GM cotton - exposing the rot in science
June 23, 2001
By Devinder Sharma
It was an unprecedented scientific coup in more than one way. A few civil society groups thwarted the 'unscientific' process of bulldozing the scientific echelons of the country to hastily thrust an untested and unproven technology onto the gullible farmers. For the scientific community, the unsavoury experimentation and cover-up being provided to the private companies calls for an introspection before the nation loses its faith on the veracity of scientific claims.
After three years of 'satisfactory' field trails and experimentation, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) was ready to seek approval for commercialisation of the first genetically modified crop into the country.
The stakes obviously were very high considering that the commercial release was being sought by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco), the Indian outfit of the seed multinational giant, Monsanto. A green signal by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests to the controversial Bt cotton, which has a gene inserted from a bacterium Bacillus thuriengiensis (Bt), would have opened the floodgates to the release of all kinds of genetically manipulated crops.
Intensive cultivation practices and indiscriminate use of conventional as well as fourth generation pesticides like synthetic pyrethroids have created resistance among some of the key pests, including the American bollworm. Dependence on chemicals has, in some cases, been so heavy that farmers often resort to a mix of several pesticides, the so-called pesticides cocktail, and it is not uncommon to spray more than 30 times per season. It is also true that if the crop fails because of weather conditions and/or pest resistance, a rising number of farmers have been known to consume the same chemicals to end their lives and escape the humiliation that comes with mounting debts. More than 2000 cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab have so far committed suicide as a result.
For the scientists, the easy way out is to take another equally harmful route of genetically manipulating the toxin within the plant so that when the American bollworms feed on the crop, they die. It sounds perfectly logical, isn't it? But let us look at what it actually means for the environment and the farmers. About 162 species of insects are known to devour cotton at various stages of growth, of which 15 are considered to be key pests. The most dreaded of course is the American bollworm. Over the past few decades, the pesticides industry, aided and abetted by the agricultural scientific community, has made us believe that spraying of still more potent chemicals was the only answer. The result is that the insect has developed resistance to all kinds of chemicals and pesticides cocktails.
We are now being told that genetically manipulated cotton is the only solution to the growing menace of pesticides resistance. In the bargain, what we are not being told is that the Bt cotton is unsafe for the environment as well as animal and human health. What we are also not being told is that the introduction of Bt cotton will push the country from a 'pesticide treadmill' into a hitherto unknown and dangerous 'biological treadmill'. What will happen when the insect develops resistance to the Bt cotton? Will we introduce scorpion genes into the plant then, as has been done in maize in America? And what about the biological pollution that Bt cotton will unleash? After all, unlike the chemical molecule, the alien gene that flows into the nature is a living form and has the potential to multiply.
The DBT, therefore, tried to address these issues by asking Mahyco-Monsanto to conduct experimentation over the past three years. The first trials were held in 1998, and after approval came from the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) constituted by the department, the results were put before the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), and finally before the GEAC. The next year, in 1999, the crop was sown two months late due to delayed permission coming from the State governments. And yet, the results showed positive performance. Both the committees, overlooking the scientific norms of conducting experiments, were 'satisfied'. The next year too, the crop was sown late by three months and yet, the two committees approved the results.
The process and manner in which the approvals were granted is completely unscientific. If the crop can be sown two to three months late and yet provide a higher yield why doesn't the Ministry of Agriculture advise farmers to also sow the crop late? Also, if an exception can be made to Mahyco for conducting the experiments in a slip-slot manner, why shouldn't the same criteria be allowed to thousands of agricultural scientists working in the universities? Moreover, the suggestions by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) for some of the environmental tests to be undertaken on a long term basis, were also approved on the basis of data collected for only one crop season. All these glaring flaws in monitoring, evaluation and approval certainly points a finger to towards the competence of these two committees.
It is being repeatedly said that the Bt cotton is not a solution to the entire problem of pest infestation in cotton, it is a part of the integrated pest management (IPM) practices. But where is that IPM package, in which the Bt cotton fits in, has never been divulged? In fact, the Ministry of agriculture has no programme worth the name and utility that encourages IPM in cotton. When the GEAC was told of an experiment in Madhya Pradesh wherein 1,100 farmers were growing cotton without chemicals and still getting higher yields, scientists present in the meeting did accept that that they had never heard of it. The tragedy is that like the politicians, who have lost touch with the masses, agricultural scientists too have lost touch with the farmers.
And yet, scientists are keen to jump onto the biotechnology bandwagon. The reason is obvious. With the public sector being starved of research funding, and with research increasingly getting into the hands of private companies, scientists too have to join the chorus to remain employed. The line between science and industry is increasingly getting blurred, with the scientific institutions becoming the mouthpiece for industrial houses. As a scientist myself, I feel greatly dismayed to see the slow and steady decline of scientific institutions and still worse, at the manner in which the present leadership in Indian science is refusing to rise above narrow considerations to stand up and be counted. (1100 words) #
(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst)