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Performance of Commercialised Bt Cotton In India - A Preliminary Report

Prof. C Kameswara Rao,
Executive Secretary, 
FBAE, Bangalore, India

I visited five cotton fields on September 5, 2002, near Ranibennur (central Karnataka), along with a team of cotton breeders and scientists, to see the performance of standing Bt-cotton crop.
We visited one irrigated Bt-cotton field at a farm of Mahyco, the licensee of Monsanto to market Boll Guard, the Bt-cotton seed, in India.   We also visited three other Bt-cotton fields (one of them is irrigated) and neighbouring these, two non-Bt-cotton fields. These five belong to farmers.   All these five fields are small, each about an acre, and the crop was about 80 days old.
The overall impression is that the Bt-cotton variety Boll Guard MECH 162 is performing well providing an effective control of the cotton bollworm. 
The Mahyco field is an ideal example of how cotton should be cultivated.   If the farmers are educated properly to adopt similar cultivation practices, cotton production would go up substantially in the country.    There were five rows of non-Bt-cotton refuge, as stipulated by the GEAC.   Two sprays were given for the sucking insects and one for the bollworm.   Generally speaking, the Bt-cotton plants were more vigorous and early maturing at least by two weeks, compared to the non-Bt refuge plants in the same field.   This may be due to the possibility that the non-Bt refuge was already attacked by the bollworm and affecting the plants’ vertical growth.   The Bt-plants showed the typical pyramidal architecture of the cotton plant while the non-Bt-plants were rather spread, but the plants looked healthy.
In the rain fed Bt-cotton fields, one picking was done and the farmer said that the yield was about 40 per cent more than his past experience with the non-Bt cotton harvest.   The farmer was quite liberal in his praise of Bt-cotton, of the peace of mind he derives out of its cultivation and more so with the money he saved in terms of pesticide costs, which he would have incurred otherwise.   Two sprays of insecticides for the sucking insects and one spray for the bollworm had been applied.   The non-Bt refuge plants looked as expected, infested heavily, and the imminent severe loss of yield was evident.   The farmer said that he would plant only Bt-cotton the next season.
The irrigated Bt-cotton field was more vigorous and healthier than the rain fed crop.    Two pickings were done.   Two sprays for sucking insects and one for bollworm were applied.    The farmer plans to irrigate the field at least two times more and more importantly he plans to pick cotton till March, which was not possible with non-Bt-cotton, all these years.
The two non-Bt farmers neighbouring the Bt-cotton fields applied two sprays for sucking insects and five sprays for bollworm and still there was heavy infestation by bollworm.   At this rate they would be spraying insecticides about a dozen times more by the end of the cropping season.    This is not surprising as some farmers give even 20 sprays to non-Bt-cotton crop, some of the spraying being just out of panic.   The loss of yield would certainly be more than 20 per cent and may even be 40 per cent.   These two farmers want to plant Bt-cotton next year, if they succeed in obtaining the seed.   There is a real short supply of Bt-cotton seed in the country.
While evaluating the performance of Bt-cotton for this season, some points need to be considered. 
The varieties of Bt- and non-Bt, in the neighbouring fields, are not the same.   One non-Bt was Indo-American Hybrid seed and the other was Brahma, while the Bt-cotton was MECH 162.   The two non-Bt varieties were evidently superior to MECH 162.   It is unfortunate that the Bt gene was not put in the best Indian variety of cotton.   MECH 162 does not appear to be the best variety or a preferred cotton variety of Mahyco. 
I have seen only MECH 162 and would not speak for the performance of the other Boll Guard varieties approved by the GEAC and in cultivation elsewhere.
There does not seem to be much farmer education and follow up advice, supposed to be the responsibility of the seed distributor.   Agricultural extension workers do not concern themselves about Bt cultivation, as this is considered a private sector affair.  
Farmers are not happy with using non-Bt-cotton (of the same variety) as the refuge.   They would prefer a non-cotton refuge.
The failure of monsoon is the other important factor.    Under the current circumstances it is difficult to obtain any reliable quantitative data.   The second monsoon was good but this may not be helpful for cotton at this stage of the crop, as excessive rain ruins the cotton in the dehisced boll, primarily by imparting colour due to fungal infestation and by compacting the fibre. 
One visit of a few fields cannot be the basis to generalise the situation in the entire State of Karnataka but serves as a good indicator of the situation. 
In Gujarat there is official Boll Guard, illegal Bt-cotton (some of it from seed saved from last year’s crop), spurious Bt-cotton and as elsewhere, non-Bt-cotton.   The varieties of these are not the same.   There was a severe monsoon failure to consider.   This situation is exploited by the anti-biotech lobby and other critics, to project Bt-cotton as a failure.   There are no reliable quantitative data at present to justify such pronouncements.   Unconfirmed reports from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu suggest that prima facie, the Bt-cotton crop has been doing well.

It is premature to give a verdict on the performance of Bt-cotton in any part of India.   This year’s results cannot be taken to proclaim Bt-cotton either as a success or a failure, due to large scale and serious failure of monsoon, though all areas were not affected equally severely.    The GEAC gave approval for the cultivation of Bt-cotton for three years and the performance of Bt-cotton should be assessed only at the end of this period, when there would be adequate and reliable data to do so. 
Monsanto naturally considers that monitoring Bt-cotton cultivation is the affair of their licensee, the Mahyco.   Mahyco thinks that they are responsible only to the GEAC and so we get no information from them.   GEAC does not enjoy any reputation for its accountability and transparency and all information they get is treated an official secret.   Most of the public requests for information and field test data are treated with contempt or a sense of disdain, with the result rumour mongering takes the centre stage.   Misinformation campaign by anti-biotech NGOs is the rule of the day.   The scientific community and Department of Agriculture are equally to blame for the way in which transgenic technology is being introduced without much public awareness and farmer education programmes.   There is a total governmental and bureaucratic apathy and insensitivity, bordering arrogance, over the matter.
There are no independent agencies in India to study the performance of Bt-cotton systematically and to give reliable field data.   Unless the reports are peer reviewed, they cannot be the basis for any judgement. 
Many NGOs  pick up any thing they can find against GMOs to bolster their stand.   They spread half-truths, lies and myths to mislead the public and the growers about the dangers of transgenic crops, they imagined.   The media are equally ignorant of the facts and they are not in a position to disseminate factual information.   For example, it is said that Boll Guard is meant only for the US as there are no pests other than the bollworm there, that Bt-cotton is only good for temperate climates where the pest load is not severe, Bt-cotton does not save on chemical insecticide application and that there are no real economic benefits to be gained by cultivating Bt-cotton, all based on no scientific analysis or data..   Dr J S Bentur, an agricultural entomologist writes us that after Boll Guard in the US, due to reduced spray of insecticides, the other pests such as aphids are now controlled by their predators, which used to succumb to insecticides.   In India, the farmer still sprays against sucking insects.   There is a propaganda that there is fall in the yield of cotton.   Boll Guard was never projected for improved yield.   Whatever higher yield the farmers get is due to prevention of loss rather than improved performance of Bt-cotton in terms of yield.   It is said that since even Boll Guard needs insecticide spray, it is a deceitful introduction.   Boll Guard is effective only against the bollworm, which is the principal pest responsible for the loss of the end product, which is the cotton fibre.   The sucking insects damage the leaves and this would certainly reduce the yield to an extent but they are not as damaging as the bollworm, as they do not affect the economic product directly.   No one ever suggested that Bt-cotton substitutes for all insecticide sprays.   Whether in US or elsewhere, insecticides need to be sprayed against pests other than the bollworm and the difference of insecticide use between non-Bt- and Bt-cotton is very significant. 
Unfortunately the GEAC and other Governmental Agencies are more concerned about appeasing anti-tech lobby, than to publicise facts and figures and take a bold and rational stand, be it the biodiversity bill, or plant breeders’ rights bill or GM crop introduction.   The recent deferment of approval of GM mustard for cultivation in India, by the GEAC, in spite of very convincing evidence of its benefits and safety, is an indication of the irrational functioning of the GEAC.   The ultimate sufferer is the farmer, on whose behalf, every one in this country is supposed to be striving, largely by self-proclamation