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The Bollworm Never Went Away to Return!!!
Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India

Dr Suman Sahai (The Bollworm Returns, March 8, 2007) has taken pot shots at Bt technology once again, using Continuously Repeated Anti-GM Propaganda (CRAP). 

Realizing that a proportion of bollworm larval populations exposed to Bt protein may develop resistance to it over generations, biotechnologists came up with strategies to prevent the onset of such resistance or at least delay it.  An isogenic non-Bt refugium and stacking two different Bt genes are two well researched strategies in the context.  However, in more than a decade of cultivation of Bt crops in the United States and elsewhere, not a single verifiable instance of resistance to even the single-gene Bt transgenics was reported.

The refugium is a tested multi-design concept to delay build up of resistance in monoculture agriculture.   However, in India there are a dozen alternate crop hosts for the American cotton bollworm which obviates the need for the isogenic non-Bt cotton refugium, although its avoidance is ill advised. 

Suman Sahai has an inherent inability to distinguish between problems of management and those of science and technology.   She avers that farmers are not adopting the recommended practices in the cultivation of Bt cotton such as the refugium, but projects the ‘emergence of resistance in the bollworm, as well as problems created by other pests like pink bollworm and sucking pests’ as the failure of technology per se and not that of management.  She even uses extraneous problems like cotton wilt disease as evidence to the failure of Bt technology.

Suman Sahai and her fellow activists have always rejected success stories of transgenic technology from other countries, but want us to believe in their misinterpretations of its failure outside India. 

Suman Sahai cites a publication by Cornell University scientists on the performance of Bt cotton in China, qualified by her as a failure, since the Bt cotton farmers reportedly earn eight per cent less than non-Bt farmers and populations of other insects are on the increase.  She asserts that the Cornell researchers anticipate the emergence of secondary pests which is likely to become a major threat where Bt cotton has been widely planted.   However, Dr Jikun Huang, whose data were used by the Cornell research group, does not seem to agree with the latter’s interpretation that Bt cotton failed in China. 

The study of the last cotton season by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, cited by Suman Sahai, did not conclude that the bollworm became resistant to Bt protein, but considered it only as one of several possibilities.   She conveniently ignored the other observations in the Arkansas report that,  a) the single protein Bt variety is working well to protect against tobacco budworms, b) the dual genetically protected Bt cotton, Bollgard II, is holding up well against both bollworms and tobacco budworms and c) the farmers are expected to switch to gene stacked Bt cotton varieties.  Nevertheless, even before Bollgard II made any significance commercial presence in India, she prophesies that ‘the targeted pests will develop resistance’ to it.

Pest pressure, the function of the density of pest populations, is a well known variable, as for example, the cotton season of 2006-07 in India was a low pest pressure year.  It is the rates of mortality and not just the pest density, that are important in assessing the efficacy of Bt technology. 

Panchagavya is an Ayurvedic concept that contains cow’s milk, curds, ghee, urine and dung, not just the last two as understood by Suman Sahai.   Several clinical studies have indicated some human therapeutic benefits of panchagavya and with neem leaf extract it is a pest repellent.   Suman Sahai recommends a truncated panchagavya with herbal pesticides like pongamia oil as a part of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to control insect pests on cotton.  Indian entomologists know of not just panchagavya, but of several other plant species with pesticidal activity.   She does not consider Bt protein as an integral part of IPM, though entomologists have repeatedly asserted that this can be an eminent fit into IPM, as was the use of Bt for more than half a century, even in organic farming.

It looks that there are several US Patents for products incorporating panchagavya along with antibiotics for use as pharmaceuticals.    Interestingly, for Suman Sahai a US patent suddenly becomes a validity statement on panchagavya’s efficacy.  She should actually be fighting against such patents on Indian Traditional Knowledge, like it was done for neem and turmeric, though a patent in the US or anywhere else has no bearing in India and is no guarantee of its field success.   
Farmers can certainly use panchagavya as a part of IPM, to overcome any possible deficiencies in the protection afforded by Bt technology, but Suman Sahai does not think of the volumes of panchagavya and the infrastructure that would be needed if panchagavya were to be used in crop protection by every Indian farmer. 

The original panchagavya is an expensive proposition and would involve rearing large numbers of cow populations and preparing large volumes of curds and ghee, which the majority in India can ill afford even for their own consumption.  Human urine was shown to have several benefits in autourine therapy (Shivambhu).   Even this may prove to be useful as pest repellent.  We have plenty of it around and there are patented devices to collect urine and store it temporarily.  
Suman Sahai suggests the use of introduced natural predators of cotton pests as a biocontrol strategy.  Half a century of such strategies has not yielded any lasting solution but even have pointed out to the emergence of new problems. 

Suman Sahai repeats her misinterpretation of the paper from the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur, to harp on the inadequacies of Bt technology to control the bollworm, even after the principal author of the publication has roundly rejected her misuse of their paper. 
A polyphagous pest like the bollworm will never disappear from the crop fields.  We should learn to prevent our losses by controlling it using a multipronged approach.  Management, not technology per se is the problem, magnified by prejudice.