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
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
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