Friday, March 19, 2010


Suman Sahai

The March 5, 2010 statement by Monsanto that Bt cotton in Gujarat is now demonstrating resistance to pink bollworm , does not add up. For one, it has been known for quite some time that the Bt cotton in India, was in fact susceptible to the pink bollworm. Gene Campaign had first made this observation in 2003, after documenting the performance of India’s first ever Bt cotton harvest.

The 2003 study found that Bt cotton hybrids had a mixed response to the bollworm ( Helicoverpa armigera) , but they did not offer protection against pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella). Pink bollworm attack was found to be severe after 60 to 70 days and farmers used several sprays to control the pest. There is a genetic basis to the resistance of pink bollworm . Scientists have shown that field populations of pink bollworm harbour three genetic mutations that confer resistance to Bt toxin. Because the Bt.-resistant pink bollworm larvae mature into adults synchronously and later than the susceptible larvae, they are more likely to mate with each other, rather than with susceptible bollworm .In this way, the resistant pink bollworm not only persists but increases in the population. No surprises therefore that Bt toxin is unable to control the pink bollworm.

In fact the question of resistance build up in the ‘worm’ pests of Bt cotton ( there are more pests of other kinds) , the bollworm, tobacco budworm and the pink bollworm, is a given. No pest can be kept down for ever, as our lifelong experience with pest control demonstrates. Sometimes the host plant comes out on top, sometimes the pest does. But almost always, pests ultimately develop resistance to a single agent used to kill them. Pest resistance in Bt cotton is being reported for some time now. The first reports came from Arkansas in the American cotton belt, where Bt cotton was first introduced.

In 2006, scientists from the Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) had noted pest resistance in Bt cotton fields and sounded the warning against growing resistance developing in the cotton pest, specially marking Gujarat as vulnerable. CICR said that incorrect farm practices like not planting insect refuges and the spread of illegal Bt cotton is accelerating the process of resistance development and it would only be a matter of time till the bollworm develops complete resistance to Bt toxin.

A 2007 study in China led by the Cornell University ,found that six to seven years after adopting Bt cotton, secondary pests had become so dominant , that farmers were spraying heavily to control these. Bt toxin is directed only at leaf-eating bollworms, so other pests remain unaffected. In an effort to keep the Bt cotton strategy alive and the pests vulnerable to the Bt toxin, Chinese scientists have begun implementing a more integrated pest control using natural predators to kill the secondary pests and enforcing the planting of refuge areas where broad-spectrum pesticides are used.

With all this evidence already available, Monsanto owning up that the pink bollworm is now resistant to the Bt toxin, is less a mea culpa than setting the stage for something else. This sounds like a prelude to the push for the promotion of Monsanto’s second generation Bt cotton, the Bollgard II. Granted approval for commercial release some years ago, Bollgard II carrying two Bt toxin genes instead of only one, as in the first generation Bollgard I, is already being cultivated in parts of India. So is Monsanto trashing its first Bollgard to promote its second Bollgard? It would seem so.

Given that there are over 300 Bt cotton hybrids approved by the GEAC, and most companies, barring a few like Nath Seeds ( which use a different Bt construct) , have already paid up their license fees to Monsanto for using its Bt gene, the market is getting saturated . Monsanto has already milked the Bollgard I Bt gene construct substantially. In addition to this, is the problem of the spread of illegal / spurious Bt cotton hybrids flowing out of cottage industries in Andhra Pradesh, particularly Kurnool, which are eating into Monsanto’s profits, so its time to switch to something else.

Introducing Bollgard II ( the 2 gene Bt cotton) will bring in a new period of fresh license fees as companies are forced to license the stacked gene construct with two Bt genes from Monsanto. With stagnating profits from Bollgard I ( the one gene Bt cotton), the next boom in earnings from license fees will happen for Monsanto if Bollgard II is promoted as extensively as Bollgard I was. Monsanto’s statement about resistance is calculated to achieve this goal by persuading GEAC and other policy bodies that the Bollgard I has outlived its utility and it is time to shift to Bollgard II. Monsanto has already been boasting that Bollgard II is ‘ten times better’ than Bollgardd I.

There is however a real problem associated with introducing the Bollgard II cotton in situations like India. Scientific publications point out that the one gene Bt cotton and the two gene Bt cotton cannot be cultivated in the same region, that is, they cannot coexist. If they are made to do so, the development of resistance in the bollworm will be very rapid and the technology will fail even faster than has been estimated. Therefore scientists recommend that if Bollgard II is to be introduced, Bollgard I must be withdrawn from cultivation completely.

It would be practically impossible to do this in India. Where we have failed to check the spread of illegal variants, it is not realistic to expect that the existing legal and illegal one gene Bt cottons can be withdrawn from farmers fields. Then there are the companies who have licensed the expensive Bollgard I technology from Monsanto and have only just brought their hybrids to the market. It is unlikely that they would be prepared to abandon their investments and potential profits and have to license the new gene construct if they want to stay in the Bt cotton business.

In countries like the US , technology change is not difficult since the seed is replaced easily. Farmers do not save seed from their farms, they always buy new seed and are used to dealing with ‘packages’ from the company . The seed and the inputs required for cultivation, come together. In the case of GM crops like Bt cotton, they sign legally binding contracts with Monsanto that they cannot save seed for themselves, even when the seeds are true breeding varieties, and not hybrids, as is the case in India. In such situations, farmers simply receive a new package in which Bollgard I would simply be replaced by Bollgrad II. In the case of India, where there are hundreds of approved Bt cotton hybrids and hundreds of others that are spurious and not approved, getting Bollgard I out of the field before introducing Bollgard II will be near impossible.

Rather than get into the trap of replacing Bollgard I with Bollgard II and ending up with a bigger mess than we have today, we should take a step back and review our Bt cotton strategy. Following China’s example and promoting Integrated Pest Management (IPM) would be a good beginning. IPM was in any case the government policy for pest control until Monsanto came along with its Bt cotton.


  1. A very interesting article. I saw this news about Indian organic cotton exports, yet again, being contaminated with GM cotton.

  2. We work in the UK and have a relatively east time getting rid of pests but yuo guys out there really have the problems.

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