Fbae Logo
Home | | Support Us | Contact Us
Goals & Objectives Our Position False Propaganda Important Publications Important Links Events News Biosafety
Fbae Header Home




One Swallow Does Not Make The Summer—Bt cotton in India

Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
E-mail: krao@vsnl.com; krao@fbae.org

A large number of people in India are praying for the success of Bt cotton, not necessarily out of love for this crop, but because the failure of Bt cotton will close the doors for other GE crops.   We would like the path of Golden Rice into India to be smoother than it has been for Bt cotton and GE Mustard.   We all would be very happy if rational, convincing and non-provocative articles that explain the merits of GE technology, and the risks based on scientific data, appear in different contexts.  Unfortunately, some of the articles that have come up in recent times have done much damage to prospects of GE crops in India and elsewhere.   Since the case in point is Bt cotton, I confine my response to this crop.

          A. Matin Qaim and David Zilberman, Science (February 7, 2003).  

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), Government of India, have given approval for commercial cultivation of Bt cotton for three years.   The prospects of the Bt cotton crop for this first year have been largely affected by drought in many parts of India and the yields are not what were expected to be.   In addition to drought, we also have the problem of clandestine or adulterated or spurious Bt cotton, in some parts of India.   We did nothing to stem this menace.   Farmers are still picking cotton in the irrigated fields.   A number of NGOs are anxiously picking up anything and everything to show Bt cotton in bad light.

It is only fair to wait till the end of the three-year period to declare Bt cotton as a success or failure.   In the meanwhile, it is certainly reasonable to assess the prospects, in a non-judgemental way, using the commercial results and certainly not field trial data, which have served their purpose in gaining the approval of the GEAC.   If we wait till the end of the three-year period, the farmers themselves will come out with their assessment of the benefits of Bt cotton.   If the farmer is not convinced, no amount of effort through articles in Science and Nature or the whole world body of crop biotechnologists and governments can make the farmer adopt this technology.

As per the unpublished data of Mahyco (Ref. 16 in the paper), over the four-year period from 1998 to 2001, Bt cotton varieties showed an average yield advantage of 60 per cent.   How then, 80 per cent (which Ms Ranjana Smetacek puts as the upper end of the spectrum than an average) or higher yield advantage is realisable?

Three different varieties of Bt cotton, MECH 9, MECH 12 and MECH 162, were approved for cultivation in different parts of the country. Table 1 in the paper in Science seems to represent averaged data for all the Bt cotton varieties.   We need to know the difference in the performance of the three Bt varieties and their isogenic counterparts, although each is meant for a different region in the country.   Why did not the authors pool up all the four years’ trial data, but chose only that of 2001?

The yield of the popular check variety is lower than that of the isogenic non-Bt variety (Table 1).   Different varieties of non-Mahyco cotton are popular in different states.   It is too unrealistic to pool all data and declare that Mahyco’s Bt variety is the King and its isogenic non-Bt variety is the Prince in Waiting.   An inescapable impression is that the ‘popular’ check varieties that are poorer than the isogenic non-Bt varieties were chosen for comparison.   I am not sure of other Mahyco varieties of cotton, but in my experience MECH 162 is distinctly poorer than two locally grown varieties Brahma and that of Indo-American Hybrid Seeds, which I have seen in the Ranibennur area of the Karnataka State.   There are much better varieties of cotton in other countries.

The authors of the Science paper wrote, “we maintain that the limited experience with GM crops so far is insufficient to make broad generalisations about their impacts” (p 900).   The Indian experience is insignificant compared to the global experience with GE crops.   It is difficult to understand how the miniscule of the Indian field trial data dramatically change the situation to justify generalisations for all the developing counties and for all the GE crops.

The authors thanked Mahyco for making the field trial records available (Reference 30).   In his response to Drs Shantharam and Prakash, Dr Qaim wrote “We have used the company field-trial records about pest infestation levels, such as larval counts per plant.   ……  These were collected during weekly trial visits by local company agronomists, and we received the complete bundle of handwritten field records, not just aggregated summary statistics”.    A number of people/agencies requested the GEAC to make such trial data public and to place all relevant data on the website of the Ministry or Mahyco/Monsanto.   Dr Richard Roush also supports this view.   By demanding this, Dr Shantharam and I are not joining the green bandwagon, but are only trying to make the regulatory process in India transparent and convincing, in order to gain public confidence.  

We do not blame Monsanto for not making the data public as the data were generated by and were in possession of Mahyco.   So far as I know, Mahyco’s response was a deafening silence.   The Chairman of the GEAC maintained that the data are confidential.   At the time of GE mustard issue, he said that field trial data (for all GE crops in India) would be made public only if all the members of the GEAC agree, probably knowing fully well that the GEAC meetings would neither be in full attendance nor unanimous in decision making.   I am surprised, even offended, that data considered confidential for Indian workers were so freely available elsewhere.  

Dr Qaim wrote in his response to Drs Shantharam and Prakash, that the analysis of the authors is completely independent from that of Mahyco or Monsanto.   What did Mahyco’s analysis show?  Convincing data weaken the anti-GE lobby.   If Mahyco is confident, why the fear in making the data public, when it was asked for?   Since the technology came from the west, should the data also follow the same route?

Dr Qaim wrote that “when pest-related yield losses are 50% of the genetic yield potential, and suddenly you would be able to control this pest damage, then- taking the actually achieved yield as the reference- the yield increase would be 100%”.   Yes, this is theoretically possible only if the bollworm is the sole pest and it is controlled 100 per cent by the GE cotton variety.   Dr Qaim’s statement also means that the difference in the levels of yield realisation will fall year after year, with shifting base level, in relation to reduced pest pressure resulting from the continued use of the GE variety.  

A number of early data at different stages on GE crops have shown that there would always be a short fall, up to a third, between the yield values of small-field trials and realisation in the much larger commercial cultivation.   Even if the field trial data show 80 per cent yield gain, this cannot not be fully realised, particularly when there are other pests to contend with.   Dr Devinder Sharma expressed similarly with reference to non-GE rice.

The statement that “The yield gains are largely due to the Bt gene itself” is unacceptable, since this gene has nothing to do with yield.    Heterosis was never known to be the function of a single gene.  

Considering the basis and type of data used, the opinion of the authors that the results on cotton “are easily transferable to food crops since the type of pest damage they would sustain would be the same” is a little farfetched.  

I feel that the authors have over-reached at a time when the Editors of Science misplaced their scissors.    The net result is panic among biotechnologists, for the harm the premature pronouncements would cause to the introduction of GE technology into the developing countries.  Nevertheless, Dr Qaim’s statement that, “our Science paper is not a substitute for a careful analysis of broader Bt cotton impacts in India in commercial agriculture”, is a saving grace. 
                    B. Ms T V Padma, Asia Times, February 19, 2003

When very few in India, even among the scientists, access Science, Ms Padma reports of the ‘civil society groups’ being taken aback by the article in Science, ‘at a time when ground realities speak of massive failures (of Bt cotton)’.   So far as the 2002-03 cotton season is concerned, there is a failure of the cotton crop in general, but is it really massive failure of Bt cotton?  Even if true, did any one analyse the causes and in the first place what was the source of the seed, and what were the cultural practices?  

I wonder what would be the response of Ms Padma to the yield and economic data and the opinion of several agricultural experts, posted by Ms Ranjana Smetacek on AgBioView, which are diametrically opposite of what Ms Padma recorded. 

I do not know if Ms Padma had ever visited a Bt cotton field, but in my field experience Bt cotton is doing fine and is very promising, not withstanding the hue and cry of the so called civil society groups to the contrary.   I have full faith that Bt cotton will prove beneficial in the long run, irrespective of the current hiccups.

Ms Padma and Dr Devinder Sharma are right in distinguishing between virtual increase in yield due to the genetic potential of a crop variety and the realisation of increased yield due to protection from loss. 

Journalists, bureaucrats and Dr Vandana Shiva know every thing under the sun, but even they should, once in a while, learn of some scientific facts and ground realities before writing articles, taking decisions or pronouncing verdicts.

One should understand that Bt cotton technology is meant to control only the bollworms, which cause the maximum damage to the commercial product that is cotton.   As an additional precautionary measure, one to three pesticide sprayings are recommended, even on Bt cotton.   There are other pests, particularly sucking pests, occurring on Bt plants, to contend with.   These require adequate pesticide application for control.   On the whole, the amount of pesticide application is drastically reduced, resulting in a substantial reduction in financial inputs.   This also results in reduced chemical pollution of the soil, reduced health risk to the farm labour and reduced exposure of the non-target insect populations to lethal chemicals.

If Bt cotton succumbed to pests as claimed by Ms Padma, Dr Devinder Sharma and Dr Vandana Shiva, which are the pests responsible for it and what kind and quantity of pesticides were sprayed and at what stage?   If the farmer thought that Bt cotton variety does not need any pesticide spraying at all, it is the failure of agencies that are expected to guide the farmer and not that of Bt cotton.    Was there adequate amount of water? 

Virtual increase in yield, susceptibility or tolerance/resistance to drought, or fungal diseases has nothing to do with Bt technology.   It is absurd to suggest that Bt gene induces susceptibility to drought and fungal diseases.

The GEAC has noted that Bt technology is only a part of Integrated Pest Management for cotton, and we should not look much beyond this position.

The GEAC recommended 20 per cent or five rows of non-Bt cotton as a refuge.   The purpose of the refuge (or refugium or border) is to delay the rate at which the bollworm develops resistance to the Bt protein.   The second purpose is to serve as a pollen sink, reducing the reach of cotton pollen, thus curtailing chances of gene flow to the other non-Bt cotton plants.   Cotton plant has only one non-native wild relative in India, Gossypium stocksii, which grows in the northern part of Gujarat, where cotton is not cultivated.   There is no chance of Bt cotton inter-crossing with its wild relative.   It is a biological absurdity to suggest that Bt cotton will inter-cross with any and every species growing in the vicinity.     

The inferior quality of the varieties used to develop Bt varieties is certainly a debatable issue.   There are several non-Bt varieties showing higher yields than the Bt isogenics.   But weakness of the plant or stalk breaking is not due to Bt genes.   Unfavourable market forces and higher cultivation costs, incurred out of ignorance or panic, cannot be the burden of Bt technology

          C. Dr Devinder Sharma, AgBioIndia, February 14, 2003

Dr Devinder Sharma would not miss, for anything in this world, the broad side provided by Qaim and Zilberman.   The World Bank Team Dr Sharma mentioned have actually visited India but the author pair did not.

I do not agree with Dr Sharma in that the field trial data become suspect simply because they were provided by the product generators.   Even if the Government of India had instituted a mechanism for evaluating field trial data, the people involved would be suspected of collusion, by one side or the other.   We need to trust some one somewhere.   But if it is implied that only Greenpeace, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security and Gene Campaign are the only one to be trusted in this country, it is absurd.   I am grateful to these bodies, for their verbal and written pronouncements, that tell us what they think of science and technology.   Otherwise, mischief will spread silently, like water under the mat.

With the World Bank Team Dr Sharma mentioned, there was a language problem.   In the absence of such a difficulty, if the same farmers gave two different and opposing versions on the performance of Bt cotton to the scientific team and the NGOs, it is the farmers to be blamed and not Bt technology or the companies that are behind it.   Such farmers can plant non-Bt cotton and say that it is Bt cotton that has ruined them or they can plant Bt cotton and say that it is non-Bt cotton that has fared better than the Bt cotton in the neighbouring field.   And money makes many things.   I am beginning to feel that such things are happening or even made to happen.   In such a situation, even Dr Fred Perlak would not know the difference between Bt and non-Bt plants.   Obviously, many of us are not honest.

The reason for not including the field trial data of the year 2000 by Qaim and Zilberman is obvious, incorrect correct cropping practice.  It is not the responsibility of the authors, if some one did not read the paper properly and mistook field trial data for actual commercial data of 2002-2003.  

Dr Sharma’s contention that cotton hybrids require more water than pure lines and that Bt cotton is thirstier than all is strange and requires rigorous scientific confirmation.

Dr Sharma made a very serious charge that the ICAR has jumped regulations to ‘complete’ field trials for Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and only the ICAR and the GEAC can answer this.

If Bt cotton varieties of both Mahyco and Rasi Seeds are under trial in the three northern states, it is certainly welcome and this should be extended to the southern states as well.   May the best variety gain the confidence of the farmers and the public.

It is unbelievable that cotton farmers in Manasa, Punjab, have achieved very high yields by organic farming, without fertilisers and pesticides!   They would probably gain much more by growing Bt varieties organically.   What is the logic behind considering that organic farming and GE technology are mutually incompatible?
                 D. My points

a)      Farmers should be educated on how to grow cotton on scientific lines.   Cotton is being grown on soils that are patently unsuitable.   Irrigation will certainly give a better crop.  The cotton field on a Mahyco farm near Ranibennur was a pleasant sight.   If farmers were educated to grow cotton on such scientific lines, the yields would be much higher.   In fact the difference in the culture practices of scientific farming and farmer farming is responsible for the disparities in yield data between the two.

b)      Supervision after the sale of the Bt cottonseed is grossly inadequate.   The regulation on refuge was not strictly followed.   I have seen only three rows of refuge in some fields and in one case no refuge at all.   When questioned, the smiling farmer said that all the cotton fields surrounding his Bt cotton are non-Bt and so they serve as the refuge! 

c)      The Indian Regulatory process requires formation of State Level and District Level bodies, without which growing GE crops becomes illegal.   How many states have formed these boards and how many of them have actually permitted growing Bt cotton?   I gather only 12 states have state level committees, but what about the other states and what about District Level bodies? 

d)      The Indian Regulatory system requires a thorough reform.   The regulatory process should be rational, uniform, transparent and expedient.   The GEAC showed different attitudes for Bt cotton and GE mustard, in an identical situation.   All information is shrouded in a cloak of official secrecy.   The GEAC does not seem to have competent scientific staff to prepare briefs and advice.   The scientific members of the GEAC are usually too busy even to attend its meetings.   The GEAC should make all relevant test/trial data public and hold public hearings before taking decisions on the introduction of GE products.

e)      Farmers are very unhappy at the loss they suffer on account of cotton refuge.   The FBAE suggested a non-cotton refuge.   The American bollworm being polyphagous on about 90 crops, crops like red gram, sunflower, maize, chillies, sunn hemp, etc., can be used for refuge.   Since the damage bollworm causes to the commercial product of these crops is not as extensive as on cotton, the farmers would get some economic returns without affecting the scientific purpose of a refuge.  At the European Commission conference on Sustainable Agriculture for Developing Countries held at Brussels (January 30, 31, 2003), Dr Jim Peacock, Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, Australia, told me that they also have been using non-cotton refuge.   We did nothing in India in this regard.   Would someone with the required facilities undertake to assess the possibilities of using non-cotton refuge?

f)        There were reports from the US, that lower levels of pesticide application have encouraged predators of the sucking pests and reduced their density.   Heavy pesticide loads in the cotton fields earlier discouraged the predators.   Dr Jim Peacock confirms this for Australia, (though not for the white fly, which is a minor pest on Australian cotton), and that this has also reduced the pesticide levels required to control the sucking pests.   We need to gather data on this aspect in the remaining two years of Bt cotton probation