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The only flaw in the analysis in this otherwise excellent article is its over-optimistic prediction that if carefully conducted research shows Bt cotton has been outperformed by non-GM cotton for 3 years in a row, "the Indian farmer will keep away from Bt cotton and the controversy will die a natural death".
Did Bt cotton fail again?
By Maya Babu, Mysore Grahakara Parishat
Worldwide, there is controversy surrounding the genetic modification of crops. In India, this controversy surrounds Bt cotton, a genetically modified (GM) cotton manufactured by Mahyco-Monsanto company.
Bt cotton is so called because it is produced by splicing naturally growing cotton seeds with DNA from Bacillus thurin-giensis, a soil bacterium known to produce a toxin which kills several cotton pests, including the boll weevil.
The splicing process is thought to transfer these pest fighting properties from the bacterium to the cotton. Supporters of Bt cotton claim that the crop will result in increased profits by decreasing pesticide costs. Critics of Bt cotton claim that cultivation will undermine the environment by inducing pests to become resistant to naturally occurring bacterial predators.
Multinational seed sellers
Critics also warn that Indian farmers will become perpetually dependent upon multinational seed sellers because of the Intellectual Property Rights regulation which mandates that farmers cannot keep the seeds from their crop for next year's sowing; if they want to sow Bt cotton next year, they have to purchase the seeds from the company again.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Government of India released Bt cotton, the first GM crop in India, in March of 2002. Bt cotton was planted by more than a thousand farmers in Andhra Pradesh as part of a three-year trial. A coalition of more than 140 non-gove-rnmental organisations, the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity (APCDD), has commissioned a study which is monitoring the trial.
The study has found that Bt cotton was a failure in the first year trial. The seed costs were higher, costs for pesticide protection were (surprisingly) almost the same and the yield was lower and of inferior quality.
So Bt cotton not just failed to match the profitability of non-Bt hybrids, it did not even make a profit! Bt farmers lost an average of Rs. 1,295 per acre. In contrast, farmers growing non-Bt hybrids earned an average profit of Rs. 5,368 per acre.
Based on the experience of the first year's trial, Monsanto rep-laced the failed Bt cotton hybrid MECH-162 with Bt hybrid MECH-12 for the second year's trial. According to the recently published study of the second year's (2003-4) trial by APCDD, the new Bt hybrid was profitable, unlike MECH-162.
The rainfall was both timely and higher by about 30 per cent this year and this may have been the reason for the improved performance of MECH-12. Even though the new Bt hybrid per-formed well compared to last year, it was still 9 per cent less profitable than non-Bt hybrids. Increased profit, the very reason for promoting Bt cotton, was still not realised. So Bt cotton failed for the second year in a row to show more profit than non-Bt cotton.
Reduction in profit
According to the APCDD study, MECH-12 saved an average of Rs. 321 per acre on pesticides, the average yield per acre was higher by 0.17 quintals, but the average profit per acre was less by Rs. 751 when compared to non-Bt hybrids. The reduction in profit was due to the high cost of MECH-12 seeds. Despite a sub-sidy given by the Andhra Pra-desh government, Bt cotton se-eds cost 230 per cent more than other seeds.
Monsanto has published its own study of the second year trial. It gives a very different picture. According to the Mon-santo study, MECH-12 saved an average of Rs. 1,856 per acre on pesticides, the average yield per acre was higher by 1.98 quintals and the average profit per acre is higher by Rs. 5,138 when compared to non-Bt hybrids.
APCIDD discounts this claim of Monsanto. It says that the Monsanto study (conducted by a marketing agency) contacted the farmers only once after the crop period and since the average Indian farmer does not keep acc-ounts of what he has spent, the data collected are inaccurate. APCIDD claims that its study is more accurate as it contacted farmers every 15 days and hence "stayed close to the realities of the situation".
Final year trial
The spotlight is now on the third and final year trial for Bt cotton which is underway. Both the supporters and opponents of Bt cotton will be keeping a close watch on whether Bt cotton can be more profitable than conventional hybrid cotton in Indian conditions.
If Bt cotton fails to achieve this goal, the Indian farmer will keep away from Bt cotton and the controversy will die a natural death.
If on the other hand, Bt cotton turns out to be more profitable than regular hybrids, the debate is sure to be revived with renewed vigour on the issues of environmental damage from Bt cotton and the forced dependence of Indian farmers on MNC seed companies.
Did Bt cotton fail again? (10/10/2004)
Focus on Asia