the predatory commercialisation of the countryside has not yet penetrated every aspect of rural life.

While Bt cotton farmers are losing their traditional knowledge and skills, Flachs says they still have to make decisions and ‘perform’ the act of farming, taking into account potential risks and what other farmers are doing.

For cultivators of Bt cotton, chasing the dream of a better life means striving for higher yields, even if this entails greater debt and rising input costs. And each year, as fresh seed brands appear, in the hope of hitting a jackpot yield, Flachs indicates that last year’s brand is ditched in favour of a new one. In the meantime, debts increase and maybe one in four seasons a farmer will attain a good enough yield to break even.

In Cultivating Knowledge, negotiating risk and gambling on seeds, weather and pesticide use are very much part of what has become a chase for ‘better living’ and an integral part of the corporate cotton seed and chemical treadmill. Gambling more or less everything certainly does not bode well for poor, marginalised farmers. And it’s a treadmill that is difficult to get off – even though Bt cotton was sold under the promise of reduced pesticide use, levels of usage are now higher  than before Bt cotton was introduced but non-GM seeds have all but disappeared from seed shops.

Whether farmer’s lives have improved because of the GM technology – or to be precise, the way it has been rolled out – is open to debate, especially if we consider what Gutierrez says about the corporate noose around farmers’ necks and also consider alternative possibilities (for instance, GM straight line varieties), which could have been pursued. Moreover, as Flachs notes, with a glut of cotton, does the world need more of it anyway? Perhaps farmers – aside from adopting different routes for cotton cultivation – would have been better served by planting food crops. These are the ‘counterfactuals’ that seem to be overlooked when discussing GM cotton in India.

Cotton cultivation (including organic cotton growing which Flachs also discusses) in India is very much a social performance. Flachs indicates that the field is a stage where notions of community obligation and personal aspiration are played out within the context of heavily socially stratified communities.

Key to this performance is the concept of sustainability. Both sides of the GM debate talk a good deal about sustainable agriculture. But Flachs discusses what sustainability means to farmers. Is it about a quest for higher yields above all else? Or is it about debt-free sustainable livelihoods and ecological care of the land. In the chase for yields – set against rising input costs, debt, the threat of bankruptcy and suicide, a free-for-all GM seed market with often unscrupulous vendors, the increasing use of dangerous pesticides –  what are the impacts on farmers’ quality of lives?

Is the outcome ‘better living’ for farmers and their families? Or does an air of desperation or insecurity prevail within cotton cultivating communities? These are the questions that readers will be compelled to ask themselves while reading Cultivating Knowledge. And it will become clear just what the human cost of cotton capitalism for many Indian farmers really is.

When people talk about rolling out GM food crops to uplift the conditions of farmers and make farming more ‘sustainable’, they should abandon such generalisations and consider how farmers and farming communities face up to the challenges of increasing pest resistance, dependency on unregulated seed markets, the eradication of environmental learning, a lack of extension services and the loss of control over their productive means.

As Andrew Flachs says:

Given that intimate local ecological knowledge has been shown to be crucial for sustainable endeavors, the GM seed market erodes rather than builds local efforts at sustainability…  These seeds make cotton farming less sustainable on Telangana cotton farms because they have created a system in which farmers can’t learn much about their seeds or apply that knowledge when they’re at the market buying seeds next year.

For Flachs, organic cotton production (that also has its own set of issues to deal with), which provides safety nets and encourages ecologically and socioeconomically beneficial practices on farms, can help redefine what ‘success’ means in Indian cotton. While this may not in itself address the structural nature of the agrarian crisis, Flachs concludes that it offers some hope for incentivising local knowledge and technology that allows farmers to live well – and most importantly, to live well on their own terms.

Reckless Gamble for Profit that Placed Indian Cotton Farmers in Corporate Noose

The dubious performance (failure) of genetically engineered Bt cotton, officially India’s only GM crop, should serve as a warning as the push within the country to adopt GM across a wide range of food crops continues. This article provides an outline of some key reports and papers that have appeared in the last few years on Bt cotton in India.

In a paper that appeared in December 2018 in the journal Current Science, P.C. Kesavan and M.S. Swaminathan cited research findings to support the view that Bt insecticidal cotton has been a failure in India and has not provided livelihood security for mainly resource-poor, small and marginal farmers. This paper was not just important because of its content but also because M.S. Swaminathan is considered to be the father of the Green Revolution in India.

The two authors provided evidence that indicates Bt crops are unsustainable and have not decreased the need for toxic chemical pesticides, the reason for these GM crops in the first place.

The authors cite the views of Dr K.R. Kranthi, former Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur. Based on his research, he concluded in December 2016:

Bt-cotton plus higher fertilizers plus increased irrigation also received a protective cover from the seed treatment of neonicotinoid insecticides such as imidacloprid, without which majority of the Bt-cotton hybrids which were susceptible to sucking pests would have yielded far less. It can safely be said that yield increase in India would not have happened with Bt-cotton alone without enhanced fertilizer usage, without increased irrigation, without seed treatment chemicals, and the absence of drought-free decade.

In effect, levels of insecticide use are now back to the pre-Bt era as is productivity due to pest resistance and crop failures.

Following on from this, an April 2018 paper in the journal Pest Science Management indicates there has been progressive bollworm resistance to Bt cotton in India over a seven-year period. The authors conclude:

High PBW [pink bollworm] larval recovery on Bt‐II in conjunction with high LC50 values for Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab in major cotton‐growing districts of central and southern India provides evidence of field‐evolved resistance in PBW to Bt‐I and Bt‐II cotton.

This alongside other problems related to Bt cotton has had disastrous consequences for farmers. In a 2015 paper Professor Andrew Paul Gutierrez and his colleagues say:

Bt cotton may be economic in irrigated cotton, whereas costs of Bt seed and insecticide increase the risk of farmer bankruptcy in low-yield rainfed cotton. Inability to use saved seed and inadequate agronomic information trap cotton farmers on biotechnology and insecticide treadmills. Annual suicide rates in rainfed areas are inversely related to farm size and yield, and directly related to increases in Bt cotton adoption (i.e., costs).

In a new December 2018 paper, Gutierrez sends a warning to those considering rolling out GM food crops in India:

… recent calls by industry and its clients to extend implementation of the hybrid technology in aubergine (brinjal, eggplant) and mustard and likely other crops in India will only mirror the disastrous implementation of the failed hybrid Bt technology in Indian cotton and, will only serve to tighten the economic hybrid technology noose on still more subsistence farmers for the sake of profits.

He concludes that Bt cotton has placed many resource-poor farmers in a stranglehold. Bt cotton prevents seed saving and farmers must purchase costly seed, which leads to suboptimal planting densities. Stagnant/low yields have followed, insecticide use has grown and new pests resistant to insecticide/Bt toxins have emerged.

Giterriez says that leading Indian agronomists have proposed that adoption of pure-line high density short-season varieties of rainfed cotton which could more than double current yields and would avoid heavy infestations of pink bollworm, thus reducing insecticide use and pesticide disruption. This cotton is not a new technology and predates Bt cotton.

Given what Gutierrez says, it is quite timely that Kesevan and Swaminathan question regulators’ failure in India to carry out a socio-economic assessment of GMO impacts on resource-poor small and marginal farmers. They call for “able economists who are familiar with and will prioritize rural livelihoods and the interests of resource-poor small and marginal farmers rather than serve corporate interests and their profits.”

This mirrors what Gutierrez and his colleagues argued in 2015 that policy makers need holistic analysis before new technologies are implemented in agricultural development.

Naturally, corporations and many pro-GM scientists wish to avoid such things as much as possible. They try to convince policy makers that as long as the science on GM is sound (which it isn’t, despite what they proclaim), GM should be rolled out regardless. They regard regulators and regulations as a mere hindrance that is preventing GM from helping farmers. Deregulating GM is the order of the day. It’s a reckless approach. We need only look at Indian cotton farmers whose lives and livelihoods have been devastated due to the ill thought out roll-out of Bt technology.

Kesavan and Swaminathan criticise India’s GMO regulating bodies due to a lack of competency and endemic conflicts of interest and a lack of expertise in GMO risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts. Many of these issues have been a common thread in five high-level official reports in India that have advised against the commercialisation of GM crops:

  • The ‘Jairam Ramesh Report’, imposing an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal [February 2010];
  • The ‘Sopory Committee Report’ [August 2012];
  • The ‘Parliamentary Standing Committee’ [PSC] Report on GM crops [August 2012];
  • The ‘Technical Expert Committee [TEC] Final Report’ [June-July 2013]; and
  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment and Forests [August 2017].

In her numerous submissions to India’s Supreme Court, prominent campaigner Aruna Rodrigues has been scathing. She recently told me that:

It is proven in copious evidence in the Supreme Court in the last 13 years that our regulators are seriously conflicted: they promote GMOs openly, fund them (as with herbicide-tolerant mustard and other public sector GMOs) and then regulate them. Truth is a massive casualty. This is not lightly stated.

She added that “failed hybrid Bt cotton in India” has put farmers on a pesticide treadmill as increasing levels of pest resistance becomes manifest.

Prior to this, in 2017, Rodrigues also said:

Never has an agri-tech been sold as a ‘magic bean’ to farmers, like Bt cotton, with opprobrium attaching to our regulators and ministries of governance who supported and continue to support this technology-castle built on sand, in the absence of evidence and when the hard data said the opposite.

In the rush to plant these ‘magic beans’, the area planted under Bt cotton has often displaced vital food crops at a time when India should surely have been looking to achieve food security and self-sufficiency.

Writing in India’s The Statesman newspaper in 2015, for example, the knife-edge existence of the people that rich corporations profit from was highlighted in the case of Babu Lal and his wife Mirdi Bai who had been traditionally cultivating wheat, maize and millet on their farmland in Rajasthan. Their crops provided food for several months a year to the 10-member family as well as fodder for farm and dairy animals, integral to the mixed farming system employed.

Company agents (unspecified – but Monsanto and its subsidiaries dominate the GM cotton industry in India) approached the family with the promise of a lump-sum payment to plant Bt cotton seeds in two of their fields. Lal purchased pesticides to help grow the seeds in the hope of receiving the payment, which never materialised because the company agent said the seeds produced had ‘failed’ in tests.

The family faced economic ruin, not least because the food harvest was much lower than normal as the best fields and most labour and resources had been devoted to Bt cotton. It resulted in Lal borrowing from private moneylenders at a high interest rate to meet the needs of food and fodder. On top of this, the company’s agent allegedly started harassing Lal for a payment of about 10,000 rupees in lieu of the fertilisers and pesticides provided to him. Several other tribal farmers in the area also fell into this trap.

The promise of a lump-sum cash payment can be very enticing to poor farmers, and when companies co-opt influential villagers to get new farmers to agree to plant Bt cotton, farmers are reluctant to decline the offer. When production is declared as having failed, solely at the company’s discretion it seems, a family becomes indebted.

According to that article, there was growing evidence that the trend to experiment with Bt cotton has disrupted food security in certain areas and had introduced various health hazards and had damaged soil due to the use of chemical inputs.

Before finishing, it is certainly worth mentioning Stone and Flachs’s 2017 paper on how certain interests within and beyond India are attempting to break traditional farming cotton cultivation practices with the aim of placing farmers on yet another corporate treadmill. This time, the aim appears to be to introduce herbicide-tolerant (HT) cotton in India on the back of Bt cotton. The authors indicate just how hugely financially lucrative for corporations the relatively ‘undeveloped’ herbicide market is in India. These HT cotton seeds have now appeared illegally on the market.

Ultimately, as Gutierrez implies, the bottom line is cynical corporate interest and profit – not helping Indian farmers or some high-minded notion about feeding the world. Just ask Babu Lal and thousands like him!

Of course, given the track record of HT crops, it is another disaster in the making for Indian farmers and the environment. This warning has already been made clear by the Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee, which regards HT crops as being wholly inappropriate for India.

With various GM crops waiting in the wings, India should continue to adopt a precautionary approach towards GMOs as advocated by Jairam Ramesh and not implement another reckless gamble with farmers’ livelihoods, the nation’s health and the environment. About nine years ago, based on a rigorous consultation with international scientific experts regarding the commercialisation of Bt brinjal, one of those experts, Prof Andow, concluded that without any management of resistance evolution, Bt brinjal would fail in 4-12 years. Jairam Ramesh pronounced a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010 founded on what he called “a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach.”

Isn’t such failure what we now witness with Bt cotton?  It serves as a timely warning for implementing a widespread GMO food crop regime in India. The writing is on the wall.