To Bt or not to Bt – we think not

To Bt or not to Bt – we think not

India is now the top exporter of cotton and the second largest producer of cotton in the world. The agriculture ministry estimates that in 2010-11, there were 111.42 lakh hectares under cotton cultivation, and of those, nearly 90% were growing Bt cotton. Bt cotton is a genetically modified (GM) variety of cotton sold by seed companies that buy this “Bt gene” from Monsanto and was introduced in 2002 to India.

India is an ancient centre of cotton cultivation dating back to 5000 BC. Cotton cultivation was well developed during the Indus valley civilization. In just over a decade Bt cotton has grown exponentially and has wiped out roughly 90% of all land under desi varieties of cotton, disturbing an ecosystem that has thrived since ancient times.

Was it worth it for India and her cotton farmers to embrace Bt cotton in such staggering numbers? Consider this, the growth of Bt cotton in India also coincides with a period of mass farmer suicides by the cotton farmers. Since 2005, over 2.5 lakh Indian farmers have committed suicide; most of them were cotton farmers.

Apart from our farmers, we have also lost biodiversity in this mad rush for Bt. we have lost much of our cotton biodiversity. Before Bt cotton, farmers used to use about 40% hybrid seeds and 60% native cotton seeds. After the introduction of Bt Cotton, farmers began to use mostly hybrid seeds (over 90%) abandoning the indigenous cotton seeds.

India’s cotton crisis is a matter of grave and immediate concern to all of us.

If you thought that Bt cotton was an isolated crisis, remember that there are dark forces that are trying to inject the “Bt gene” into other crops, starting with Bt Brinjal. To paraphrase Martin Luther King,” To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it”.

What exactly is Genetically Modified (GM) cotton?

The chief engineer behind Bt cotton is Monsanto. It “creates” the Bt Cotton seed by inserting the gene coding for the Bt toxin of the Bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the cotton seed. This is a family of over 200 different types of proteins that produce chemicals that are harmful to certain insects, specifically the larvae of moths, butterflies, cotton bollworms, and flies.  When this gene sequence is inserted into a cotton seed the cotton crop produces this Bt toxin in its tissue. When the insect larvae that are affected by this Bt toxin eat this “infected” cotton, they are killed.

The evolution of Monsanto:

Monsanto was founded in 1902 and by the 1940s was a major plastics company creating synthetic fibres and plastic derivatives like polystyrene which is used in take away coffee cups which remain cool despite the hot liquid in them. Monsanto is infamous for the development and production of Agent Orange for the U.S Army’s operations in Vietnam in 1970. Agent orange was a chemical herbicide that was sprayed by air US Helicopters over large tracts of agricultural land in Vietnam. It killed the trees and forests, depriving the locals of food and cover.

Agent-Orange-dioxin-skin-damage-Vietnam

Major Tu Duc Phang holding his pre-Agent Orange photograph

In effect it is estimated that 3 million Vietnamese citizens were severely harmed by Agent Orange

In 1983, the direction that Monsanto worked in began to change. The scientists at Monsanto were among the first to genetically modify a plant cell. As of 2012, Monsanto has 2 lines of businesses: herbicides and a line of seed “products”. Many of Monsanto’s seeds are genetically modified to work only with their herbicide range. So they force a package deal on the farmer who has to buy a system of seeds plus the herbicides to keep pest away.

In this article we will examine the dark agricultural crisis engineered by Monsanto, starting with Bt cotton.

Bt Cotton is not the “Final Solution” against pests

“Die Endlösung der Judenfrage” or the Final Solution to the Jewish question was the euphemistic and innocent sounding term given by the Nazis to the Holocaust, that massacred 6 million Jewish people.

Heydrich-Endlosung

A letter from Reinhard Heydrich (a high ranking Nazi official and one of the main architects of the Holocaust) to diplomat Martin Luther in Feb , 1942 asking for administrative assistance in the implementation of the “Final Solution”.

 

India’s cotton farmer crisis, that has intensified since the 2002 introduction of Bt cotton , is another  Holocaust. Bt cotton was sold as the “final solution” against cotton pests and promised a glorious economic future with bountiful cotton harvests.

On the contrary, In 2010, Monsanto reported to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) that the pink bollworm (a cotton pest) had developed resistance to its genetically modified cotton variety Bollgard1 in Amreli, Bhavnagar, Rajkot & Junagarh districts in Gujarat.

Besides Bt Cotton being ineffective against its main pest, the cotton bollworm, its introduction has led to the growth of hitherto weaker pests like sucking pests leading to significant economic losses. Cotton productivity has continued to fall in Bt cotton cultivation areas and pesticide expenditure has shot up despite the promised reduction as pesticides need to be employed both against new pests and against resistant pests like the resistant bollworm.

GV Ramajaneyulu of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture states that data related to consumption of pesticides and micro studies indicates that there is initially a reduction in the use of pesticides especially those against boll worms when switching over to Bt Cotton. This reduction in bollworm is countered by a corresponding increase in aphids and sucking pests which means that a cocktail of pesticides are used to combat the new threat. Also, official data on pesticide consumption in India reflects no major change in use of pesticides after having adopted Bt cotton.

Seeds are no longer free, they are a product.

One of the biggest changes to the farming system with the introduction of genetically engineered seeds is the new system of economics that has come to plague agriculture, which depended only on nature and soil. For generations, farmers have saved native seeds and carefully bred select strains to produce indigenous varieties with regional variations. These seeds would be saved from the previous crop and would be swapped with another variety that would perhaps grow on a neighbouring farm.

Hybrid and genetically modified seeds on the other hand are expensive and take a lot of research to create.  Hybrid and GM seeds cannot be reused as they are sterile. This means a farmer has to buy seeds every time he plants the crop, making the very act of farming (which used to be living off the land) an expensive commercial production. Bt Cotton seeds are between 4 – 10 times more expensive than hybrid seeds.

The protests against GM crop also points to a more fundamental question: should seeds and therefore food production be corporatized? Because when seeds, which are the fundamental unit of food is declared as a private product and needs to be purchased, food, and the lives of the farmers who produce this food is controlled.

By patenting their GM seeds, Monsanto is able to charge money from farmers every time they produce food for us. Seeds which used to be freely shared by farmers and selectively bred have now become the intellectual property of companies like Monsanto. Every seed packet that is sold by Monsanto also charges a percentage of the fee as royalty from the farmer. After locking in the farmers to this system, Monsanto is free to increase their prices at will. At point when the price of a 450 pack of Bt cotton seeds went up Rs 1950/- , the Andhra Pradesh State government had to step in and limit the price to a ceiling of Rs 750/- and also enact the Andhra Pradesh Cotton Seeds Act 2007 to regulate prices. A farmer is forced to purchase 5 packets of Bt seed per acre of cultivation and the related pesticide. This cash outflow season after season is a huge financial blow to the small holding farmers.

When food is corporatized, then farmers who buy the seeds are treated much like consumers buying the latest electronic gadget are. When pink bollworms developed resistance to Bollgard 1 seeds, Monsanto urged farmers to “upgrade” to Bollgard 2, which it claimed offers better resistance to Bollworms!

Bt Cotton is not a law abiding citizen

In 1998, Monsanto started field trials of Bt cotton without approval from the GEAC. By the time the Indian government gave permission to plant Bt cotton in 2002, use of Bt cotton seeds had spread illegally in the major producer states. Again in 2013 , the next generation of Bt seeds were found to be sold illegally by the Maharashtra government well before the GEAC approval.

Bt Cotton is like an infestation: it spreads

In early 2010, the German edition of the Financial Times published a report stating that global brands like H&M were selling clothes made of Bt contaminated organic cotton. And this organic cotton was being sourced from India. Nearly 30% of the organic cotton sourced from India was contaminated with traces of Bt cotton.

A report released by the centre for Sustainable Agriculture studied the cotton seed production in India along the complete supply chain and found that were no standards to protect the indigenous cotton varieties from contamination by Bt cotton. The biologically and physical contamination possibility of cotton seeds range from 5 – 30%. The standard regulations ask farmers to maintain a 30 – 50 metre distance from nearest Bt farms. In practice given India’s landholding pattern and the presence of many many small farmers, this isolation is difficult to implement – this makes the infestation faster and easier to spread.

GM cotton is less profitable to a farmer compared to a non GM variety

A Feb. 2008 study published in the Agronomy journal had researchers from the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environment Science analyse and compare the produce of GM and non GM plants.

The general belief driven by marketing around GM crops is that GM crops help plants fight pests better saving farmers’ management time and money. Because the plants are supposed to be pest resistant, a farmer can farm the land more intensively without hiring more people as the plant is supposed to be able to take care of itself.

The Georgia University study actually showed that Bt cotton is less profitable than a non Bt variety in any location or any year.

Bt cotton in India performs only in well irrigated fields. For example in Vidharba, which is a cotton belt in India, the climate is dry and almost drought like. Here adoption of Bt cotton has seen reducing yields from the crop which has been linked to the huge number of farmer suicides in the region.

Here the State Government alarmed at the huge human losses has stepped in to find more sustainable ways of making cotton cultivation feasible. This initiative has been aided by the Central Institute for Cotton research which has put together a package helping farmers with desi cotton varieties of cotton seeds which required less water and was traditionally suited to that arid region.Documentary_Cotton_for_my_Shroud' depicts_ the livesofcottonfarmersof_Vidarbha

Vidharba Cotton farmer – Image courtesy ‘The Hindu’

Apart from switching from Bt cotton to desi indigenous cotton, this project also aims to decrease cotton cultivation cost. And promoting desi seeds means less labour as there is a lower amount of weeding required, hardier crop that requires less input and also seeds which can flower twice and produce crop twice a year unlike Bt cotton which gives only one harvest per year.

There are 3 kinds of lies

There are 3 kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies & statistics.

There are many government reports, newspaper op-ed pieces, Monsanto case studies that conclude that yields of cotton ( & therefore the lives of farmers) have improved since the launch of Bt cotton.

We would like to ask some questions to those reports

1)      Can these so called success stores guarantee that yields of Bt cotton will continue to grow in the future? What if the yield collapses in the next 10 years?

2)      The cotton yields may have improved temporarily, but the farmer also had to spend Lakhs of rupees on seeds and herbicides (& loan interests). So after the Bt harvest , does have less money in the bank than before ?

3)      Have the yields improved in every single farm in every state of India ? For those families who lost their bread-winners in Vidharba, this national yield statistic will not bring any comfort.

 

What next ?

Our aim when we wrote this article was to write an informative and educative piece which simply presented rational facts. However when focussing on the rational, it is difficult to ignore the human life consequences of having switched to Bt Cotton.

We lose a farmer every 30 minutes in India as he proceeds to drink the insecticide or pesticide he has been forced to buy to protect his weak, Bt cotton crop. From 1995, there have been more than 2.5 lakh farmer suicides in India. And this suicide rate has peaked within 3 – 4 years of the introduction of Bt cotton as farmers find themselves chained to the higher costs of seeds, and inputs that are increasingly required when they allow the Bt crop to infect their soil.

Cotton cultivation has already been termed dirty. According to the Organic Trade Association:

Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidophos, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production. All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are classified as moderately to highly hazardous.

Aldicarb, cotton’s second best selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater 

When you add Bt cotton to this already dirty cocktail, you get a crop that is not just dirty but is also toxic.

 At the end of this article, the answer to the question posed by our title should be obvious: Unlike Hamlet, there are no grey areas to consider when asking yourself whether or not to Bt. But if you would like to know what your non Bt options please come back and read us over the next few days.

We hope that our series on sustainable fabric is inspiring you to take a closer look at your wardrobe. Our series on sustainable fabric has the following posts: 

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
  3. On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
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