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Bt Cotton: The Flop Show

By Devinder Sharma

29 April, 2003

The Standing Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture sees no merit in Bt cotton. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat - the four States where Bt cotton was approved for commercial cultivation -- have already expressed dissatisfaction at its performance. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which allowed sowing in the southern States, has rejected a proposal for use of the seed in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

There is gloom in the agri-biotechnology industry. Promotion of transgenic crops have suffered a major set back, and the industry has enough reasons to sulk.

For the industry, Bt cotton was the 'magic bullet' that was expected to sway the public opinion in favour of the unwanted transgenic. A year later, the failure of Bt cotton has pushed the much-hyped genetically engineered crops on to the backburner. But refusing to learning from the fiasco, the GEAC still maintains: "more time should be given to assess the performance of Bt cotton in the regions where it has been approved. One season's performance is not enough."

The casual way in which the GEAC, as well as the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), have treated the entire process of monitoring, evaluation and approval of Bt cotton, has once again opened up a can of worms. Only a year back, these agencies were upbeat saying that Bt cotton would bring in an additional income of Rs 10,000 per acre for the cotton growers. Brushing aside all criticism of the faulty technology, the DBT had gone to the extent of claiming that the crop yields would increase by 80 per cent. ICAR had given a quiet burial to all norms of scientific experimentation to turn a blind eye to the murky projections of 'scientific data'.

The nexus between theses official agencies and the biotechnology industry is all too apparent. Expecting a sizeable percentage of the advertisement revenue, print media too had joined the chorus. Despite the hype and manipulations, India's first experiment with a genetically modified crop, eventually flopped. And once again, the cost of the faulty experimentation has been entirely borne by the farming community. Farmers have become modern India's new breed of guinea pigs.

Reports pouring in from the southern States point to an estimated Rs 15-20 billion loss incurred by cotton farmers. Ministry of Agriculture, however, is not willing to force Mahyco-Monsanto provide adequate compensation to farmers by revoking the relevant clause of the newly enacted Plant Variety Protection and Farmers' Rights Act 2001 that empowers the government to direct companies that provided inferior quality seed. Nor is the government keen to blacklist the company for taking the gullible farming community for an easy but expensive ride.

Such an apathetic approach will continue to cause irrefutable damage to farmers. It is therefore time to take adequate safeguard measures that ensures that the Bt cotton fiasco is not repeated. Instead of waiting for another year of crop failure, as the GEAC plans, the effort should be to take deterring steps, that brings scientists as well as the regulatory authorities under a strict discipline. Since the livelihood of millions of farmers is at stake, accountability has to be made the hallmark of the approval process. It is therefore important to understand the reasons for Bt cotton crop failure, and to take remedial steps. Some of the urgent measures include:

First and foremost is that the Department of Biotechnology is poorly equipped to understand the complexities and needs of agriculture. The department had deliberately ignored the ground realities and the specific needs of the farmers, and overlooked the threats to human, animals and environment in its undue haste to push transgenic crops. No long-term research trials have been conducted to ascertain the risks to human and environment. Transgenic crops being risky and dangerous, it should be mandatory for the department to present safety data (based on long-term research trials) for crop approval.

Two expert committees constituted by the Department of Biotechnology - the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) and the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) - are headed by scientists who are recipient of major funding from the department. The recommendations of these two committees were therefore not expected to be fair and objective. While there is an immediate need to dismantle the two committees, the chairman of the committees should be deprived of any more research funding.

MEC and RCGM had examined the crop data that was provided by Mahyco-Monsanto. If the crop failed, especially the failure of the Bt cotton to remain resistant to the killer bollworm and the low yield that farmers have harvested is any indication, than both the committees should be penalized for approving faulty data. The 'scientific fraud' had actually occurred at the level of the MEC and the RCGM. The committees were time and again warned of the 'unscientific claims' that were projected but it chose to ignore thereby shifting the burden of proof to cotton growers.

The committees in any case should be headed by eminent scientists but not biotechnologists and should have equal representation from amongst the farmers, consumer groups and civil society. In addition, an independent team of experts should be constituted to thoroughly examine the economic and environmental viability of the transgenic crops. This committee should look into the alternatives to transgenic, the traditionally known methods and the Integrated Plant Management strategies already in vogue.

Any company, which supplies experimental data that turns out to be false, should be blacklisted. There is no justification for approving a transgenic crop variety whose claims fall flat in the very first year of commercialization. The GEAC should have the powers to order adequate compensation to farmers who suffered losses from growing sub-standard varieties. The GEAC should also withdraw the crop variety immediately rather than adopt a 'wait-and-watch' approach. The onus of proof should be with the erring company and not farmers.

The National Environment Appellate Authority should be strengthened and expanded to have legal powers to examine the failure of regulatory authorities, and the right to accord penalty and reprimand to the erring officials and companies. #

[Devinder Sharma can be contacted at: dsharma@ndf.vsnl.net.in]