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C Kameswara RaoFoundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
Bangalore, India

Reports of cattle and sheep dying allegedly on consuming Bt cotton plants in the Warangal, Khammam and Adilabad Districts of the Telengana area of Andhra Pradesh (AP) in India (Deccan Herald, February 7, 2007; The Hindu, March 2, 2007; GM Watch, March 4, 2007; Hindustan Times, June 17, 2007; GM Watch, June 18, 2007; Hindustan Times, June 18, 2007), are a never dying story.

Cattle and sheep were dying even before Bt cotton cultivation came into practice in Telengana.  No one has so far conclusively proved that Bt protein in the Bt cotton plants was the real culprit.  During our visit to the Warangal district in December 2006, no one we met, other than the activists, said that the animals died because of the toxicity of Bt cotton plants.  The All India Crop Biotechnology Association asserted that the deaths of sheep, goat and cattle were not related to consumption of Bt cotton leaves and plants, basing on the studies by the Centre for Animal Disease Research and Diagnosis of the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, on goats and rats that were fed with Bt cotton leftovers, which indicated no untoward clinical effects. Yet, the activists want the world to believe that Bt cotton plants cause these alleged animal deaths and so Bt transgenics should be banned.

The Hindu (March 2, 2007) reported that veterinary surgeons in the Telengana region were administering symptomatic treatment to farm animals that showed such symptoms as convulsions, nasal discharge, vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory problems.  This is a pragmatic approach, since the 'culprit toxic substance is not identified’, but the long term mitigation of the problem lies in identifying the actual causes. 

Since Bt protein was repeatedly established that it is not toxic to mammals on the basis of its mode of chemical action, we have been urging for an investigation that would establish the real causes.

If cattle are reported to be dying on eating Bt cotton plants only in the Telengana region of AP, the causes are probably elsewhere, other than with the Bt gene. 

Water stress, so common in Telengana, leads to the accumulation of a large number of chemical compounds in the drying cotton plants, Bt or non-Bt, such as resins, polyphenols such as gossypol and several others, which can be toxic when consumed in large quantities.

Recently, scientists from four public sector laboratories such as the AP Forensic Science Laboratory, the Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute, the Western Regional Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and Acharya NG Ranga Agriculture University, seem to have  reported the presence of nitrates, nitrites, and residues of organophosphates in Bt cotton plants.  Certainly, the Bt gene is not responsible for the occurrence of these compounds.  

An article in the journal Current Science (February 2007) reported very toxic levels of nitrate in the leafy vegetables spinach and chenopodium sold in Delhi markets.  Older plants and more fibrous parts of these vegetables such as the leaf stalks contained several times more nitrate than the herbaceous parts of the same plant.   Post harvest cotton crop stubble is several months older and heavily fibrous.   Stubble of non-Bt cotton and non-cotton crops in the same region too may contain nitrates, nitrites and organophosphates.  The possibility that the affected cattle did not feed on such non-Bt stubble was not eliminated.

Details of specific poisonous chemical compounds, and their quantities in the feed and gastric residues in the affected animals, needed to make an objective evaluation are not available.

There is some overlap between the symptoms caused by nitrate and pesticide poisoning, on which separate articles are posted on this site.  There is a correspondence between many symptoms reported of the dead animals and those of nitrates and insecticides. 

Since the farmers use significantly lower quantities of insecticides on the Bt cotton crop, than on a non-Bt crop, nitrates and nitrites are more likely to be the toxicants than organophosphates.  But this has to be established beyond the current assumptions from the public sector labs. 

The reported statement of the Director, AP Department of Animal Husbandry, that ‘no biosafety studies of Bt cotton seeds had yet been conducted’, is factually incorrect.  On the basis of extensive and intensive biosafety studies on Bt cotton conducted for over a decade in different parts of the world, its safety to mammals is not in doubt.  Also important is the fact that while Bt cotton is being grown in nine states, no cattle toxicity complaints came, except from a few villages in AP.  As observed by Hindustan Times (June 18, 2007), the situation does not warrant trashing the thousands of field tests and analyses done on the biosafety of Bt cotton. 

The AP Government has rightly advised farmers not to allow animals to graze on Bt cotton fields and informed the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests about the findings of the public sector labs, which prompted the latter to order a probe.

The solution to the problem lies in an appropriate grazing management, by providing the cattle with proper feed and preventing them from grazing on drying post-harvest stubble of any crop, not just cotton, particularly in the dry Telengana districts.  Prior to harvest, cattle are not allowed to graze on crop fields and the same practice should continue after crop harvest too.

There is yet no answer to the question ‘Why do cattle die eating Bt cotton plants only in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh?

July 13, 2007