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Another Year of Doom: Bt Cotton in AP - 2008

The huge hype of Bt Cotton has once again trapped cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh The results of a season long [covering Kharif cotton season of 2007-2008] study by the Deccan Development Society and the AP Coalition in Defence of Diversity clearly shows that Bt cotton farmers suffered 10% less profits than the farmers who cultivated non Bt but practiced non pesticidal [NPM] methods on their farms.

In a study that covered 127 farmers from three cotton growing districts of AP viz., Warangal, Adilabad and Nalgonda three distinct facts have emerged:

1 Bt farmers suffered 10% less returns than the non Bt farmers practicing NPM methods

2 Bt farmers had to invest 18% more on pest management than the NPM farmers. This is contrary to the Bt industry promise that it will reduce the cost of pesticide use.

3 Bt farmers had to invest 9% more for cultivating cotton as against the NPM farmers.

On net returns

While Bt cotton farmers earned Rs.6382 per acre in 2007-8, non Bt farmers practicing NPM earned Rs.7046 per acre, nearly 700 rupees more than the Bt farmers.

This is totally contrary to the claims of Bt industry that Bt farmers get higher returns.

On Pesticide use

Bt industry’s USP [Unique Selling Proposition] is that cultivation of Bt cotton eliminates pests on cotton and helps farmers significantly reduce the use of pesticides. Thus they perversely claim that Bt cotton is an ecological option for farmers. The ground reality points to something else. Bt cotton is targeted at just one cotton pest called Americal Bollworm, As the bollworm incidence reduces, many other pests take over. Sucking pests such as aphids and thrips have multiplied as never before on Bt cotton. In 2007, a forgotton pest called mealy bug devastated Bt cotton in many places. These pest attacks have compelled farmers to use more expensive pesticides on their farms.

While Bt farmers had to spend 858 rupees per acre, NPM farmers were spent Rs.130 less per acre. Thus Bt farmers had to spend 18% more than NPM farmers to save their cotton from pests.

In the face of all these extra investments, how much more cotton did Bt farmers grow per acre. Just 5% more than non Bt farmers.

All the above facts do show how distorted is the biotech industry claim that they are responsible for doubling cotton yields in India and giving farmers a 100% higher profits. This is obfuscating the realities of cotton cultivation

In the last five years

It is not just in 2007-8 that these truths fly in our face. Over the last half a decade of Bt cotton cultivation in AP, the results are the same year after year. But the publicity blitzkrieg by the industry and the complicity and collusion by the regulators and scientists on the biotech payroll have together distorted the reality beyond belief.

Consider two major areas. How much did Bt farmers earned per acre on an average over the last five years and how did non Bt farmers fare in comparison? Did Bt farmers dramatically reduce pesticide use?

Let us look at the facts:

Net returns

Between 2002 and 2007, Bt farmers earned a total of Rs.20157 per acre over five years, on an average of Rs.4031 per acre. In comparison, the non Bt farmers were able to get a return of Rs. 22740 per acre over five years or Rs.4581 per acre. An average extra earning of Rs.550 per acre over the Bt farmers. This was a clear 20% higher return per acre over Bt farmers. This completely nails the lie of the Bt industry that cultivation of Bt has been more profitable for farmers.

Therefore, as our data reveals, both small and medium farmers gained by cultivating non Bt than Bt cotton. Only large farmers under irrigated conditions were marginal winners for Bt.

On Pest Management

Over the last five years, Bt farmers spent on an average Rs 1622 per acre. In comparison non Bt farmers spent on an average, Rs.1468 per acre. This was nearly 10% less than Bt farmers. When non Bt farmers started using NPM practices, they were only spending on an average Rs.677 per acre. This was nearly Rs.1000 less per acre than Bt farmers. Thus they were saving 30% on pest management costs in comparison to the Bt farmers. THIS IS AN UNTOLD TRUTH IN INDIAN AGRICULTURE.

Thus, the results of the last 5 season long studies unequivocally reveal that, using locally available resources, farmers can better manage the pest problem instead of relying on the undependable technologies like Bt cotton which proved to be costlier both economically and environmentally.

Damages to the health of soil, animals and people

On another front, Bt cotton cultivation has been steadily proving to be dangerous to the ecological health of our villages. They are destroying soil health, human health and animal health.

A never-before-seen disease called Rhizoctonia [root rot disease] had spread alarmingly on the cotton fields of AP. In 2002 when Bt cotton was introduced in AP the disease was observed only on 2% of cotton fields. In 2007 the disease was observed in 40% of the fields. This means that within five years the disease had jumped by over 200%. This is extremely alarming and can be ignored only at the peril of cotton cultivation in AP. Over extended period of time, this will toxify all the cotton and surrounding fields and make cultivation impossible for farmers.

On the trail of the animal deaths over the last three years, DDS along with an NGO called ANTHRA set up a special experiment on sheep feeding. While 60% of the sheep were stall fed with stalks of Bt cotton, 30% were fed with non Bt cotton. While the non Bt fed sheep remained healthy and active the Bt stalk fed sheep died within four weeks of the experiment which started on February 18, 2008.

This was a confirmation of the trend observed by shepherds in Warangal District and reported several times to the government. Since the government turned a blind eye to the problem, shepherds have started selling their sheep to butchers right at the time when they see the symptoms at distress prices. While on one hand this is resulting in huge losses for them, the contaminated meat enters into human food chain and will have serious effects on human health.

Apart from small animals such as sheep and goat, in 2007-8 for the first time, there were incidences of even larger and hardier animals such as buffaloes dying after grazing on bt cotton stalks. We have witnessed the death of over 12 buffaloes in one village [Name the village and mandal, district] early this year.

Already there are several cases of Bt cotton impacting human health.

Farmers working in Bt cotton fields reported skin allergies in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana states. In A.P in the villages of Medarametta and Issipet in Warangal district, the labours who were harvesting the BT cotton fields had got rashes and skin allergies on the exposed parts of their body. They underwent a treatment with the nearest doctor at Mogullapalle investing their hard earned labour wages. Many women in Punjab have complained about the bronchial/pulmonary disorders and the skin allergy after the cotton plucking.

Therefore it is once again the demand from the AP Coalition in Defence of Diversity that that the governments of Andhra Pradesh and India act immediately to halt the monstrous march of Bt cotton destroying farmers incomes, soils, animal and human health.

It is a travesty of justice that the GEAC, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Government of India keeps on ignoring the authentic studies done by independent science and farming communities and takes decisions based on the recommendations of a handful of scientists whose loyalties to farming communities of the country is questionable. In fact the senior member of the GEAC is the president of ISAAA, which is the global biotech industry body. With such open conflict of interests, can we honestly expect any unbiased decisions on genetic engineering in India? That is the reason why dozens of GM crops are on the threshold of approval in India. Many of them are food crops and will certainly bring untold health problems for the Indian population which already suffers from severe malnutrition.

Before this monster tramples us over we need to wake up. Today.

[P.V. Satheesh]