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How Safe Is Bt Cotton For Livestock?

By Kavitha Kuruganti

01 May, 2007

Not many seem to be aware that a serious controversy is dogging GM crop cultivation in India after repeated reports emerged about livestock getting killed or falling sick after grazing on Bt Cotton fields. The limelight is once again on two important aspects related to GM crops – their safety and their regulation.

As the area of Bt Cotton kept increasing year after year within the Cotton extent in various states, right from 2004-05, there have been reports of goats and sheep taking ill and dying after grazing on these fields. It has to be noted that open-grazing of animals on cotton fields, after the cotton is harvested and before the stalks are removed, is a traditional practice in many parts of the country. Further, given the shrinking grazing lands in villages, open grazing on residual crop plants is unavoidable. No experiences of cotton plants being toxic to animals are present hitherto. It is also important to note that such practices don’t exist elsewhere, especially in the developed world from where we seem to import our biosafety assessment protocols. The regulators here obviously did not foresee a situation of open grazing given that they are cut off from the reality of rural India. No studies have been done to this day to test toxicity in conditions that simulate real life open-grazing situation of farmers/shepherds of the country.

In 2006, civil society organizations like the Andhra Pradesh Goatherds’ & Shepherds’ Union, Anthra (an organization consisting of veterinary scientists, working on livestock issues) and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (consisting of agriculture scientists working on ecological alternatives in agriculture) pointed out an unusual phenomenon on a widespread scale, of animals falling sick and dying after grazing on residual Bt Cotton fields. Interestingly enough, the fact finding visits of these groups happened after eleven shepherds from eleven different blocks of Warangal district brought their animals to the Animal Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory [ADDL] in Warangal town for postmortem analysis as they found that their animals were dying of unusual symptoms. There was a mix of nervous, respiratory and digestive symptoms observed. Amongst other observations, the concerned veterinary surgeon wrote “Poisoning fed on Bt Cotton”, as tentative diagnosis in her postmortem register. It was quite by chance that a representative of the Shepherds’ Union saw the postmortem register of February and March 2006 and in the month of April, a fact finding visit was commissioned by these three organizations.

The initial response to these reports was ridicule. The reports in 2005 in the local media were completely ignored. How can Bt toxin kill mammals, was the usual argument - it only works on lepidopteran pests with an alkaline medium in the intestines, it was argued. It could be pesticide residues that were causing the toxicity, said others. The shepherds must be making up the reports in a bid to claim insurance, speculated yet others. It seemed as though complete negation of the phenomenon is the only response possible from the regulators and the biotech industry. There was no scientific temper exhibited with regard to wanting to investigate the reports further nor was there a sense of responsibility on the part of the regulators to put speculation at rest, to act in the interest of farmers and shepherds. After all, it was the very livelihoods of poor people at stake here with each death setting the farmer back substantially on the economic front.

Unfortunately, one small team that went to the affected villages on behalf of the animal husbandry department of Andhra Pradesh could not come back with much evidence. The few Bt Cotton plant samples that they analysed tested positive for nitrates and nitrites. Nitrate content was found to be more than 2% [strong positive] and symptoms matching nitrate poisoning.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee [GEAC], the apex regulatory body for GM crops in the country whose mandate is to assess the biosafety of every product that it allows for release into the environment, did not pursue the matter beyond discussing it in a couple of meetings, that too under pressure from civil society groups. The Department of Biotechnology [DBT], a strong advocate of GM crops, was instructed by the GEAC to take up a systematic foliar material feeding toxicity study. The DBT found many excuses for not doing so! Other than prescribing such foliar toxicity studies for future biosafety assessment, the GEAC ordered no such studies by the Bt Cotton companies nor did it keep other issues in abeyance until some transparent, scientific, independent and systematic investigations were completed. It was business as usual for the regulators and the industry.

In January 2007, the first reports of animals getting affected started emerging again and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture sent a preliminary assessment report to the GEAC, DBT, animal husbandry and agriculture department officials. In February, in Adilabad district, after coming across the hitherto-unknown phenomenon of animals getting affected after grazing on Bt Cotton fields, the animal husbandry department pro-actively put out an advisory to farmers asking them not to graze their animals on Bt Cotton plants. The department officials here are convinced of the toxicity of the Bt Cotton plant but are waiting for laboratory analyses to understand what the exact toxin at work here is.

What is amazing to hear however is that no protocols have been put in place in the past one year in case such a phenomenon erupts again! The initial samples that have been sent from Adilabad by the department veterinarians have reportedly been rejected since they were not fit for analysis. A special team was then sent to Adilabad for collecting samples and investigations are on to understand the presence of toxins, if any, in these samples. Initial analysis shows that the samples have tested positive for HCN. The investigations will obviously not be conclusive and comprehensive until it is understood wherefrom such nitrogen-compounds are accumulating on Bt Cotton plants. Is it because of the genetic engineering process itself which is known to result in unpredictable effects? Is it related to higher application of nitrogenous fertilizers that farmers are being asked to use on Bt Cotton? Is it a combination of the Bt Cotton plant’s interaction with its environment that is resulting in the toxicity and which was never captured in the field trials because such trials are done mostly for agronomic assessment? Aren’t there some indications of such a phenomenon in the sub-chronic toxicity test on goats in the case of Bt Brinjal that the crop developer submitted to the GEAC, when statistically significant changes were found in haemotological and clinical parameters – why did not the GEAC ask for the raw data on this?

Farmers whose animals are affected are reporting that because of low pest incidence this year, they have not used much pesticides and in any case, the last time pesticides have been used on the crop, it was in the month of October – if it is pesticide residues that are indeed causing the toxicity, it is important to ask insecticide regulators in the country why they are registering such toxic pesticides in the country which leave such lethal impacts even after four months!

Meanwhile, the GM regulators of the country are guilty of not having paid attention to an unusual phenomenon that farmers are convinced is connected to Bt Cotton [the regulators like listening only to ‘experts’ sold to corporate science] and for not investigating it systematically. They are also guilty of not keeping farming livelihoods as the central point of their regulation. At least now, there should be transparent, scientific, independent and long term studies to understand this phenomenon now officially recognized by the animal husbandry department officials of Andhra Pradesh. Until such studies show conclusively that the causes of this phenomenon lie elsewhere, no further GM crop development and releases should be allowed in the country.

[Kavitha Kuruganti is with Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad]

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