Financial Post, May 12th, 2008
No other fabric can compare with cotton, especially for warm weather wear. It will always be worn; it will always have a market. Cotton production has kept rising gradually around the world since the 1930s; then with booming populations and demands, shot up since the 1980s. After that its demand has remained on an even keel, but not so much because of lack of demand as lack of buying power on the part of poor consumers. And now, for reasons unknown but can be suspected, genetically-modified, or Bt cotton as it is known, is being thrust upon us.
Our agricultural areas of Punjab and Sindh have much in common with contiguous areas in India. Also in common are the same kinds of vested interests, exploitation, and the needs and sufferings of ordinary peasants and farmers. It is therefore relevant to take a close hard look at the Indian and other South country experiences with Bt Cotton.
Going back to the year 2001 in Gujrat, BT cotton mysteriously got to be planted. — Permission to cultivate any GM crop is required to be obtained from The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. When it was discovered, the GEAC ordered the entire crop destroyed, but the order was never implemented. — Maybe because the crop was already pre-sold.
One of the top cotton-growing areas in India is Madhya Pradesh. It has a rich black soil, perfect for cotton. In 2002 farmers were persuaded to use BT cottonseed. — Some 10,000 acres were planted with it — although official permission had not been granted till then. The farmers ended up with 100 per cent failure. Due to the drought, indigenous cotton varieties had also been negatively affected but their ‘failure’ accounted for only 20 per cent of the crop, not all of it. Furious farmers demanded compensation from the supplier company that supplied these seeds. That was Mahyco. And where did Mayco get these seeds from? – From Monsanto, the US multinational chemical giant which had a 27 percent share in Mahyco.
All crops attract pests (being biological life-forms, they have to eat too), some more than others. Cotton is a tricky crop to grow. Any crop grown monoculturally – single crops grown on a large-scale – is subject to pest proliferation. Some plants come with built-in pesticides but they work for themselves or to varying degree depending on the circumstances.
A major pest of cotton is the bollworm. So Monsanto genetically engineered BT cottonseeds, essentially introducing a naturally-occuring gene — known as Bacillus Thuringiensis — into them which would produce a toxin that would kill the bollworm when it ate the plant. The plant itself became the pesticide, so to speak. The idea was that by eliminating or reducing the need to buy pesticides, the farmer would save all or most of his crop and therefore enjoy increased income. That was Monsanto Logic.
But Bt Cotton was never designed to increase yields, although misleading claims were made in the marketing. Bt cotton didn’t succeed in any other way either. It cost Indian farmers an average of Rs. 325 per hectare using local seeds of which there are some 300 local varieties that have evolved to do well in different geographical and ecological areas. The pesticides used for these cost no more than about Rs. 400 an acre.
Bt cotton seeds, however, cost four times as much as local seeds, and it’s not true that using BT cotton eliminates the use of pesticide altogether. The cost of an absolute minimum of pesticide for Bt cotton would be Rs.150 per hectare, making the total cost for growing Bt Rs 1450 per hectare compared to Rs 725 per hectare for good local varieties. How could farmers fail to see the figures that showed it really didn’t make sense to grow Bt cotton? – They were deceived by false claims. Sometimes they were left with no choice even when they did not want it. Most farmers growing commercially need to borrow short-term for inputs, and credit and other inputs were often made conditional by vested interests to buying Bt cottonseed.
The illegal Bt seeds from the Gujrat harvest were sold in the market, also; illegally and because it was offered very cheaply, it sold easily. But reports emerged, confirmed by a Gujrat khadi institute, of allergies not only among farmworkers but also itching and rashes in people wearing clothing made from Bt Cotton.
The government failed to act on any of this. No data of the Bt cotton trials were ever made public, and incredulously, the company producing and selling Bt cotton was given the responsibility of monitoring and regulating it! Talk of the fox guarding the hen-house !
The Deccan Development Society (DDS), an Indian grassroots NGO working with the rural poor in Andhra Pradesh revealed how, after Mahyco-Monsanto having advertised heavily in that state, farmers were assured that Bt cotton would increase their yields, reduce need for pesticides, and bring up their profits. As the DDS found, those who grew non-BT cotton made six times more profits than the BT cotton farmers !
Even when farmers found the seed to be four times as expensive, they felt it was because of ultimate economy, and even went into debt to buy the input package. There were other problems. Bt cotton requires 20 percent more water than other hybrid cotton which needs more water than traditional varieties to begin with. No one said anything about Bt cotton being drought resistant. The truth was that Bt cotton was unable to adapt to stress conditions. It was criminal to encourage Bt cotton in drought-prone areas – and not telling farmers about this drawback in Bt cotton. The rains failed to come in some districts. Farmers were ruined because they had not grown the local hardy species that had evolved to withstand drought conditions with minimal loss.
That was not all. There was serious oversight on the part of Monsanto scientists. Wouldn’t it be common sense to deduce that if the Bt cotton plant was poisonous to bollworms eating it, it could be poisonous to other living creatures too? After the harvest, sheep were allowed to graze on the harvested fields to eat the crop residues, a common practice worldwide wherever natural farming is pursued. In just four villages in Andhra Pradesh, 1800 sheep died horrible, agonising deaths within 2-3 days from severe toxicity. More deaths were reported in other areas. The word was quickly spread to avoid grazing sheep where Bt cotton had grown. It meant less fodder and greater expense for the sheep-owners.
Other reports have emerged from India on the ill health effects of Bt cotton on both people and animals. It is being held responsible for causing “untimely deaths, decline in milk quality and quantity, and serious reproductive failures.” Many workers in cotton gin factories have to take antihistamines daily before they can start work.
China which has planted over 1.5 million acres or more than one-third of the country’s acreage with its own GM cotton, has fared no better. The Chinese State Environmental Protection Agency had a study done by the Institute of Environmental Sciences in Nanking which found that Bt cotton was not just killing the bollworm, if and when it did. It was also killing natural parasitic enemies of the bollworm and opening up the field to other pests as well, so much so that some other pests had become bigger problems than the bollworms for which the farmers are not prepared. To make matters, it is wiping out insect diversity as well in Bt farmfields, something that did not happen where traditional varieties were being produced.
When Monsanto first introduced Bt cotton in the USA, the crop suffered from deformed roots and other problems. Farmers suffered huge losses and since they planted on tens of thousands of acres, Monsanto had to pay millions in compensation.
But the most shameful case took place in Indonesia. Monsanto was facing stiff opposition from activists and farmers campaigning against Bt cotton introduction n Indonesia. Monsanto had applied for permission to grow Bt cotton all over this vast country of 17,000 islands. There were said to be at least 100,000 hectares of potential land for growing cotton. But Monsanto wanted to avoid an independent environmental assessment of its GE cotton. If it was safe, who would they go to the lengths they did to avoid it? Furthermore the local people didn’t want Monsanto’s GM cotton either and faced active resistance from over 70 NGOs.
To add salt to their wounds, despite the bribe, the environmental assessment was not waived although Monsanto was allowed to initially plant over 500 hectares. Afterwards, Indonesia suffered such widespread pest infestation and drought damage, the government had no choice but to ban Bt cotton.
Later, Monsanto’s own records revealed that between 1997 and 2001, it paid some $700,000 in bribes to at least 140 current and former government officials and their family members. In 2002, it was caught red-handed paying $50,000 to a high-level official in the Indonesian environment ministry. It was disguised as a consulting
In this instance, the US government paid fair. Monsanto was forced to pay a fine of $1 million to the US Department of Justice another half a million to the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as submit to “three years’ close monitoring of its business practices by US authorities.”
Another horror story about Bt cotton occurred in Zambia which suffered the most severe drought in recent years. It is also a lesson in why GM crops are pushed during a crisis. In this case it had to do with food. Three million people were without food. At this very moment, in a show of ‘generosity’, it was attempted to dump ‘food aid’ in Zambia. Zambia refused to take it even though its people were starving – With good reason. They had suffered from contamination by pests in food aid imported in the past. These pests being foreign ones, didn’t have natural predators in the Zambian environment. While pesticides could be used in the fields, the small farmers, already in debt could not afford their high cost. With GM food, matters could be even worse.
There were other reasons too. Zambia exports vegetables to Europe which strictly bans GM foods from coming in. Zambia was warned that if GM food entered their country which was bound to spread for planting – since grain is both food and seed – they might lose their European markets altogether. The farmers did not want that either. The USA itself has suffered from the nightmare of invasive species which caused the country a loss of 138 billion Dollars in 2004 alone.
Zambia’s leadership was roundly criticized by the west for standing by and letting its people starve. But they didn’t. Zambian Red Cross imported beans, a high protein food, from neighbouring countries. The World Food Programme got plenty of generous donations from elsewhere providing cas or non-GM food. Not a single death arose from hunger. Today Zambia is going back to proven natural farming and reliance on natural pest-predators.
Seven years after Bt cotton was introduced in 1996, US scientists started collecting and analyzing data from wherever Bt crops had been introduced in the US, Australia, China and Spain. That was when they discovered bollworm resistance to Bt cotton.
In 2005, India banned Monsanto and its Indian partner from selling three varieties of GM cotton in a south Indian state. India has suffered the equivalent of $80 million in each of two states. Is Pakistan to be compensation for Monsanto’s curtailed activities in India?
Our government’s stated purpose for introducing Bt cotton is to improve and increase cotton production. This is very strange because Monsanto itself states that Bt cotton was not designed for increased yields. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has declared that GM crops provide no increase in crop yields. USDA in fact had a 4-year study conducted by the University of Georgia. And a report issued by the Soil Association last month on the latest research on GM crops over the last 10 years arrives at the same conclusion.
Whoever makes a fortune from Bt cotton imposition in Pakistan – apart from Monsanto who won’t be paying the ultimate price to the citizens — it certainly won’t be the farmers or the consumers. It may well destroy cotton agriculture here. Why then was it so important for the Prime Minister, no less, to announce a deal with Monsanto for a product that has failed in every country where it has been introduced, that too at a time when we have more pressing problems, including that of a food crisis and high prices?
Published in the Financial Post, 12 May 2008