Fairytale Providing a Cover-Up to the Bt Cotton Fiasco in India
By Devinder Sharma
In the mid 1980s, a World
Bank team was travelling through parts of the frontline agricultural
State of Haryana in northwest India, assessing the impact of its 'dream'
project - Training and Visit (T&V) System - of farm extension. That
was the time when 'T&V' was the buzzword and the World Bank had
doled out millions of dollars to promote the new farm technology dissemination
system to take the latest technology from the agricultural laboratories
to the land.
My newspaper, the Indian
Express, amongst the largest selling dailies in India, deputed me to
accompany the team. As the Agriculture Correspondent of the newspaper,
I was obviously very keen to follow the outcome of the famed programme.
The team travelled through some of the dry and semi-arid regions of
the State, and was accompanied by the project director of the 'T&V'
System along with his supporting staff.
At most places, farmers were
collected to enable the World Bank team to interact with them. The Bank's
team would ask the same question - whether the programme had benefited
them - to farmers wherever they went. And I remember vividly that at
most places the farmers would say that the programme hasn't made any
difference to their lives. But what they said was in Hindi, and the
project staff translating it for the benefit of the Bank's team would
invariably turn it around saying: "Sir, he says that the programme
has changed his life for the better."
No wonder, the World Bank
gave a favourable report. It is however another matter that the 'T&V'
System now is all but forgotten.
The Genetic Engineering Approval
Committee (GEAC), the apex body responsible for granting commercial
approval to genetically modified crops, too had conducted a similar
survey to assess the impact of the transgenic crop in its very first
year of planting. A team comprising four experts, who were either part
of the government's approval process or represented the State of Andhra
Pradesh had toured Nalgonda, Karimnagar and Warangal districts. The
team members, all wearing 'bollgard' caps and accompanied by company
officials from Mahyco-Monsanto, actually saw the standing crop in ten
acres (out of the 9,300 acres sown with Bt cotton) and submitted their
'favourable ' report, as expected.
Another team comprising representatives
from three NGOs -- Centre for Resource Education, Sarvadaya Youth Organisation
and Greenpeace India, trailed the expert team They interviewed the same
farmers who were earlier visited by the expert team, and their testimony
before the video camera exposes the rot in scientific assessment and
analysis. No wonder, the Minister for Environment and Forests, Mr T.R.Baalu,
whose son has defaulted the nationalised banks to the tune of Rs 240
million, was quick to make a statement in Parliament on December 16,
2002, stating that 'studies conducted by an expert team from his ministry
has shown "satisfactory performance" of Bt Cotton in the first
year of its planting.'
Times haven't changed, isn't
For someone who still believes
in 'good science' despite global efforts being made to replace it with
the industrial prescription of 'sound science' , Matin Qaim and David
Zilberman's paper in the American journal Science actually ends up doing
a great disservice to good science. The title of the paper -- Yield
Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries -- itself
is deceptive. The authors have merely tried to look into the yield performance
of Bt cotton, which in no way is representative of the
entire range of genetically altered crops. But we can't blame the authors
for a faulty and misrepresentative title. This is the prerogative of
It also makes a tactical
error in treating savings in crop losses as yield increase. Interestingly,
the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) - the umbrella organisation
governing the world's second biggest agricultural research infrastructure
in India - had earlier objected to Mahyco-Monsanto's repeated claims
that Bt cotton increases yields. Bt cotton for all practical purposes
acts like a pesticide and pesticides do not increase yields. They merely
reduce crop losses. But then, for an industry under tremendous pressure
for public acceptance of its risky technology, playing the yield card
was a simple way to hoodwink the masses. In fact, the reality is that
none of the genetically modified crops have broken the yield barrier
that was established by the high-yielding varieties, which ushered in
the famed green revolution.
It is true that the potential
of GM crops in developing countries is limited without a substantial
yield effect, especially in regions with strong population growth. After
all, despite the hype that economists like Per Pinstrup-Andersen have
created about the Bt cotton success, the fact remains that there is
a negligible increase in yield differences vis a vis the non-Bt cotton
hybrids in China. Showing a quantum jump in 'yield' (not in reducing
the crop losses) was therefore what Mahyco-Monsanto wanted to establish
for India. And it is here that the authors fell in a well laid out trap.
The data that Mahyco-Monsanto supplied for this paper (and which has
been acknowledged by the authors) is based on field trials carried out
by the company on 395 farms in seven states. The authors say "in
addition to regular trial records, more comprehensive information was
collected for 157 farms on agronomic aspects and farm and household
characteristics." They conclude that a cross check of summary statistics
showed that these 157 sites are fairly representative of the total 395
The media gloated over the
research findings. The international media, which was worried at recent
news reports of Bt cotton failure coming from various parts of the country,
actually mistook this 'research' to be for the year 2002. News reports
give an impression as if the study is for the crop season that has just
ended. In reality, the analysis is based on the data that Mahyco-Monsanto
had collected in the final year of field-testing in the year 2001, a
year before the crop was commercialised. This was the data that the
company had presented before the GEAC. This was the data that still
remains hidden from the public gaze in India. And this is the data,
which has no relevance to the crop harvest in 2002-03.
Matin Qaim and David Zilberman
would have done a yeomen service to the biotechnology industry if they
had also incorporated the results of the field trials conducted a year
earlier in 2000. That was the year when Bt cotton crop was sown two
months late and still the company claimed that it gave a yield advantage
of 50 per cent. This was essentially because the bollworm attack is
the heaviest in the first two months of crop sowing and by sowing late
the crop had escaped the insect attack. When asked that why wasn't the
government advising the farmers to sow the crop two months late if the
yields can go up so dramatically, the GEAC had remained silent. The
fact remains that such a claim was completely incorrect and cannot be
substantiated in repeat trials. In any case, the outcome of the research
trials was certainly known given the fact that the company had paid
all expenses for the field trials.
The trials were conducted
in plots not exceeding 25x25 metres. The output data was extrapolated
to one hectare. And prior to this, the trials were conducted in still
smaller size plots of 10x10 meters. It is understandable that you can
count the number of plants and then multiply to arrive at the harvest
the farmer will reap from one hectare. This is the way agricultural
scientists work out the potential yield of crop plants. And this is
reason why the potential yield is so unrealistic. In case of rice and
wheat, the potential of high-yielding varieties has been estimated at
eight to nine tonnes a hectare. What the progressive farmers harvest
on an average is not more than five to six tonnes. The gap in yield
is blamed on the farmers' inability to manage the farm. What the scientists
refuse to divulge is that the small plot size is not the scientific
way to ascertain yields. Punjab
farmers, for instance, say that they can work out a miracle yield in
a plot of 25x25 metres but that does not mean it can be replicated over
Bt cotton trials and the
entire process of monitoring, evaluation and approval has remained shrouded
in mystery. The data has been kept classified as if it is country's
nuclear deterrent ability that is not to be disclosed.
Let us now look at the pest and the pesticides equation. The authors
say "under Indian conditions, bollworm have a high destructive
capacity that is not well controlled in conventional cotton." This
is a strange observation. The authors should tell us in which country
they find the bollworms to be less destructive? Is the insect less destructive
in America, China or Australia where Bt cotton is being cultivated on
a large scale? In any case, American bollworm is a polyphagus insect
and feeds on over 90 crops and has a life cycle, which sustains on numerous
crops. The insect is perhaps the world's most destructive pest. Behind
the references quoted to establish the point that the insect pest damage
is substantially lower in China, remains hidden the dubious fact that
pesticides use and abuse has created a much bigger crisis on the farm
front in China on account of exposure and the resulting health impact.
In the early 1990s, China Daily had reported that in one year alone,
over 10,000 farmers and farm workers had died from pesticides poisoning.
I wonder what they were doing with pesticides if the soil and environment
conditions were not so conducive for pest attack.
Indian farmers are often indebted and credit constrained and do not
have access to chemicals at the right point in time. True, but if the
growing indebtedness and credit constraint were the factors there seems
to be no justification for pricing the genetically modified seed so
high. On an average, the cotton grower spends between Rs 2,500 to Rs
4000 on pesticides sprays depending upon the region and the intensity
of insect attack.Mahyco-Monsanto had provided 450 grams of Bt seed (along
with 100 grams of non-Bt seed for refuge plantings) priced at Rs 1600.
Farmers normally use one kilo of seed per acre and that means the actual
seed cost comes to Rs 3,500. The high seed cost outweighs the advantage
from less pesticide sprays that the authors have talked about. Numerous
studies have exposed the miscalculation done by the ICAR and the Department
of Biotechnology, which had earlier worked out a profit of Rs 10,000
from a hectare. The profit calculations have gone awry in the very first
year of planting, with Bt cotton farmers protesting at numerous places
in central and south India.
Pesticides are not the only external input that is important for cotton.
Water consumption is another issue, which is being deliberately ignored
in the debate on Bt cotton's economics. Cotton hybrids require more
water than the traditional varieties but what is little known is that
the water requirement for Bt cotton is much higher than the non-Bt hybrids.
While the Bt cotton fraud
is all too apparent, let us take a look at another crisis in the making.
The GEAC had only approved Bt cotton hybrids for the central and southern
states. For Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in northwest, which together
have a third of the country's cotton area under cultivation, field trials
have been held in the previous crop season.
Interestingly, ICAR had asked
for three years of research trials before any recommendation can be
made. But the Agriculture Minister, Mr Ajit Singh, was so keen that
he directed ICAR to forgo the scientific regulations and increase the
number of trials so that the approval can be granted on the basis of
just one year's data. The ICAR accepted the directive and the field
trial data has just been compiled. A year earlier, some adaptive research
trials were also conducted, which came in handy to justify the final
The Punjab Agricultural University
conducted field trials in 2002 using Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt hybrids -
Mech 12, Mech 162 and Mech 9. In addition, field trials were also performed
using Bt cotton varieties (produced by Rasi Seeds) Rch 132 and Rch 138.
It is reliably learnt that the best results have been given by the local
non-Bt cotton with yield levels of 24 quintals per hectare. Mahyco's
Mech 915 yielded 21 quintals per hectare. Rasi's Bt hybrids were higher
yielding than Mahyco's. Also, what has been observed is that Bt cotton
has less fibre length as a result of which the market is not very excited.
Farmers are therefore getting low price, an estimated Rs 300-400 less
on every quintal (100 kilos). In addition, boll shedding is more in
Bt hybrids and the insect resistance remains for about 90 days after
which the total pest attack multiplies.
And yet, it is an open secret
that PAU will be recommending to the GEAC the Bt cotton varieties for
approval. The ultimate green signal has to come from the GEAC.
Meanwhile, it is astonishing
that no agricultural scientist and economists is excited about the results
achieved by some cotton growers in the thick of the cotton belt in Mansa
in Punjab. Some farmers, visibly disgusted with excessive use of chemicals,
decided to go organic. This year they have harvested cotton to the tune
of 28 quintals per hectare and that too without applying pesticides
and fertiliser. No economist will like to analyse the
economics and sustainability of the Mansa cotton experiment. The ICAR
and the department of biotechnology are also not very enthused with
the results. Agricultural scientists must keep their eyes closed, after
all resource-starved PAU is looking for joint collaboration with Mahyco-Monsanto.
It is the farmer who must continue to pay the actual cost of all these
unwanted experimentation, more often than not taking the fatal
route to escape the growing indebtedness from cotton failure over the
(Devinder Sharma is a New
Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Responses can be emailed
at email@example.com )