Monday, November 16, 2015

Sowing Poverty

Suman Sahai

The whitefly attack that has devastated the cotton crop in parts of Punjab and Haryana and caused heavy losses to farmers was a disaster that was waiting to happen. Estimates say that some 8 lakh hectare of standing cotton has been destroyed causing damage worth crores of rupees, which has hit farmers hard.

This disaster was waiting to happen because Bt cotton, touted by its developers as a solution sent directly from heaven and lapped up by policy makers who should have known better, and probably did, is not a panacea for controlling pests and disease. It is a technology with a limited approach: to kill a pest called the bollworm for a restricted period of time. After the restricted period, the bollworm will become resistant to the Bt toxin and not be affected by it. When this happens, the Bt technology will fail to control the bollworm and the Bt cotton crop will become vulnerable.

This breakdown of Bt technology had already begun to happen some years ago. Monsanto brought in its Bt cotton called Bollgard I to India and all the seed companies rushed to fatten Monsanto’s bank account by queuing up to license the Bollgard I to incorporate into Indian cotton hybrids. The first phase of the Bt cotton, Bollgard I, began to fray at the edges when the bollworm began to develop resistance to it. After this Monsanto has introduced Bollgard II which has two Bt genes, to make up for the loss of efficacy of the one gene Bollgard I, to control the pest.

But apart from the limited effectiveness of Bt toxin to control bollworm for any sustained length of time, there is the fact that Bt toxin fails to attack several other pests of cotton. And these are many, like the whitefly and other sucking pests like aphids, jassids, mirids etc. Then there are fungal  wilts and bugs like mealy bugs which had destroyed the cotton crop in Punjab some years ago.

The reality is that the incidence of pests and disease in warm tropical countries like India is often more intense than in the cold temperate countries. Tropical countries are rich in biodiversity, including the biodiversity of insects and fungi that are plant pests. Not only is the range of pests large, their density is greater too. Per unit area, one is likely to find a larger number of pests in the warm, humid conditions of the tropics than in the colder temperate zones. A single point pest control intervention as in the case of Bt technology which is designed to target a single pest, is not likely to effectively protect crops in India, which is home to a wide range of agricultural pests and diseases.

The inefficiency of Bt technology as a pest control strategy shows up not only in bollworm becoming resistant but more critically, in the emergence of secondary pests which attack cotton and are not affected by Bt toxin. In China Bt cotton began to become economically unviable a few years after its introduction. At first farmers were able to cut costs by reducing pesticide use but after a few years, the density of mirids, another pest of cotton and one unaffected by Bt toxin, had become so high that farmers were spraying over 20 times in a cropping season. This not only negated any environmental benefits from lower pesticide use but raised the input costs so much that Bt cotton farmers were losing money and suffering serious losses.

So, Bt cotton which was presented as a crop that would make huge profits for farmers because it would reduce their input costs  by slashing their pesticide use,  and be a boon for the environment , is now a pesticide guzzling crop. Farmers are incurring heavy costs for pesticides after paying over four times the price of normal seed for the Bt cotton seed .

As it turns out, the cultivation of Bt cotton which is genetically engineered to poison its main pest the bollworm, has led to the phenomenon of secondary pests like white fly and mirid bugs becoming major cotton pests. A 10-year study in the cotton belt of China found that mirid bugs have proliferated and filled the space created by removing the major pest of cotton by the Bt technology.

Mirid bug infestation in Bt cotton fields is also found in India especially in the southern states since at least 2006. It has assumed epidemic proportions in the region around Coimbatore and is rampant throughout Karnataka.

Mirid bugs  are spreading in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Instead of controlling the spread of Bt cotton and urgently introducing well known IPM strategies to control white fly and mirids, the government looks on and allows Monsanto to keep raking in money at the cost of farmers.

The rate of proliferation of secondary pests like mirids is directly correlated to the increase in cotton acreage. The larger the exposure of bollworm to Bt toxin in Bt cotton and the faster they die in the initial phases, the more rapidly secondary pests proliferate. After a while the bollworm become resistant and do not die and the secondary pests have already become active.
The farmer loses on both fronts. Secondary pests like mirids, aphids etc can be as damaging as bollworm. Sometimes they can be even more damaging and can reduce cotton yields by up to 50% if not controlled by intensive spraying. What is worse, the sucking pests are not as specific to cotton as bollworm and can move to other hosts. When they flourish, they move to other crops like vegetables, fruits and cereals and cause damage there.

It is clear that both the technology providers and the government have failed the farmers. Scientists know the dynamic relationship of pests and disease and should have cautioned the government against an expensive, single point approach like Bt technology. So it is difficult to understand why the government went into overdrive to promote a technology that has such obvious drawbacks.  Not only have government agencies pushed aggressively for Monsanto’s Bt crops (one only has to look at the deliberations of the GM regulatory bodies like the GEAC), they have also failed to enforce appropriate safeguards and safety regimes  to protect the farmers and potential consumers from the negative impacts of GM crops.

Monsanto, the owner of the Bt gene, and the cotton seed companies that have been dishing out Bt cotton indiscriminately must be made to pay compensation to the farmers who have lost their crops and their incomes. Indian laws provide for such compensation to farmers when the seed fails. The government must come out on the side of farmers and bring the seed companies to book by enforcing the payment of compensation.

The author is a scientist who heads Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation

DNA, Thursday, 12 November 2015




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