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Bt Cotton in Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh, India: 1. The NGO Charge Sheet
Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

Lately, the Warangal District, in the semi-arid Telengana region of the State of Andhra Pradesh (AP), India, has become the epicenter of everything going bad in the cultivation of Bt cotton.  Reports of phenomenal failure of Bt cotton, farmer distress, death of sheep, death of cattle and alleged farmer suicides have show cased  the Warangal District as an example of all that could go wrong with modern agriculture.  Anti-tech activism has extrapolated all this to the other parts, in and out of AP, such as Vidharbha region of Maharashtra.  A rational and scientific assessment does not support such an intensely negative outcome from Bt cotton cultivation.  To assess the ground realities first hand, Professor Ronald Herring, Cornell University, Ithaca, Dr S Shantharam, Biologistics International, of USA, and I, have visited the Warangal District for about a week in the middle of December 2006.  

Before going to Warangal, we visited the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Hyderabad/ Secunderabad and the Andhra Pradesh State Seed Certification Agency, Hyderabad, for a first hand assessment of opinions and reports. 
Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA)

The CSA are the main anti-Bt cotton activists in AP.  The two functionaries of CSA we met raised the following issues against Bt cotton:

a) Economical and technical features not up to the mark:  What is the mark and whose mark?  There is certainly no serious deficiency in basic technical features and performance of Bt cotton.  Achieving maximum economic benefits from a crop’s potential depends upon several local factors, such as the soil type, irrigation facility, weather conditions in a particular season that influence pest pressure, and the awareness of the farmer in adopting appropriate cultivation practices.  There has been a phenomenal increase in the acreage under Bt cotton, year after year, even in Warangal District.  The Bt cotton acreage increased from 2.27 lakh in 2005 to 8.30 lakh in 2006 in the AP, from 6.23 to 18.40 in Maharashtra, and from 1.27 million to 3.8 million in the country, during the same period.  The horror stories of failure of Bt cotton in AP and Maharashtra do not reconcile with statistics from diverse sources. 

b) Promises on reduction of pesticide use, yield increase and higher profit not realized:  No evidence was offered other than perceptions and opinions.  This is contrary to all reports, and feed back from the farmers, which indicate that Bt cotton, did substantially reduce pesticide use, increased yield by preventing loss due to bollworm, which enhanced profits, all reflected in the increase of acreage. 

c) There was no environmental and socio-economic impact assessment:  Studies prior to commercialization in India and elsewhere for over a decade, have not indicated any adverse environmental impact. The socio-economic impact is rooted in a tension free cultivation and higher financial returns, which were realized by the farmers to a great extent, when the cultivation conditions and practices were right and the expectations were not unrealistic.  If the farmers from any part of the country suffer losses, they would immediately dump any technology and this has not happened. 

d) Spurious seed in authentic packaging:  This is a serious problem of marketing throughout the country.  Some greedy farmers and unscrupulous dealers have sustained a vast market for illegal and/or spurious Bt cotton seeds, which has affected all others.    Scientists of the Agricultural Research Station (ARS), of the Acharya NG. Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU, Hyderabad), at Warangal, also expressed concern over this issue.  The Governments in different States have taken remedial measures, but there was some laxity on account of political compulsions.  

e) No authentic information on cultivation practices: This is partly true, as the seed dealers did not always provide adequate and appropriate post-sale monitoring and guidance in most places.  There were mistakes in choosing the Bt varieties suitable for a particular area.  A large proportion of the farmers did not plant refugia, which should have been enforced.  The Officers of the ARS, ANGRAU at Warangal, also feel that the farmers need regular guidance on the choice of seed varieties and on crop cultivation methods.

f) No studies on the efficacy of Bt technology in controlling bollworm:  This is totally baseless.  Bt cotton was mainly developed to control bollworm and its efficacy has been demonstrated all over the world and so in India too. 

g) All India coordinated field trials only on agronomical parameters: Not true again.   The mandatory all India coordinated trials were conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.  Both agronomical parameters and biosafety issues were evaluated during different field trials, which were accepted by the Review Committee for Genetic Modification (RCGM), before recommending to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercialization. 

h) Andhra Pradesh has neither State nor the District Committees mandatory under the regulatory regime of GE crops: This is an administrative lapse, though AP is not alone in this.  Cultivating any genetically engineered crop without these committees to oversee and monitor is highly irregular.  Nevertheless, it is hard to form scientifically competent committees at the State and District levels.   It seems necessary to review the purpose, need and practicability of such committees.   

i) Death of sheep:  At the time of our discussion, death of sheep was the major issue and the number of dead sheep mentioned was 120, but not in thousands.  The death of goats and cattle on account of consuming Bt cotton leaves, and farmer suicides on account of cultivating Bt cotton, was not yet made an issue.  The death of cattle in the Warangal District was discussed on this blog earlier (March 14, 2007).  However, like Professor Herring, one would be amazed to note that the number of both dead cows and dead sheep became 1600, which also seems to be the number of dead cows mentioned on a poster in Delhi, in a different context.

j) The undercurrent: The strongest undercurrent behind the tirade against Bt cotton is the anti-Monsanto campaign.  The NGOs have a tongue-in-cheek admiration for the performance of Navabharath’s illegal Bt cotton, which contained the stolen Monsanto’s Cry 1Ac gene.  Almost every other Bt cotton variety contains the same sublicensed gene.  If Monsanto’s Cry 1Ac dominates the Indian Bt cotton scene, the fault lies more with the public sector which has not yet released any of the promised Bt cotton varieties. 

There is a certain element of truth and genuineness of concern in what the NGOs say, but distortion of facts, exaggeration of problems and scaremongering ruin their case.  The anti-tech activists are stretching them too far from science to pursue their political agenda of ‘GM-Free India’, and in the process are throwing the baby out with the bath water.    

May 21, 2007