Meeting of Scientific Advisory Council of PM on Biotechnology and Agriculture

 With the growing amount of evidences on the problems of GM crops and the CBD  talking about liability and redress in case of damage….the meetinicg of scientific committee supports GM crops
Press Information Bureau
Government of India
Ministry of Science & Technology
09-October-2012 17:52 IST
Meeting of Scientific Advisory Council of PM on Biotechnology and Agriculture

Scientific and technological breakthroughs of a transformational nature relevant to economic and social development happen only once in a while. The emergence of such technologies evokes responses according to a pattern: initial excitement, followed by strong expression of concern and then emergence of a balanced perspective. Transformational technologies in the past, such as steam engine, electricity and other sources of energy, vaccines & immunization and internet have all followed this trend. Molecular biology and biotechnologies developed through major investments in science and technology globally have a transformational potential for benefitting agriculture and health and it is time now to evolve a balanced perspective.

The members of the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) to the Prime Minister deliberated on the important issue of application of biotechnology for social and economic advancement of the country particularly in the area of agriculture. There are uncertainties in some segments of society that need to be objectively and fairly addressed. The members of the SAC are concerned that a science informed, evidence based approach is lacking in the current debate on biotechnologies for agriculture. There are some key aspects that merit consideration.

Do we need new technologies for agriculture? Indian agriculture productivity is seen by the less discerning to be adequate for today’s needs but what is ignored is that vast numbers of our countrymen are unable to consume the required food and nutrients because of difficult access. As our current efforts to address the issue of access bear fruit, the need for food and quality nutrients’ will grow rapidly. Land availability and quality, water, low productivity, drought and salinity, biotic stresses, post harvest losses are all serious concerns that will endanger our food and nutrition security with potentially serious additional affects as a result of climate change. Accordingly, strategies for agriculture in future must be based on higher yields, concomitant with reduction in resource inputs. This will require a judicious blend of traditional breeding and new technologies, non-transgenic & transgenic. This situation in developed countries such as in Europe; quite in contrast, as there is no dearth of food and a small proportion of people engage in agriculture.

The assessment of safety and efficacy of biotechnology products has to be evaluated through an appropriate regulatory system on a case by case basis, as for drugs and vaccines. In general, endorsement or opposition to a generic technology is scientifically not rational and safety and efficacy must be judged on product basis. The need for an appropriate regulatory mechanism in the country has been rightly emphasized in the Swaminathan Committee Report. The existing system based on RCGM and GEAC have given us large experience and its operational guidelines are generally sound and as per the best international norms such as guidelines by OECD. The effort now should be on effective implementation. Regulatory systems evolve with experience and review based redesign. Little is served by focusing on the flaws only.

The proposed Bill for establishment of a national Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), 2012 is with the Parliament, it deserves to be examined on a priority basis. The key characteristics of effective regulatory system hardly need reiteration; sound scientific expertise within the organization and through independent panels, access to scientific tools for assessment of safety and efficacy and processes that ensure transparency, freedom from conflict and competence. This can only be delivered by a robust and independent system. The focus of the regulatory authority has to be on assessment of safety and efficacy. Commercialization and deployment of agriculture biotechnology products requires expertise in social and economic evaluation and post-deployment surveillance. This requires effective inputs of central and state agriculture ministries.

The experience with the deployment of Genetically Modified (GM) crops worldwide is growing at a steady pace and should be taken into consideration. GM crops of maize, soya, potato, sugar beet, canola, cotton and alfalfa and grown across the globe covering 160 million hectares by 2011. While each concern must be addressed through scientific approach, we believe the performance of GM crops released through oversight by regulators has been very positive. This view has been endorsed by major scientific bodies of the world. This is clearly true of our own experience with introduction of Bt Cotton in India wherein the benefits have been major. It is our view that biotechnology research and development should target important national needs, products should be developed under careful regulatory oversight and deployed in a way that access and affordability to entire farming community, particularly small and marginal farmers, is ensured.

There are other relevant issues that merit attention. Some of the opposition to GM crops in the country results from fear of domination by multinational companies. One way to address this concern is to invigorate and further strengthen the relevant scientific capacities of our institutions in public sector, universities and Indian companies. The current debate, unfortunately, is demoralizing and isolating our Scientists in the sector whose skills have been built with painstaking effort and large investment. The policy confusion will also keep the brightest away from this field of research. Our Scientists are fully aware of the social realities in this country and have widely endorsed the judicious adoption of traditional breeding with biotechnologies, non-transgenic and transgenic, as appropriate. There is concern about the costs at which seed is available to our farmers, particularly the poor farmers. This requires an appropriate public policy and action. The industry must shoulder responsibility by ensuring this through constructive dialogue with the government. Market mechanisms alone will not be sufficient.

The precautionary approach is inherently sound but it must be applied through a science based safety assessment and social and economic analysis for deployment. We make the following recommendation for kind consideration:-

1) The current regulatory system for recombinant products administered under Rules (1989) of EPA Act, 1986 should be reformed till BRAI is in place.

(i) RCGM and GEAC should be the sole authority for biosafety and bio-efficacy assessment of all recombinant products. Decision on commercial use of biotechnology produced crops should be taken by the Agriculture Ministries/Department of Central and State Governments as per existing policies and regulations on crops. For medical products Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India would approve commercialization as of now.

(ii) High Level dialogue with State governments to streamline clearances for conduct of multi-location “Confined field trials” – a scientific pre-requite in all countries for meaningful decision making on approvals or otherwise.

(iii) A Biotechnology Regulatory Secretariat with high level of scientific and technical trained manpower should be established to support RCGM and GEAC.

(iv) GEAC and RCGM should have full time Chairpersons. The Chairman of GEAC, may be of Special Secretary Status for 3 year period and RCGM one level lower. Chairman of RCGM be the Co-Chair in GEAC and not the expert nominee of Department of Biotechnology. For greater synergy at least three members should be common between RCGM and GEAC.

(v) The public needs to be informed of every decision.

2) The Bill pending with Parliament, i.e. BRAI 2012, should be debated with open mind. It would be appropriate if administrative organization could be Cabinet Secretariat because of the involvement of multiple ministries. The Bill when examined by appropriate parliament committee would be opened up for wider debate and discussions for shaping the draft legislation into a model regulatory framework.

3) The capacity for regulatory testing of new technologies in agriculture in public sector laboratories should be strengthened, supplemented with a system of notification and accreditation. This can be initiated even while the BRAI becomes a reality.

4) Research and infrastructure of state agriculture universities and colleges be strengthened for addressing the locations- specific needs of the states and regions and generate expertise.

5) Priority should be given to strengthen State Government departments and laboratories dealing with agriculture inputs, including GM or non GM seeds, extension and education of farmers through major programmes and investments for capacity building tailor made to the needs of the region.


Cotton crisis goes much beyond Bt and those two villages

 Jaideep Hardikar

This one’s not to argue, but debate (which is significantly different a notion than argument) Mr Milind Murugkar’s observations in his piecepublished in the Economic Times of September 27, 2012.

First, the two villages Mr Murugkar quotes in his piece – Bhambraja and Antargaon (in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha) – are torn between the Bt cotton-seed producing companies and a section of Bt-cotton critics; more due to the former lobby’s insistence that GM cotton has helped farmers reap a harvest of gold!

They have been the showcase villages for Monsanto in a sense that some journalists and writers have been taken by the company in the past to visit them as a successful project. For local journalists (including me) covering Vidarbha for over a decade, it’s a matter of great astonishment of how these companies successfully manage to co-opt a section of influential writers. The two villages are used as models to make out a more generalized case in favour of Bt, or genetically modified, cotton, never mind though that the facts fly in the face of those claims.

Mr Murugkar is the latest to join the party! He argues that the “critics’ concern about monopolies is understandable, but this should not prevent recognition of the popularity of Bt cotton varieties.” But much through his piece he doesn’t furnish any data to push his claims, barring quoting a few recent studies that have not been peer-reviewed. The piece seems like one to defend those PR stories in the newspaper than even defending Bt-cotton.

That he travels to the same two villages that have been at the epicenter of a paid-news controversy is intriguing. Economic Times in which the piece appears is a paper from the same stable that found itself embroiled in the controversy. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture has earlier this year mentioned how it found in the very two villages a different story, contrary to what the ToI full-page Monsanto-sponsored feature on the success of Bt stated. Mr Murugkar’s piece now contrasts Standing Committee’s findings in the two villages (I had attended meetings in both the villages). The debate therefore is again wide open.

Nevertheless, as a reporter who’s covered Vidarbha for a decade, I offer a few points, which to me are crucial to the debate. I shall come to the technology later; the central point is that the rain-fed marginal ‘cotton’ farmer of Vidarbha (perhaps that of the entire country) is in crisis, an acknowledgement to which lies in a 2003-04 door-to-door study of the state government. That study pointed out that over 13 lakh of the 18 lakh cotton farming households in this western Vidarbha region are in crisis, nearly a third in acute crisis. It identified a multiple reasons for the crisis: declining farm incomes, growing indebtedness (70 per cent of Vidarbha farmers are out of formal credit network, according to the Planning Commission’s Adarsh Mishra-fact finding committee report), and increasing living expenditure in a highly inflationary economy in which the government takes out money from rural India but subsidizes the urban living. Successive studies vindicated that study more or less. The crisis goes beyond suicides and Bt cotton.

Mr Srijit Misra of the IGIDR led one such study commissioned by the then Vilasrao Deshmukh-government in Maharashtra. His findings have underlined the faultlines and were in line with that of many other studies, including that of TISS.

Suicides to me are but one symptom; migration and shift away from agriculture (not as an option or choice but desperation) are far more serious problems than farm suicides per se.

Antargaon and Bhambraja – quoted by Mr Murugkar to clinch his point – have both, suicides and migrations. Last year, vast stretches of land in the two villages were kept fallow. So much for the success of Bt. It meant less losses.

Where had the farmers gone? To work in sugar mills in Satara! They still do. Why? Working there is financially more rewarding than growing cotton (Bt or otherwise) in a volatile economy even if it meant keeping the land fallow. In both villages, farmers don’t cultivate cotton alone. Nearly half of them sow soybeans, despite an overwhelming presence of Bt cotton.

Vidarbha farmers depend solely on one crop (as in one crop season, no winter crop), with no allied agriculture income to add to the family finances. It was against the backdrop of a raging crisis, drop in incomes, increase in the production costs and generally a bad agriculture scenario that the government allowed introduction of the Bt cotton technology. That was in 2002. What were the other coinciding policy steps taken? The following season, 2003 that is, Maharashtra suspended its monopoly cotton procurement scheme (and with the advance bonus system) and allowed private buyers to buy cotton.

Those were the NDA years in the Centre. Between 1998 and 2004 we imported around 8 million bales of cheap and subsidized cotton from global markets flooding Indian cotton markets resulting in a glut and subsequent crash in prices. Check for data, those were the best years for Indian textile mills: cheap and subsidized cotton at their command, they made a killing.

The NDA also, in order to keep inflation in tact, devalued the rupee, handed over liquidity to government employees through fifth pay scale and opened up IT revolution.

From then until 2004, the NDA successively withdrew money from rural economy (several economists have pointed that out) and put that into the urban and service sectors.

In 2001, Indian cotton acreage stood around 8.5 million hectares (nearly 70 per cent of it was hybrid cotton). Bt cotton was introduced the following year. That year the Vidarbha acreage was close to 1.8 million hectares. The following two years: 2003 and 2004, the acreage of cotton countrywide actually dropped below the long term average of 8 million hectares; in Vidarbha soybean came in. This, when the much-hyped pest-resistant Bt cotton that promises high productivity and income, entered the fray. Farm suicides picked up in the region after 2003. Not just because of Bt, fair enough. There were larger policies at play. But the Bt gets introduced as a soothing panacea. I have witnessed their campaign every single year with astonishment. Some years the Bt cotton propaganda has even dwarfed poll campaigns.

What was the promise? In one advertisement in which Nana Patekar arguably posed as a model (only to withdraw a year later when he realized “his mistake” of “misleading the farmers”): Sow this and you get double your yields and incomes. The state government pushed Bt through its own systems too. Between 2002 and 2008, Bt cotton hybrids had well-ensconced itself in Vidarbha, nay across the country, from some 7 per cent first year to over 85 % of the total seeds. In those very years, India lost its straight line varieties and companies stopped producing non-Bt Hybrids. Shops did not display those even if farmers went begging for non-Bt hybrids. In any case, since companies did not insist on keeping buffer, who will sow non-Bt if your neighbourers are all Bt? It’s a technical issue, but experts have explained to us over the years, that neither the state agriculture department nor companies ever educated farmers to keep a buffer between Bt cotton crops. That was not ignorance. That was deliberate. Now for a farmer to make a fair choice, he needs Bt, non-Bt hybrids, and straight line varieties. And cotton varieties of all staple lengths. Where was the choice? And who decides what farmers will grow: short staple or long ones?

Anyway, the first three years, yields shot up, and then, as a region-wide data (available with three agencies, agriculture department, Maharashtra state cooperative cotton growers’ marketing federation, and the seed producing companies) show, declined steeply. Not only that, the BG-I hybrids became pest tolerant. That’s when the companies prepared for the introduction of BG-II.

Between 2006 and 09, they sell both I and II, and now it’s predominantly II; we understand BG-III is on the anvil and round-up ready weedicide is already in the market.

Between 2001 and 2010, how much has been the increase in cotton acreage and coinciding yield?

If one is to believe Murugkar’s ‘poor’ farmer (Pankaj Shinde), his yields doubled. He’s indeed a rare exception. Because Vidarbha-wide data shows that it hovers between 250 and 300 kg of lint per hectare – that’s about 5-7 quintals per hectare or 2-3 quintals per acre, on the higher side. In 2001, it was between 140 and 200 kg/ha (depending upon soil and water conditions; Vidarbha has mostly shallow medium soils). What’s the country-wide data (available on Cotton Corporation of India website and collated from various papers of the CICR scientists)?

In 2001, from 80.95 lakh hectares, India produced 152 lakh bales (309 Kg lint/ha); In 2007, it peaked with 567 kg lint/ha (introduction of Bg-II which consumes 56 per cent of the Bt acreage) and produced 315 lakh bales from 95 lakh acres.

In Vidarbha, cotton acreage stood around 12-13 lakh hectares, much below the long –term average. 2011, the national cotton productivity stood at 496 kg/ha while the cotton acreage hit an all-time high of 120 lakh hectares and India produced 356 lakh bales.

This was when Bt cotton consumed 92 per cent of total cotton acreage. It could not get any better from here. In Vidarbha the current productivity, according to Mr Sharad Pawar’s reply to a parliamentary question last year, stands around 300 What was the productivity in 2004? It stood 463 kg/ha, and Bt cotton acreage then was roughly six per cent. In Haryana, Punjab, and large swathes of Gujarat’s newly watered areas, Bt was yet to reign.

So, from 2004 the country’s cotton productivity went up and down sharply – as if it were a green revolution squeezed in five-year-period – and the companies begin to switch to BG-II.

Productivity has meanwhile plateaued causing enough worries for the establishment, a reason why even agriculture minister Mr Sharad Pawar agreed for a three-member committee to travel to Brazil earlier this year to find out what they had done to take their productivity ahead of China and all other countries.

India, with all its BT success stories, stands abysmally low in productivity than 15 other countries that don’t plant Bt hybrids, including Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso. Mind you, Brazil did not allow Bt cotton, or for that matter any other GM crop. It has cautiously looked at field trials to see the results before saying that their systems were probably better than the GM crop technology. Brazil grows cotton in high density planting system (HDPS). Agreed, it has different agro-climatic features than that of India, but still…

If researchers were to spend little more time in Vidarbha and interact with old farmers, they will know that they grew cotton in high density planting system till mid-70s. Vidarbha farmers grew cotton plants that had less leaves, less bolls. (What prompted for cropping pattern changes is a matter of another article). Brazil’s HDPS is better and so the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) has insisted upon Pawar (and to its surprise has even got a favorable response) that it’s time to look for alternatives beyond Bt cotton.

If we have to move forward and bail farmers out of this crisis, HDPS might be a better option, the CICR has said. Field trials have begun across the country. Scientists are eagerly awaiting the results.

For a fair choice, farmers don’t just need a variety of good quality seeds – hybrids, straight-line, Bt or even non-Bt hybrids – but they need a choice for technology as well: a range from organic to natural to chemical. Give him a fair choice, a farmer will take a call on what suits best to him. Policies and markets have ensured you get the same burger in different brand-stores.

Murugkar says, and I quote: “The recent issue of Nature, a prestigious international weekly journal on science, has reported significant benefits of Bt cotton to Indian farmers. Citing a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it says that data collected from 533 farm households during 2002-08 shows that Bt cotton raised the yield by 24 per cent. This translated to a 50 per cent increase in profits, and during 2006-08, families that adopted Bt cotton spent 18 per cent more money than conventional farming households, suggesting an increase in living standards.”

Indeed preceding June, there was a flush of new reports arguing that the Bt yields have resulted in big income gains for farmers. That an important bill was before the Parliament – one that would open GM trials in other crops without much regulation – was just a coincidence!

Let’s take the time span though: 2002-2008, the first two-three years were not entirely Bt cotton years. Yet if one believes that yields were up by 24% cumulatively it’s not entirely due to the magic of Bt. See a comprehensive study done by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US corn. It’s on their website. The notion that Bt cotton has led to huge rises in productivity doesn’t not match up. Indeed, while there is a significant increase in productivity in the pre-Bt hybrid era, there is actually a decline in the latter half of the Bt period, a decline which continues. Let us not take a one-off single year for the data. Let us take two equivalent five-year-periods: i.e. 2001-2005 and 2006 to 2010 (the whole of the last decade) for which final official figures are available.

It is only from 2006 that Bt cotton begins to account for significant acreage of cotton under cultivation. Even as late as 2005, it accounts for less than 12 per cent. For the five year-period from 2001-2005, it accounts on average for 3.73 per cent of cotton acreage under cultivation. Or, at best 4.67 per cent if we exclude 2001 when Bt did not exist at all.

Yet, in this period cotton productivity rose from 309 kg per hectare in 2001 to 467 kg/hectare in 2005. That is an increase of 51.13 per cent.

In the period 2006-2010, when Bt accounts for over 72 per cent of cotton acreage, the per hectare yield drops from 519 kg to 495 kg, That is a decline of 4.62 per cent. Also note that the yield in 2006 (519 kg) and in 2007 (567 kg / Ha) – when Bt still accounts for just 42 % and 67 per cent of acreage, is much higher than that of 2009 (486 Kg/Ha) and 2010 (495 kg/Ha) when Bt accounts for 82% and 91 % of cotton acreage respectively! As Bt acreage goes, up, productivity in fact slides. The trend is also one of decline: there is an initial burst which sees yields of 519 and 567 kg and then it is a decline.

Indeed, the 2010 and 2011 (provisional figures) bring it back to pre-Bt hybrid yield figures – and the decline has only begun. Secondly, to bring us to the same level or range of yield after five years, input costs have doubled and trebled. Third, the 2001-05 figure is a steady climb. The 2006-2010 are a volatile roller coaster that now seems unable to hit a high again. Fourth: there are reasons beyond seed that also affect productivity in any period. Including monsoons, irrigation, pest etc., Note that in Vidarbha, for instance, irrigation from 2006 went up to around 8-10 per cent from the earlier 3 %. The Agriculture Commissioner of the period clearly stated that 97 per cent of Vidarbha’s cotton cultivation is rain-fed. Which means the benefit of expanded irrigation came in the Bt-dominance period and some of the initial productivity would have to be credited to that plus two or three good monsoons.

The data are damning. The pre-Bt hybrids were raising productivity at a fraction of the cost. Bt’s five year period has seen no comparable increase. A pre-Bt hybrid packet of seed (450gms) cost Rs. 350 to 425, as against Bt’s cost of Rs. 925 for a packet of the same size, a price abut to be raised again.

The point is, if there were gains, how come some of the major relief packages and loan waivers to farmers had to be given during this very period. It was also a period when farm suicide rate went up steeply in cotton producing regions where Bt cotton had been introduced as a panacea to crisis.

Farmers are spending more money, some studies point out, but on what? And what is the source of income? These two questions need a deeper inquiry. The NSSO data shows the money is being spent more on health now than even on food. And indebtedness is limping back on farmers since the 2008-9 waiver; as the public sector banks said earlier this year.

In Wardha, where a comprehensive study by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation is available, over 17 per cent land is now kept fallow by the farmers; indeed fallowisation process is deepening and it needs an immediate attention of the public-policy makers.

Ultimately, who are we growing cotton for? Where’s the end-user? Over the past thirty years, Vidarbha has lost its textile mills to other regions. So what farmers grow here is of little use. They lose the money to be made in its high-end value-chain.

Another moot question is: Does Bt improve yields? It doesn’t. The technology is geared to take care of boll-worm, not productivity. Two, it doesn’t take care of sucking pests, which is now a bigger pest-management problem in the region.

Lastly, the more significant issue is the question of price. Cotton prices, both the market price and the minimum support price, went up in 2008, just before the 2009 Parliamentary elections. That’s when you see a shift of farmers even in non-cotton areas (ex: northern Maharashtra) towards cotton. That the steep rise in production could be offset with that rise in prices is well-established. If you note the rise and fall in the prices, you see the rise and fall in the cotton acreage. This year cotton acreage has stayed stagnant. That was because prices held on to their levels toward the end of the last season after declining sharply in the first half.

If the prices remain robust this year, as the indications and predictions are they will, expect the acreage to go up next year.

If the choice is soybean or cotton, what will a farmer grow? Even in Antargaon or Bhambraja, it depends on relative prices of the two crops and a farmer’s judgment about them in the context of resources, money and labourers, available to him, Bt or non-Bt. Since non-Bt is not to be seen anywhere on the shelves, the obvious choice is for a Bt-hybrid: We have over 3000 hybrids of them now: from Bt-Mallika to Bt-Bipasha!

Reducing the issue of a skewed choice to the issue of popularity presents a wrong picture of a more complex market dynamic. If it were indeed a paying option, Vidarbha farmers would be enjoying cotton yields, not killing themselves on its hay or giving up farming, as they do, at an alarming rate.

Traveling beyond Antargaon and Bhambraja tells us that.

(Correction: I stand corrected on Brazil. That country has about a million hectare land under GM crops, but it has adopted a cautious approach since and has restricted the spread of GM crops following its experiences so far. Meanwhile, Russia has banned use and import of Monsanto GM corn following a recent French study.)

As cotton fields thrive, so do concerns

A decade after Bt cotton was approved, it remains mired in controversy

Pramit Bhattacharya Mail Me

First Published: Tue, Oct 02 2012. 10 06 PM IST

Changed preferences: Farmers in Khamba used to cultivate groundnuts, but switched to cotton in mid-1990s. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Changed preferences: Farmers in Khamba used to cultivate groundnuts, but switched to cotton in mid-1990s. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Updated: Wed, Oct 03 2012. 01 03 AM IST
Khambha (Gujarat): The farmer in Nanudi village in south Gujarat, roughly 350km from Ahmedabad, is among the overwhelming majority of Indian cotton growers who have sown Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton this year.
Unlike most farmers though, he’s using bina bill wala beej (seeds sold without the bill), or illegal Bt seeds, available on credit at roughly three-fifths of the price of officially certified seeds in Gujarat.
Bt cotton is a genetically modified (GM) crop, named after a soil bacterium, the gene of which has been inserted into the cotton plant to produce a toxin that works as an in-built insecticide to control bollworm, a major cotton pest.
“I have sown only the uncertified seeds this year,” said the farmer. More than 60 years old, he owns two hectares or roughly five acres of land in Nanudi, located in the Khambha block of Amreli district, and grows cotton and castor.
He tried the costlier certified seeds last year, but did not find any difference in yield, and has switched back to the illegal brands that he has been sowing for roughly a decade. “I paid only Rs.600 for one packet (450gm) of Bt seed, and I have the flexibility to pay the seed dealer after the harvest,” said the farmer, explaining his preference for the uncertified seeds. Certified Bt cotton seeds are sold at a state-mandated price of Rs.930.
Illegal Bt seeds have a history in Gujarat, preceding the official approval given to Bt cotton in the spring of 2002. It was the success of an uncertified Bt cotton seed, Navbharat-151, in controlling bollworms amid a heavy pest attack on other cultivars in 2001 which paved the way for official approval of Bt cotton in the country despite a raging controversy over its safety and utility at that time.
Since then, Gujarat’s cotton yields have raced ahead than the national average. The state accounts for roughly one-fourth of the area under cotton in the country, but produces one-third of the cotton output. The state’s farmers have played a leading role in raising the country’s cotton productivity to historic highs and in making India a net exporter of cotton.
The farmer, whose farm is irrigated by an open well, said average cotton yield more than doubled to 30 quintals after he switched from a public-sector-bred hybrid, Shankar-IV, to Bt cotton. Profit more than doubled in the initial years because of the increase in yields and savings in pesticide costs, but have dropped over the past few years owing to the increased cost of inputs such as fertilizers.
Scholars attribute Gujarat’s success story in agriculture partly to Bt cotton, and in particular to the availability of cheap illegal Bt seeds well-suited to local conditions. Despite a ban on Navbharat-151, the market for illegal seeds has continued to thrive, providing small farmers low-cost access to superior technology.
Growers elsewhere in the country haven’t fared as well and this has sparked controversy on the impact of Bt cotton on yields and incomes, even as roughly nine of 10 farmers adopt the Bt seeds.
Ten years after India’s first and only GM crop was approved, both Bt cotton and GM crops seem to be facing trouble. A parliamentary standing committee on agriculture report last month slammed the regulatory regime on GM crops as inadequate and linked the introduction of Bt cotton to agrarian distress, although it acknowledged that Gujarat’s farmers might have benefited from the technology. In Maharashtra, the second-largest cotton-growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether technologies such as Bt cotton are suitable in rain-fed and suicide-prone regions such as Vidarbha.
At first glance, the contrast between Gujarat and Maharashtra seems to present a paradox: GM cotton has brought prosperity in one state and distress in another. The difference between the cotton productivity of Gujarat and Maharashtra has more than doubled in the past 10 years.
The answer to the paradox lies in some key factors: differing initial conditions in the two states, the contrasting performance of the respective state governments in areas such as management of water and power, wider seed choice in Gujarat, and to some extent, plain luck.
Historically, Gujarat’s cotton yields have been higher than those of Maharashtra. Gujarat has greater soil depth and farmers there have better access to formal sources of credit, partly owing to the cotton cooperative movement’s legacy.
In the 1990s, Gujarat’s yield averaged 353.8kg of cotton lint per hectare compared with Maharashtra’s 136kg. According to provisional data from the Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research, cotton yields in Gujarat doubled over the past decade to 659kg in 2011-12, while that of Maharashtra rose 59% to 310kg over the same period. Irrigation accounts for a large part of the difference. Gujarat’s cotton area under irrigation was 40% in 2000 and 49% in 2007. The comparative figures for Maharashtra were 4.3% and 2.7%, respectively.
In the past decade though, the rapid expansion of micro-irrigation projects in the rain-fed areas of Gujarat, led by both governmental and community efforts, fuelled the rise in cotton yields.
In Khambha, the expansion in check-dams and rain-water harvesting started in the late 1990s, led by a local non-governmental organization, Shikshan Ane Samaj Kalyan Kendra (SASKK). Khambha lies in the rain-fed region of Saurashtra, where a history of droughts since the mid-1980s led NGOs and later the state government to devise extensive water conservation and micro-irrigation schemes.
Khambha has historically been a groundnut-growing belt and it was only in the mid-1990s that farmers started raising cotton. Since the advent of Bt cotton, it has eclipsed the traditional crop. Groundnuts are nitrogen-fixing crops and help raise soil fertility, adding to cotton yield.
Yields in Gujarat and most other cotton-growing regions have declined in the past couple of years and costs of cultivation have increased, but the impact on Khambha’s farmers has been muted owing to relatively better links with the formal economy. In most families, someone has a job in industries located in nearby towns and cities. For instance, the son of the farmer cited at the start of this story polishes diamonds in Surat. Also, almost everyone has access to cheap farm loans unlike Vidarbha, where money lenders enjoy a roaring business. Such factors aside, technological change has driven the cotton revolution in the state, said Yoginder Alagh, former Union minister for science and technology and chairman of the Institute of Rural Management in Anand. But Alagh also said that illegal seeds have played a major role in Gujarat’s cotton boom and such underground markets pose bio-safety risks.
Between 2000 and 2007-08, the period when cotton yields rose fastest, illegal Bt seeds accounted for most of the cotton grown in the state, according to surveys by N. Lalitha and P.K. Viswanathan, professors at the Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Institute of Development Research.
Since then, the use of illegal seeds has dropped, partly because of a higher proportion of fakes and partly due to price controls that have lowered the premium on certified Bt seeds. Large farmers mostly use certified seeds now. Illegal seeds now account for only 25-30% of Gujarat’s Bt seed market, a senior seed industry executive said on condition of anonymity.
In Amreli, a little less than half of the Bt cotton seeds sold are illegal, estimated Vipul Sheladiya, a large land owner who also works for SASKK. SASKK has formed a producer company to supply low-cost inputs to farmers and its outlet is among a handful in the district that doesn’t stock uncertified seeds.
Monsanto India Ltd spokesperson said “rumours” of seeds with unapproved technologies had been heard but their use seems to have declined.
Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Seeds Pvt. Ltd stopped producing the Navbharat-151 variety in 2001 after a ban by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) following a complaint by Mahyco–Monsanto Biotech Ltd (MMB), which found its proprietary Bt protein in Navbharat-151. GEAC also asked for the illegal plantations to be burnt.
Farmers rallied against the order and the Gujarat government took their side. The ban stayed, but local seed companies started selling clones, often using the Navbharat brand name. Several studies, including one by Lalitha, showed that the illegal Bt initially performed better than the approved ones.
Navbharat chairman D.B. Desai said the 151 variety (and its clones) succeeded as it was better suited to local conditions.
Small firms such as Navbharat should have been integrated with bigger ones so they remained under regulatory watch, said Alagh. “We could have adopted a strategy similar to what we have for generics in the pharmaceuticals industry.”
The number of official Bt hybrids rose over the years and so did the number of illegal brands. Given that hybrids must be cross-pollinated manually, most seed production takes place in north Gujarat, where labour is cheap and often underage. Seed companies outsource production to local organizers or smaller companies, which tend to produce more seeds than required. The excess is sold illegally, without royalty being paid to MMB.
A part of the trade is just farmer-to-farmer transfer and hence is legal, said Lalitha. But a large fraction is sold through seed dealers. To avoid a direct confrontation with the law, the illegal packets are sold without bills and carry a message that says that they are being used only for farmer-to-farmer transfers.
In the latest twist to the illegal Bt story, an upgraded version of Bt cotton, the round-up ready flex (RRFlex) GM cotton developed by Monsanto— which enables use of the herbicide glyphosate to kill weeds without any impact on the RRflex Bt crop—has made an entry into the country illegally, even before its official approval. The RRFlex cotton seeds are being used mostly in the Kutch region where there is an acute shortage of labour, said the seed industry executive cited above. A seed dealer in Amreli confirmed that RRFlex seeds are available in the market.
Gujarat seems to be repeating its history with Bt.

Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years

Charles M Benbrook

Author affiliations


Environmental Sciences Europe 2012, 24:24 doi:10.1186/2190-4715-24-24

Published: 28 September 2012

Abstract (provisional)


Genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant and insect-resistant crops have been remarkable commercial successes in the United States. Few independent studies have calculated their impacts on pesticide use per hectare or overall pesticide use, or taken into account the impact of rapidly spreading glyphosate-resistant weeds. A model was developed to quantify by crop and year the impacts of six major transgenic pest-management traits on pesticide use in the U.S. over the 16-year period, 1996–2011: herbicide-resistant corn, soybeans, and cotton; Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn targeting the European corn borer; Bt corn for corn rootworms; and Bt cotton for Lepidopteron insects.


Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011, while Bt crops have reduced insecticide applications by 56 million kilograms (123 million pounds). Overall, pesticide use increased by an estimated 183 million kgs (404 million pounds), or about 7%.


Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied. If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%. The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The complete article is available as a provisional PDF. The fully formatted PDF and HTML versions are in production.

Vidarbha’s tryst with Bt Cotton

While yields, profits increased initially, rise in input costs, non-remunerative prices have reduced earnings

Pramit Bhattacharya Mail Me

First Published: Tue, Oct 02 2012. 10 09 PM IST
In Maharashtra, the second largest cotton growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether agricultural technologies such as Bt are suitable in rain-fed or non-irrigated regions such as Vidarbha. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
In Maharashtra, the second largest cotton growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether agricultural technologies such as Bt are suitable in rain-fed or non-irrigated regions such as Vidarbha. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Wardha (Maharashtra): In the winter of 2005, a sleepy village in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra served a wake-up call to the nation when its villagers said they were putting the entire village, roughly 600 acres, up for sale.
The act of desperation by 40 debt-laden families of Dorli village, barely 20km away from Wardha, became one of the most poignant symbols of Vidarbha’s agrarian crisis. Vidarbha, the eastern part of Maharashtra, poses a stark contrast to the prosperous cotton-growing region of south Gujarat and also to the sugarcane belt of western Maharashtra. Dominated by resource-poor cotton farmers, the region has been notorious for farmer suicides since the nineties.
“Our lands are worth far more than what we owed in farm loans, and it seemed reasonable to sell off that land and move to the cities instead of committing suicide,” said Chandrashekhar Dorlikar, a 45-year-old member of Dorli’s panchayat (village council). “Increasing costs and low returns were making farming unsustainable.”
There were no takers for Dorli though. No one even bothered to ask the price, said Dorlikar, an agriculture graduate whose family owns 35 acres.
Since then, one major change in the village and across the region has been the advent of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton varieties, which most farmers started cultivating in 2006. Yields and farm profits have increased since then, although increased costs of inputs such as fertilizers, labour and pesticides along with non-remunerative cotton prices have reduced profits in the past couple of years, villagers said.
“After Bt cotton’s success, almost everyone has stopped cultivating traditional varieties,” said 41-year-oldRashtrapal Zarunde, who owns 12 acres of land in Dorli.
A decade after India’s first and only genetically modified (GM) crop was approved, the technology remains mired in controversy. In Maharashtra, the second largest cotton growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether agricultural technologies such as Bt are suitable in rain-fed or non-irrigated regions such as Vidarbha.
By protecting against bollworm attacks, Bt saves yields and reduces the use of pesticides, raising profitability. But anti-Bt activists question its safety and economic feasibility, arguing that the variety is costlier and more input-intensive, and therefore an undesirable burden on resource-poor farmers.
Scientists say much of the criticism is misdirected. The Bt technology only inserts one trait, of bollworm resistance, in cultivars and several alleged failures of the technology actually arise from improper choice of cultivars. A cultivar refers to a particular plant or plant variety, selected for cultivation for certain desirable characteristics.
“Bt technology has done its job,” said K.R. Kranthi, one of India’s leading cotton scientists and director, Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). “But the problem with Bt in India is that it is available only as Bt hybrids and not as straight varieties.”
Two different cultivars are crossed to develop a hybrid, often to boost yields. Cotton hybrids are late-maturing, requiring water for a longer stretch and are more responsive to fertilizers. The proliferation of approved Bt hybrids has led to the introduction of inappropriate hybrids, many of which are susceptible to sucking pests and other insects, said Kranthi.
Companies such as Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), which own the licence for the Bt trait, and seed companies find it profitable to sell hybrids because farmers have to purchase seeds every year, Kranthi pointed out.
The right inputs as well as knowledge and education about farming practices to manage unpredictability caused by a varying environment provides optimal yield and income, a Monsanto spokesperson said. While farmers have received better seeds, much needs to be done in the area of soil fertility through testing and education, so they know what to use when by way of right nutrient applications, water use, and during pest attacks, he added.
Hybrids accounted for around half the cotton acreage 10 years back but with the advent of Bt, nearly all cotton grown in the country is using hybrids. In states such as Gujarat, where the soil is deep and water is assured, the spread of hybrids and technologies such as Bt have played a key role in driving up yields (see the first part of the series). But the results have not been as favourable in rain-fed regions.
Maharashtra, where most of the area under cotton is in Vidarbha, saw a 59% jump in cotton yields over the past decade while yields doubled in Gujarat over the same period. As in Gujarat, farming here has become more input-intensive over the past decade, but the lack of a commensurate increase in availability of water, worse soil, high credit costs and the absence of effective state interventions have made cotton farming less remunerative.
Still, as Dorli’s tryst with Bt indicates, Bt cotton has brought some benefits even in suicide-prone Vidarbha.
Profits increased after Bt’s introduction as yields nearly doubled compared with earlier varieties in the initial years, said Dorlikar, who also works as the field coordinator for a Secunderabad-based non-governmental organization, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) that promotes alternative farming practices and is opposed to GM crops such as Bt cotton.
The biggest change in the past decade has been the reduced use of bollworm pesticides, which farmers were spraying indiscriminately earlier, said Atul Sharma, entomologist and dean of extension, Shiksha Mandal, Wardha. Bollworm attack has fallen partly because of Bt and partly because of more innovative pesticides.
“Bt is an effective tool to control pesticide use but activists are unwilling to acknowledge that,” said Sharma.
The battle against Bt cotton in India is a part of a larger battle between the biotech lobby and an international alliance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some of which have an interest in promoting organic non-GM alternatives, according to Cornell University political scientist Ronald Herring, who has extensively researched the politics related to GM crops.
Despite lacking evidence for systematic conclusions, a small number of anti-GM activists have succeeded in shaping policy debates across the world although a large number of cotton farmers are against their agenda and numerous scientific studies attest to Bt’s performance, said Herring, over email. He added that the standing committee report is not unique in bypassing scientific evidence; politicians in other countries have done likewise.
Claims that Bt cotton is causing farmers to commit suicide or cattle are dying after ingesting Bt cotton plant parts serve to raise attention and mobilize opinion against GM crops, Herring has argued in his writings.
The spurt in farmer suicides in Vidarbha occurred in the late nineties, preceding Bt, but haven’t stopped since then. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows average suicides per year in Maharashtra between 2006 and 2010, when the Bt adoption rate in the state rose from 22% to 96%, was 3,701. The average was marginally higher at 3,828 in the preceding five years when Bt cotton was either absent or accounted for a small fraction of the crop.
Vidarbha suffers from two key natural disadvantages: Soils are shallow and rains are erratic, making farming a risky business. Cotton, considered a hardy crop, is among the few that can survive these conditions.
The lack of state support, either through investments in micro-irrigation projects or in effective extension support to farmers, has compounded Vidarbha’s woes. Bank credit continues to be scarce, forcing farmers to take loans at exorbitant rates from moneylenders, exacerbating the risks.
Indebtedness to moneylenders seems to be a common thread in the suicides of Donoda village, in Yavatmal district. Around 60km from Dorli, the village is infamous for farmer suicides, with 12 between 1998 and 2008.
The impact of Bt has been more mixed in Donoda, compared to Dorli.
“We gave up cultivating cotton for soyabean four years back as it was no longer remunerative,” saidRambhau Shamraoji Patil, a 70-year-old farmer whose son committed suicide in 2005. Daughter-in-law Bharti, in her mid-thirties, manages the seven-acre farm and also works as a farm labourer.
Patil said his decision has little to do with Bt cotton seeds, and the family is unlikely to grow cotton even with non-Bt varieties.
Another widow from the same village, 42-year-old Godavari Bhoyr, who has been managing the family land since her husband committed suicide in 2001, seems to have had a brighter experience with Bt. Bhoyr said yields and profits have improved since the mid-2000s, after she started growing Bt cotton and used more fertilizer.
Still, Bhoyr continues to depend on relatives and moneylenders for most of her loans. So does Bharti, at rates of interest that vary 20-30% per year.
“The banks neither give us adequate loans, nor do they give loans on time,” said Deepak Kadam, Donada’s sarpanch (village headman).
Kadam said profits have declined over the past couple of years as costs of key inputs such as labour and fertilizers have shot up while the procurement price has not kept pace.
“The government has failed to support us either with adequate prices or by ensuring credit,” said Kadam.
It is wrong to blame just seed companies or Bt, said Dorlikar. “The real problem is the lack of guidance for farmers, who tend to over-spend on inputs, and end up in debt.”
Extension workers who are supposed to fill that role are often poorly trained, and their numbers are often inadequate to cover a majority of farmers.
Most farmers instead depend on input dealers for advice. They tend to mis-sell products such as insecticides and herbicides, said Sharma.
The distress in Vidarbha is also due to the withdrawal of the state from its role supporting agriculture, said Vijay Jawandhia, Wardha-based farmer leader and a founding member of Shetkari Sanghathana, one of Maharashtra’s most prominent farmer groups.
“Even in the so-called developed economies, farmers survive because of huge state support,” said Jawandhia. “How do you expect farmers to survive with declining state support in these rain-fed regions then?” The state has never bothered to formulate special policies for rain-fed regions or invest in research to develop technologies appropriate for these regions, although more than half of the country’s agricultural lands are rain-fed, said Jawandhia.
Rain-fed regions such as Vidarbha need innovative strategies to use straight varieties, which are more appropriate, said Kranthi. CICR is currently testing a model of high-density farming of straight varieties, the so-called Brazilian model, which aims to compensate their lower yield by planting more of them on a plot. Kranthi promises a “revolution” in rain-fed cotton farms if the experiment succeeds. The excessive focus on Bt has detracted attention from other issues in cotton farming so far, said Bhausaheb Barate, head of Wardha’s agricultural department, who is helping Kranthi test the high-density model.

Constructing Facts: Bt Cotton Narratives in India

A group of researchers and industry writers have constructed a narrative of technological triumph for Bt  cotton in India, based on an empirical record of superior performance compared to conventional seed. Counterclaims of Bt cotton failure are attributed to mutually reinforcing interactions among non-governmental organisations which avoid rigorous comparisons. However, researchers and the biotechnology industry are also engaged in a similar authentication loop for generating, validating, and
publicising such facts. With Bt cotton, the convention of routinely ignoring the effects of selection bias and cultivation bias benefits researchers, journals and the industry, but keeps us from drawing meaningful conclusions about the relative performance of the
technology. But as poor as the case for isolating the technology impact of Bt cotton in India has been, it is useful in helping us understand the social conventions for creating one’s “own facts”.

MPs’ report refutes TOI’s BT Cotton stories

Buried in a parliamentary committee report is a refutation by villagers of TOI’s controversial stories on BT cotton’s virtues, published in 2008 and reprinted in the paper as paid news in 2011.


PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA revisits the saga

Saturday, Sep 01–report-refutes-TOI-s-BT-Cotton-stories/6226-1-1-1-true.html

Allegations leveled by Palagummi Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu newspaper that its competing daily, theTimes of India, published an article at the behest of Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech without disclosing this fact to its readers and subsequently gained financially from its publication, have been endorsed by a committee of Parliamentarians in a recently-published report. Whereas the report, prepared by a panel of MPs belonging to different political parties, does not mention the ToI by name but merely describes it as a “national daily”, the inferences are all too apparent.


The 37th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture tabled in both houses of Parliament on 9 August 2012 runs into 506 pages, including scientific and technical studies, and international conventions and protocols that have been annexed. Among the 50 individuals and representatives of various organizations and government ministries who deposed before the committee, the last-named is P. Sainath.


In his introduction to the report, Committee Chairman Basudeb Acharia says the panel of MPs sought to take into account the “serious differences of opinion among various stakeholders and controversies surrounding the cultivation of transgenic crops”.


Here is a verbatim account of what the report stated on pages 346, 347 and 348:


“While interacting with the villagers, the committee got first hand information about the plight of the farmers of Maregaon. The farmers very candidly blamed the policies of the government which they felt was responsible for their plight. In particular, their ire was targeted towards Bt cotton. The committee (members) were informed that with the inception of Bt cotton, input costs had gone high resulting in farmers falling into the debt trap. Further, the falling price of cotton in the international market resulted in farmers not getting remunerative price for their produce. They also stated that in the absence of a buffer zone, those wanting to cultivate non-Bt cotton were not able to do so. Bt cotton was pushing the farmers into the vicious cycle of debt and being unable to repay the debt due to decreasing earning farmers were under severe stress and developing a feeling of loss of their self-respect which was ultimately pushing them to commit suicide. ..


“The committee (members) also interacted with a couple of widows who in the aftermath of their husband’s suicide were hard pressed to make both … ends meet. The villagers implored upon the committee to voice their request to the concerned central authorities to ban farming of Bt cotton in the country. They also voiced their unhappiness with the relief offered to them via the Prime Minister’s Relief Package especially in terms of milch animals. They were given exotic breeds like Jersey and Holstein who were unable to adjust to the local environmental conditions and as a result died. They wanted indigenous breeds instead.


“During the course of their interaction, farmers from the village of Bhambraja requested the committee (members) to visit their village as well. The committee acceded to their request and visited Bhambraja village in Yavatmal district on 2 March 2012. This village has witnessed 14 cases of suicide by farmers post Bt cotton, i.e. from 2002. They also rubbished the claims of their village being a model village for Bt cotton as reported on 28 August, 2011 in the edition of a national daily under the caption ‘Reaping Gold through BT Cotton’ and other articles.”


At a time when the debate on the desirability or otherwise of the use of Bt cotton in India had intensified, on 31 October 2008, the Nagpur edition of theToI published an article that painted a rather glowing picture of Bt cotton growing farmers in two villages in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district in the state’s economically backward Vidharba region. The ToI article had the following to state about the residents of these two villages, Bhambraja and Antargaon: “There are no suicides here and people are prospering on agriculture. The switchover from the conventional cotton to Bollgard or Bt cotton here has led to a social and economic transformation in the villages in the past three-four years.”


Almost three years later, on 28 August 2011, this report was reprinted in various editions of the ToI (not in its Nagpur edition) as part of a full-page paid advertisement. This unusual practice did not go unnoticed. Writing for The Hoot on 6 September 2011, Manu Moudgil looked at what may have motivated MMB to get the story republished as an advertisement almost three years after the initial story was printed. Moudgil’s article entitled ‘Got a plant, will republish for a fee’ argued that in 2008, when the story was first published as a news report, as well as in 2011 when it appeared as a ‘Consumer Connect Initiative’, MMB had been on the receiving end of severe criticism. In 2008, the allegation was that the prices of Bt cotton seeds were too high and that consecutive failure of Bt cotton crops were contributing to farmers committing suicide while in 2011, its was being alleged that the company was involved in “anti farmer” and “monopolistic” practices.


Wrote Moudgil, “Also, the news report says ‘The trip to Yavatmal was arranged by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech’,  the company which has been selling Bt Cotton seeds to farmers since 2002. Around the same time in 2008…similar news reports appeared in the Economic Times and news feeds of UNI and PTI which indicates that the company had arranged the trip for a group of journalists to farms of Yavatmal district. The reason for such a PR (public relations) exercise seemed to be the flak it had been receiving from civil society groups in 2008 which blamed the high price of Bt cotton seeds and consecutive Bt crop failures for farmer suicides.


“So, why did the company get the extolling story republished after three years without any updates? Again, the trigger seems to be the bad press it has got recently.


“The fact that the original story was also fraught with errors is another important issue. The story has a blurb on the top saying: ‘Yavatmal district is known as the suicide capital of the state, but two villages — Bhambraja and Antargaon — are an aberration for the better. Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide’. Yavatmal has 2,117 villages of which 1,845 are habited as per the information available on the website maintained by the district administration.”


Bhambraja now figures, as mentioned at the beginning of this story, in the Standing Committee’s report.


On 10 May 2012, Sainath repeated some of these facts in an Op-Ed article in The Hindu provocatively titled “Reaping gold with cotton, and newsprint”. The article quoted farmers of Bhambraja village telling members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture who visited them: “There have been 14 suicides in our village…Most of them after Bt (cotton) came here.”


Sainath wrote: “The 2008 full-page panegyric in the ToI on Monsanto’s Bt cotton rose from the dead soon after the government failed to introduce the Biotech Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in Parliament in August 2011. The failure to table the Bill — crucial to the future profits of the agri-biotech industry — sparked frenzied lobbying to have it brought in soon. The full-page (advertisement), titled ‘Reaping Gold through Bt Cotton’ on August 28 was followed by a flurry of advertisements from Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd., in the ToI (and some other papers), starting the very next day. These appeared on August 29, 30, 31, September 1 and 3. The Bill finally wasn’t introduced either in the monsoon or winter session — though listed for business in both — with Parliament bogged down in other issues. Somebody did reap gold, though, with newsprint if not with Bt cotton.”


Responding to Sainath’s questions, an editorial spokesman for ToI claimed: “The reports (of 2008) were written very honestly and in good faith…”


He added that the reports were the outcome of “a field visit organised by Monsanto for journalists from Nagpur.” The spokesman held that “as is the practice on such paid trips, the report mentioned” that it was arranged by the concerned company. He said he was “clueless” as to how the same story appeared in the newspaper’s Mumbai edition nearly three years later as part of the “Consumer Connect Initiative” section, a euphemism for a sponsored advertising feature. On the article getting reprinted, the ToI spokesman claimed: “It must have been picked up by Response” — referring to the newspaper’s advertising division. He also stated that he had no idea about the full page advertisement that appeared in August 2011 being “followed by several advertisements”.


The day the PSC report was tabled in Parliament, The Hindu reported that “the Maharashtra government has cancelled the licence of …(Mahyco) to sell 12 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids for allegedly giving false information to agriculture department officials on seed supply for this kharif season.” The company denied receiving “any official communication from the government pertaining to the matter of its licence to sell Bt. cotton seeds in the state”.


When contacted by The Hoot, Sainath stated in an emailed response: “Several members of the Parliament Standing Committee who came to Yavatmal district were people from rural or farming backgrounds —  and not about to be hoodwinked by anybody. They brushed aside attempts by the government of Maharashtra to divert them from visits to the villages that had been set up as models and miracles (for instance, in Times of India story-turned-ad). They spoke directly to the farmers in the two villages (including in the ‘miracle’ village of Bhambraja) and not via the media. They found what we had found when we did the May 10 report in The Hindu that shredded the claims of the story ‘Reaping Gold through Bt cotton’ which had appeared in theTimes. Indeed, the villagers gathered in large numbers to tell them how dishonest the images being peddled of their situation were.”


Relevant links:

Times of India, 28 August 2011:


The Hoot, Manu Moudgil, 6 September 2011:


The Hindu, P. Sainath, 10 May 2012: The Hindu : Opinion / Op-Ed : Reaping gold through cotton, and newsprint


The HinduToI’s reply, 10 May 2012:


The Hoot, Geeta Seshu, 10 May 2012:

Report of Parlimentary Standing Commmittee on Agriculture, 9 August 2012:


Bt cotton had no significant benefits for the farmers: Report

Neha Saigal

A Parliamentary committee report highlights the gaps in the regulatory mechanism for GM crops in India

By Neha Saigal

The voices of opposition to Genetically Modified (GM) crops worldwide reflected in India since the approvals for field trials of Bt cotton were given by the regulatory system in the late 1990s. They only grew louder and more prominent when the regulatory body in India, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) took the unthoughtful decision to commercialise Bt brinjal. These voices were not just of the usual suspects – the civil society – but those of farmers, scientists and politicians. Apart from the democratic decision taken by the then Minister of Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh, to place a moratorium on Bt brinjal, this opposition also caught the attention of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture to take up an in-depth analysis on the controversies surrounding the cultivation of transgenic crops in India.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee and the GM Debate 
It took the Committee two and a half years, and a flawless process of intensive interactions with various stakeholders ranging from representatives of central government departments, state governments, farmer unions and individual farmers, civil society organisations, scientists and seed industry. The result is a comprehensive and exhaustive report titled “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects.”

The report which was produced by the committee headed by Basudev Acharia of CPM, is historic in a way as it was adopted unanimously by all the 31 members, cutting across party lines. This also includes 11 MPs from the ruling party, Indian National Congress. The report has tried to cover almost all aspects of the GM debate happening in the country. It addresses the fundamental questions around GM crops including their impact on human health and environment and whether they play a role in ensuring food security and livelihood security for those involved in farming, especially the small and marginal farmer who form 85% of our farmers. It goes in-depth into the experiences with Bt cotton, the first and only GM crop approved in our country. Given the fact that there have been widespread complaints against the current regulatory system for GM crops, it has also analysed condition of our regulatory system to assess its robustness.

In the light of its widespread deliberations and on ground assessments, the report concludes that there have been no significant socio-economic benefits to the farmers from the introduction of Bt cotton but on the other hand it has extensively benefited the industry. It strongly recommends to re-look at the current regulatory system (GEAC) for GM crops, due to the inefficiency to regulate technology as risky as GMOs and the continued evidence of their nexus with the biotech seed industry. The report also validates many of the cases of field trial violations and contamination that Greenpeace and other civil society members have brought to light over the last 10 years and recommends that open field trials under any garb should not be permitted. It is to be noted that open air field trials of Monsanto’s GM maize are currently underway in Punjab and Haryana.

GM Regulation in India- A story of shame 
While every recommendation by the Committee is ground breaking for the GM debate in India and possibly around the world, the thing that strikes me most and also should be a wakeup call for the government, is the serious gaps in the regulatory mechanism for GM crops in the country. The regulatory process is what will instil confidence in the people about any technology, especially one that is controversial as GM in food and farming. The report has evidently exposed the actions of the GEAC, which has failed in its mandate to ensure the safety of the environment, human health, food and feed of the country. The actions of the GEAC convey its strong inclination to benefit the industry, one of the instances that the committee points out to substantiate it is the inaction to the concerns raised on anti-biotic resistant genes put in GM crops, including Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, even after accepting that there is a risk in using them. This only goes to show that the GEAC behaves like a vendor for the Department of Biotechnology and the Biotechnology Industry and not a regulator who the public can trust.

Since the inadequacies in the GEAC lead current regulatory system were evident during the Bt brinjal debate, one would expect that the new regulatory mechanism that is proposed by the Union Government would take into account these flaws. But the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is much worse. The BRAI Bill that the Ministry of Science and Technology has been pushing since the last two years, among its many flaws, lacks an independent long-term bio safety testing, need assessment of products of modern biotechnology, transparency, public participation in decision making and deterrent liability mechanisms to prevent callous acts of the developers of such risky technologies. It basically acts as a single window clearance system that will lower the bar for GM crop approvals. It also fails to keep up the countries’ commitment to international treaties like the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), Cartagena Protocol on Bio safety and the Nagoya Protocol which we are signatory to. This is also pointed out by the Committee, that while we are signatories to these conventions and treaties dealing with Genetically Modified Organisms, we do not have the necessary expertise, infrastructure to ensure our compliance. The Committee feels very strongly that the current BRAI proposals to regulate biotechnology is too small a focus in the vast canvas of biodiversity, environment, human and livestock health and other such related issues. They have therefore, recommended an all encompassing Bio-Safety Protection Authority instead.

Our GM regulation a cause of Embarrassment at CBD 
The Committee report comes at a time when India will be hosting the Convention on Biological Diversity at Hyderabad in October 2012, this also happens to be the year of the 20th anniversary of Rio Earth Summit. An existing regulatory system which has been found wanting in intention and action and a proposed one which is lousier, puts India in a very unenviable position as a host country for a global convention which calls for utmost precaution while dealing with genetically modified organisms. It’s high time that the Indian Government gets its act together. The first step would be a democratic process consulting various stakeholders to shape up a bio safety protection act which will have the precautionary approach as its guiding principle.

Neha Saigal is a campaigner for sustainable agriculture with Greenpeace India.

Cotton brings doom to tribal farmers

S. Harpal Singh

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A Gond farmer tills a piece of unfit rocky land on Talamadugu hills in Adilabad district. Photo: S. Harpal Singh
The Hindu A Gond farmer tills a piece of unfit rocky land on Talamadugu hills in Adilabad district. Photo: S. Harpal Singh

Desperation seems to have caught up with the normally imperturbable tribal farmers of Adilabad which is evident from the abnormally large number of suicides by them since 2011. As many as 27 of them, all cotton farmers including a woman, from the aboriginal Gond, Naikpod, Mannepu and the Lambada plains tribe, figure in the list of 101 cotton farmers who have committed suicide since January 2011.

Giving up life, for whatever reason, was hitherto an unknown phenomenon in the primitive tribal communities which, paradoxically, have deprivation for a way of life. The gamut of Bt cotton, however, has dislocated their way of dealing with failures and like the trend in other communities, tribals are increasingly preferring the ‘easy way’ out.

In 2010, only one Gond cotton farmer had committed suicide owing to debts. There was a drastic increase in the extent of land under cotton cultivation and the incidence of suicides in the agency in the following year.

Statistics reveal that all the tribal farmers who have committed suicide, actually tilled their own lands. Only Butti Posham, a Mannepu from Nennel, had cultivated cotton in 20 acres of leased land while Pendur Suresh of Neredigonda had tilled five acres of illegally occupied forest land. Though the Gonds and other tribal people have been cultivating forest and hilly land since time immemorial, the change in crop seems to have brought doom to their door step. They cultivate cotton in every available piece of land without bothering about the compatibility of the crop with the soil.

“Not all soils will aid better yields of cotton. Hilly areas are not at all suited to this crop,” opines B. Muralidhar, Assistant Agriculture Officer, Adilabad, as he seeks to explain the cause for lower yields. “Cotton requires enormous investment which is recoverable only if the yield is good. The productivity of the lands in question cannot be increased up to desired level even if maximum quantity of artificial fertilisers are used,” he explains. The scale of bank finance for cotton being on the higher side, many tribal farmers have drawn larger amounts as crop loans. Like their counterparts in other areas, these farmers are also ending up in the debt trap.