Pink Bollworm Attacks in Punjab Again Raise Questions About Bt Cotton

Bt Cotton

           Farmers across a vast cotton growing area of Punjab and some parts of neighboring  Haryana are today extremely bitter about the extensive damage caused by pink bollworm pest, while memories of other serious pest attacks also continue to trouble them. Neel Kamal reported in The Times of India ( Chandigarh edition, 28 September, 2021), “ The pink bollworm attack on cotton crop in Punjab has made farmers a worried lot, as memories of whitefly attack in September  2015 are still fresh in their minds…the 2015 whitefly attack had caused over 60% damage to cotton crop.”  This report noted that pink bollworm attack is the highest this time in Punjab, although attacks were reported earlier in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

This report stated that this time  the bollworm attack is more in Bathinda and Mansa districts, but other reports described the extensive damage in other districts as well. The Tribune reported on October 9 ( Chandigarh edition, news titled Cotton in 85 Sangrur villages under bollworm attack )—“ The cotton crop on 1500 acres in 85 villages of Sangrur district has come under the pink bollworm attack. In Barnala, the attack has caused panic among farmers. In many villages, the repeated sprays of insecticide have failed to prevent the spread of the attack…Department officials are organizing special camps at various villages, recommending sprays and making farmers  aware against spurious ones.”

Thus unfortunately solutions are still being sought  more and more in pesticides. As another report in The Times of Indis titled ‘Channi checks damge to cotton by pink bollworm’ stated—Chief Minister Charanjit Channi while visiting affected villages “asked the officers to pump in all the resources in terms of best available insecticides and pesticides to save the precious crops of the farmers.”

In 2017-18  very widespread damage was reported to Bt cotton crop from pink bollworm in Maharashtra. A report in the Economic Times dated 21 January 2018 by G.Setthraman titled ‘These Two Issues Could Put the Brakes on the Bt Cotton Story’ quoted a senior agriculture official of Maharashtra as stating that 80% of the  cotton growing area of the state had been affected in the current season. This report also stated that Bt cotton is the only commercialized GM ( genetically modified) crop in India and it is due to the vast spread of this alone that India has the fifth highest area under GM crops in the world and Bt cotton seeds account for 40% of the Rs.14000 crore national seeds market. This report said—“ the loss caused by the pink bollworm infestation has raised serious questions about the sustainability of GM cotton, which accounts for over 90% of all cotton grown in the country.” This report documented the very rapid growth of Bt Cotton. Monsanto introduced its first generation Bt Cotton called Bollgard I (BG-I) in 2002  and  Bollgard II ( BG-II) in 2006. Over the last three years, this review said, reports have emerged of the pink bollworm becoming immune to Bollgard II In addition this review drew attention to illegal sale of herbicide tolerant (HT) variety of Bt Cotton, amounting to 3.5 million packets in 2017-18 alone. Keeping in view the high expenses of Bt cotton cultivation, this review concluded, its viability cannot be taken for granted anymore.

Here it needs to be pointed out that the claims of Bt Cotton relating to high yields have been refuted by several eminent experts froom time to time.        Dr.Jack A.Heinemann, of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, has a long experience of reviewing safety information from companies on their genetically engineered crops. He writes,  “the “Bt” trait does not increase yield, it just is becoming nearly impossible to source the best varieties without the Bt transgenes.”

Why is this so? Dr. Heinemann answers, “The yield benefit (in Bt cotton) comes from the use of high yielding hybrids that are only available as GM varieties because genetic engineering companies like Mansanto control a large proportion of the seed supply and only offer them as GM cotton varieties.”

This is confirmed by P V Satheesh, Convener of South Against Genetic Engineering, “The final nail in the coffin of non Bt cotton cultivation was hammered in 2006 when the industry – by forming a corporate seed cartel – successfully threw out all non Bt cotton seeds from the market firmly shutting out all options for farmers except the cultivation of Bt cotton.”

Jack A. Heinemann asks, “Where is the data that these same high yield varieties lacking the Bt trait and grown using sustainable techniques such as integrated pest management and agroecology perform less than GM varieties,” He answers, “There is none at all to my knowledge, while there is evidence that GM varieties undermine sustainable agriculture.”

In some parts while yields of cotton  increased significantly in the phase of spreading Bt varieties for some years this was mainly due to the impact of good weather and improvements in  irrigation, as also the government devoting more resources for this particular crop.

On the experience of the USA Dr. Heinemann writes, “The yields of Bt cotton in the US, for example, have not been consistently or sustainably higher than cotton produced using high yield varieties that were not genetically engineered, and GM varieties have contributed to financial losses for farmers. The high costs of genetically engineered seeds put farmers at financial risk.”

Heinemann concludes, “Does India want to export control of its food? Then go with genetic engineering. If India wants to feed itself, then go with proven but so far neglected approaches that work, such as agro ecology.”

In the very first year of Bt cotton’s commercial cultivation in India (2002-03), the Andhra Pradesh dept. of agriculture concluded a study of 3709 farmers growing this Bt cotton. As many as 71% of these farmers reported low yields with Bt cotton.

In Madhya Pradesh the average yield of cotton between 1996-2002 (before the introduction of Bt cotton) was 612.7 kg/ha. However in the six years after the introduction of Bt cotton average cotton yield was reduced to 518.3 kg/ha.

These realities specific to cotton should be seen together with other objections to all GM crops.Given the high hazards, risks and uncertainties associated with GM crops, these can never be sustainable.

In a letter written to the Prime Minister of India in 2009, as many as 17 distinguished scientists from the USA, Canada, Europe and New Zealand  pointed out that the claims relating to higher yield and protection of environment made for GM crops are absolutely false. Due to various problems of GM crops, their spread has been highly limited. This letter says, “ More than 95 percent of all GM crops are engineered to either synthesise an insecticide (Bt toxin) or to tolerate a broad spectrum herbicide (e.g. Roundup, Liberty) or both.

“To date there are only four major commercialised GM crops (soya, maize/corn, cotton, canola/oilseed rape) most of which (soya, corn, canola) are used primarily as animal feed. All were commercialised in the late 90s. Since then, no other commercially viable GM crop application has made it to market, especially due to farmers not accepting other GM crops (such as wheat, potatoes, and rice) for negative economic reasons (lack of buyers, loss of export markets).

“GM crops have not been widely accepted around the world. 95 percent of all GM food crops are grown in only five countries: the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, and Brazil. If you include fibre crops (cotton), India and China would be included. Only one GM crop is approved for cultivation within the European Union, MON810 corn, which has been banned by several member states invoking documented health and especially environmental risks.

“…The basic problem is that GM as employed in agriculture is conceptually flawed, crude, imprecise and poorly controlled technology, that is incapable of generating plants that contain the required multiple, co-ordinately regulated genes that work in an integrated way to respond to environmental challenges.

“…GM has not increased yield potential. Yields from GM crops to date have been no better and in the case of GM soya have been consistently lower. A 2009 report reviewing more than 20 academic studies clearly shows that the cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant soybeans has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has at best only improved yields marginally. This report found that increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years was due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices.

“…GM crops have led to vast increases in pesticide use, not decreases and therefore reduction of agricultural pollution cannot be claimed

“…Climate change brings sudden, extreme, and unpredictable changes in weather, which requires that a cropping system be flexible, resilient and as genetically diverse as possible. GM technology offers just the opposite.

“…Stability of productivity and production is much lower with many of the GM crops commercialised today. Herbicide tolerant GM soya is far more sensitive to heat or drought stress than conventional soya.

“…GM crops are designed to be used in conjunction with synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, which are manufactured from oil and natural gas.

“GM crops do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Recent data from the US department of agriculture has shown a vast increase in herbicide use since the introduction of GM crops tolerant to the application of these agrochemicals.

“Therefore, the introduction of GM crops has exacerbated rather than reduced agriculture’s carbon footprint and is clearly unsustainable.

“Alternative proven technologies that can reduce the amount of fossil fuel used in farming already exist. This includes methods for reducing fertiliser applications, selecting farm machinery appropriate for each task, managing soil for conservation, limiting irrigation and (using) agro-ecological farming techniques.”

While the record of GM and particularly Bt varieties in increasing yields on a sustainable basis is highly suspect, safer alternatives are certainly available. As Prof. P.M. Bhargava, noted molecular biologist pointed out some time back, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research had not only favourably tested Integrated Pest management and bio-pesticides on 85 crops but also compiled as many as 4000 traditional agricultural practices of which several had been validated and revalidated. Hence certainly  more sustainable and ecologically protective alternatives exist.

 Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His books include 14 Questions About GM Crops and its Hindi Equivalent.


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