BT Cotton and Suicides


Recent analysis of data on farmers' suicides has revealed that the maximum number of suicides are associated with cotton growing areas. It is also in the case of cotton that GM technology got its first clearance and spread very rapidly with the enthusiastic support of major seed companies as well as government's agricultural infrastructure. Very high claims were made for the success of GM cotton varieties like Bt cotton. But how can these claims be reconciled with the reality of most farmers' suicides in cotton cultivation during precisely this phase?

In this context it is important to look carefully at what several experts and studies have to say about the actual experience of genetically modified cotton in India and abroad.

A 'Friends of the Earth' report (year 2008) titled 'Who Benefits From GM (Genetically Modified) Crops?' concludes on the basis of studying the yield figures of crops like cotton, soy and corn in the US starting from the 1980s, that genetic engineering has been at best neutral with respect to yield. At the macro level, the report says, average cotton yields have stagnated since the adoption of Bt cotton in the US, as in other countries like Argentina, Australia and Colombia.

In India the data for Gujarat revealed high yields of Bt cotton for some time as weather had been ideal during this phase and state support in the form of irrigation and other inputs was very heavy for Bt cotton. However in a later phase of less favourable weather many Bt cotton farmers were ruined as expenses kept soaring while yield collapsed, or remained sluggish. Farmers here also realised the longer-term adverse impacts of Bt cotton on land and soil.

The question of yield cannot be isolated from the issue of safety, as even higher production is of no use if the crop is not safe.

The GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee), cited reports from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) and the Andhra Animal Husbandry Department which showed "conclusive proof of safety" to animals from Bt cotton feed. But when Anthra, a veterinary research organisation, filed an RTI with the IVRI asking for a copy of the report, the institute responded saying "no studies had been done by them and that the IVRI had not submitted any reports to the GEAC."

Dr Sagari R Ramdas, co-director of Anthra writes, "Since 2005, shepherds and farmers from different parts of India, particularly the states of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka and Maharashtra, have reported their cattle falling sick after it has grazed on genetically modified cotton or have been fed Bt cotton seeds and in some instances have died. Despite several reports and representations to concerned regulatory and research institutions both at national and state levels, alerting them to the seriousness of the issue, there has been a persistent reluctance amongst the scientific establishment to respond, investigate and research the core issue. On the contrary the reaction of the establishment has been bureaucratic and dismissive of the observations.

"Between 2005 and 2009 Anthra, an organisation led by women veterinary scientists researching the impact of Bt cotton on animals in different parts of India, has been closely investigating the reported morbidity and mortality observed in sheep and goat flocks, which have been grazed on harvested Bt cotton crop in Andhra Pradesh. Shepherds unambiguously declared that their animals, which had never died or fallen sick while being grazed on regular cotton fields since the past 10 years, began to exhibit morbid changes when grazed on the GM crop.

"In Haryana, there was a strong correlation between feeding Bt cotton seeds and cotton seed cake to milch animals, and drop in milk yield and several reproductive disorders such as prolapse of uterus, premature birth of calves, increase in the incidence of abortions and decrease in conception rate."

This experience of Bt cotton must be seen in the context of the overall performance of GM crops.

According to a report by eminent scientists comprising the Independent Science Panel, "The consistent finding from independent research and on-farm surveys since 1999 is that genetically modified (GM) crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits of significantly increasing yields or reducing herbicide and pesticide use."

Further this panel stated, "By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics."

Several scientists involved in studying the implications and impacts of genetic engineering got together at the International Conference on 'Redefining of Life Sciences' organised at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. They issued a statement which questioned the scientific basis of genetic engineering.

"The new biotechnology based upon genetic engineering makes the assumption that each specific feature of an organism is encoded in one or a few specific, stable genes, so that the transfer of these genes results in the transfer of a discrete feature. This extreme form of genetic reductionism has already been rejected by the majority of biologists and many other members of the intellectual community because it fails to take into account the complex interactions between genes and their cellular, extracellular and external environments that are involved in the development of all traits."

A recent cover-story in a Hindi farm journal Bhoo-meet on cotton expressed serious concern about the near wiping out of indigenous cotton varieties over large parts of North India. This is confirmed by P V Satheesh, Convener of South Against Genetic Engineering, "The final nail in the coffin of non-Bt cotton cultivation (in India) was hammered in 2006 when the industry—by forming a corporate seed cartel -successfully threw out all non-Bt cotton seeds from the market firmly shutting out all options for farmers except the cultivation of Bt cotton."

The decline of indigenous seeds has very adversely affected the livelihood of cottage-scale hand-spinning (Gandhiji's charkha), hand-weaving (handlooms), making quilt-covers and surgical cotton.

It is extremely important to make available the option of organically grown indegenous varieties to farmers.

Due to the high uncertainty and unpredictability of GM crops, farmers who had very high initial expectation from Bt cotton and so had invested highly in these seeds and the accompanying expensive technology, after some time (and perhaps some initial benefits) suffered heavy losses and their expectations were dashed. Moreover, alternative seeds were not available as monopoly companies had manipulated the market to deny other seeds. This is probably the reason why more suicides were reported in cotton belts.

Vol. 46, No. 32, Feb 16 - 22, 2014