by Najma Sadeque
The way bollworm and other pests die after eating the Bt toxin is rather gruesome, worthy of ghoulish science fiction movies. Bt is a common, naturally occurring bacterium found in soils throughout the world. Nature designed Bt to become active only seasonally after particular worms and caterpillars, while in larvae stage, ate it. It paralyses the digestive system so that pests die of starvation in a few days. Sometimes the bacterium enters the insect’s blood and reproduces within the insect. Even dead bacteria can be murderous.
Today that horror has been multiplied a thousand-fold by “biotech scientists”, who manipulate nature – to the extent of destroying biodiversity on which survival is dependant.
Bt was first discovered in 1901 by a Japanese biologist seeking the cause of silkworms dying en masse. Harmless to most life forms, farmers have been using Bt since the 1920s. But only in the mid-50s did its lethal natural toxin become known. A strictly stomach poison, Bt was not effective unless eaten.
Bt’s boon was that it did not kill honeybees and other pollinators, or natural enemies of insects whether predators or parasites. Nor did it persist in the environment: the sun’s ultraviolet rays quickly degrade it. Washed away by rain, it does not persist on foliage beyond a week. It was used only as a spray when needed; sparingly, never pre-emptively. It has a shorter shelf life – two to three years. This made it essentially non-toxic to food crops, people, livestock and wildlife. It was the ideal eco-friendly pesticide.
By the 1980s, insects became increasingly resistant to synthetic chemicals and farmers faced environmental damage. A corporation gunning for control over nature, making a captive market of all humanity, saw it as opportunity: Monsanto went for genetic modification.
They, however, ignored the most serious cause of pest proliferation – monoculture for which cotton was unsuited, because every part of the plant is delicious to pests. The more they spread with large-scale farming, the more farmers lost. The bollworm is not the only pest attracted to cotton, but Monsanto focused only on that one.
For millions or billions of years, Bt existed in the soil, emerging only seasonally, but never crossed genetic barriers between all species. Then Monsanto forcibly introduced the Bt soil bacteria gene into the cotton plant’s DNA. Its poison no longer acted selectively when consumed by a pest. Instead Bt was made an inherent part of its genetic structure – the entire plant from roots to stalks to leaves was rendered toxic and death-dealing. A cotton ‘Frankenplant’ was born.
Bt cotton’s initial 1996 introduction in USA was disastrous: Monsanto had to withdraw five million pounds and pay damages to US farmers; later repeated in some other countries.
For a few years, pesticide use decreased and yields rose, then reversed. As with the so-called Green Revolution’s ‘high yield variety’ seeds, performance fell after peaking for a few years. Bt cotton killed the bollworm’s natural parasitic enemies, and encouraged secondary pests to become major problems.
Agri-scientist Tabashnik pointed out that when Bt crops first appeared, the question quickly arose how quickly pests would adapt and evolve resistance. It was not a matter of ‘if’, but a matter of ‘when’, because the laws of genetics made it inevitable. “It’s almost a given that preventing the evolution of resistance is not possible,” he asserted. (Read his report “Insect resistance to Bt crops: lessons from the first billion acres”, Nature Biotechnology, 2013.)
In 17 years, a billion acres have been planted with Bt crops, mainly corn and cotton. Unfortunately – but predictably – more pest species have developed resistance. Bollworm presence in USA has risen 40-fold.
Data from 77 studies over two decades cover 13 evolving pests from eight different countries were studied. Today, there are thousands of strains of Bt and over 200 different types of Bt toxins, each affecting different types of insects. Plenty of opportunity for corporations to create a poison for every pest.
Planting Bt crops is a complicated affair. Farmers have to clearly understand how it works and what procedures and precautions are to be taken. Unfortunately, most educated landlords, who refuse to soil their hands are too casual or preoccupied to read and instruct workers.
Bt cotton’s success depends heavily on creating “refuge” acreages in a given ratio, although it varies with country. Refuges of non-Bt cotton are meant to delay the inevitable – of pests becoming Bt-resistant. The logic offered is that surviving pests from Bt fields would flee to the non-Bt fields where they would interbreed with unaffected pests, but their offspring would lack immunity or the resistant trait would be diluted for a few generations. (By then – five years or less – Monsanto would develop a new Bt strain to overcome the new resistance!)
The USA requires a minimum of 20 percent of acreage to be sown as refuge alongside non-Bt cotton. In Australia, the acreage of Bt and non-Bt must be equal. The standards for South Asia are lower – five rows of Bt cotton around a field; or five acres non-Bt to 95 acres Bt is deemed sufficient. Growing resistance, however, simply persists. When a crop failed, illiterate farmers were easily blamed for not following instructions.
Not highlighted is that Bt cotton was devised for North America where farms come in thousands of acres, not for smallholders with a few. It is not drought-resistant and requires 20 percent more water than other hybrid cottons. Unable to adapt to stress conditions, it is unsuitable for arid or semi-arid conditions like Pakistan’s.
Unlike North America, South Asia’s growing season is long and Bt loses its insecticidal properties early on. Consequently, in India, Bt was not expressed in 25 percent of the bolls. Unsurprisingly, drought caused 100 percent failure in Madhya Pradesh where 10,000 Bt acres were planted in 2002. Yet indigenous cotton, of which there are 300 varieties in different geographical and ecological areas of India, lost only 20 percent. Furious farmers demand compensation from Monsanto-Mahyco, India.
Monsanto was overly impatient in flooding the world with Bt crops and resorted to unconventional methods. Other less-publicised incidents include: caught red-handed bribing 140 officials in Indonesia where crops failed; then banned. Fined by US authorities for malpractices. Banned after Bt cotton killed 30 percent of bees in a field test in Thailand. Mysterious ‘Fibre Disease’ emerges among factory and farm workers causing painful, intense itching and sores with fibre-like threads; reported in 16 countries. Thousands of cripplings and hospitalisations from toxic reactions. Slow agonising deaths after livestock grazed harvested Bt cotton fields. Workers taking anti-histamines regularly against chronic allergies. Fiascos in Pakistan. And much more. But all that’s another story.
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.
The article was published in The Nation – August 15, 2013