Friday, November 30, 2007

Farmers or FIIs? The Bt cotton question

By P V Satheesh
Study after study has shown the pitfalls of Bt cotton. Every second cotton farmer who committed suicide in Vidarbha was a Bt farmer. But biotech industry lobbyists, who take a stock market view of agriculture, wouldn't know this since these figures are not reflected in the Sensex, says PV Satheesh
Dr Gurcharan Das in his recent article titled 'Let Biotech Crops Bloom' in The Times of India, November 11, 2007 , makes a forceful argument for the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops in India , particularly Bt cotton. It is probably not coincidental that the ISAAA, the biotech industry's lobby organisation, which relentlessly and aggressively promotes genetically engineered crops all over the world, held its board meeting in Delhi last month and decided to take some selected Indian farmerfs to Europe to propagate Bt cotton to European farmers. This is urgently needed by the GE industry because European farmers are ever so regularly moving away from GE crops by declaring their farms and regions GE-free zones. There are thousands of such GE-free zones across Italy , France , Switzerland , Austria , Germany and other nations of the European continent. An average European farmer is ten times more informed than the Indian farmer. S/he has access to the Internet, studies various reports, enters into discussion with fellow farmers. And hence has far more information on developments in the GE world than the Indian farmer and therefore can make a more informed decision. Not surprisingly then the ISAAA and GE industry has made a deliberate decision to focus on Asia where farmers are less suspecting and are prone to being influenced by the hype generated by a less critical media.
The ISAAA propaganda blitz must rely on trusted lieutenants like Gurcharan Das, who have nothing to do with agriculture but are restricted to a monetary vision of the world. This vision is however a purely stock market vision of agriculture and has very little to do with the far more crucial issue of the impact this kind of agriculture can have on the well-being of small farming families. It has no clue of the impact of Bt cotton on the health of the soil, cattle and farm workers, which is the crux of the entire debate in agriculture. Or should we assume that agriculture needs to become subservient to stock markets and speak the same language as Dalal Street ?
Let us examine what Bt cotton has done for the economics of the small farmer in India . Let me quote from a recent study by Ashok Malkarnekar, Hermann Waibel and Diemuth Pemsl of the Chair of Agricultural and Development Economics, School of Management and Economics , Hanover , Germany . The three distinguished researchers made a comparative study of Bt and non-Bt cotton farmers in Karnataka. The study reveals that while the Bt farmers got a marginally higher yield of 10 kg per ha, the economics went completely against them. While the gross margin for non-Bt farmers worked out to Rs 10,880 per ha, the margin for Bt farmers was a paltry Rs 1,435 per ha. In other words, non-Bt farmers were earning 7.5 times more than Bt farmers. Where does this leave the myth of the riches BT cotton bestows on Indian farmers?
For the last five years, we at the Deccan Development Society along with our partners in the AP Coalition in Defence of Diversity, have consistently studied the performance of Bt Cotton in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh. These are systematic scientific studies and are open for anybody's inspection. Our studies carried out from 2002-2007 revealed:
  • Bt cotton yields were 30% less than non-Bt in 2002-2003; 3.3% higher in 2003-2004; 5.3% higher in 2004-2005.
  • In terms of net returns, in 2002-2003, Bt farmers earned Rs [-]1,295/acre [negative] while non-Bt farmers in the same year earned Rs 5,368/acre, ie five times higher than Bt farmers. In 2003-2004, Bt farmers managed to earn 8.9% more than non-Bt farmers. But in 2004-2005 their net income once again dipped into negative with Bt farmers earning Rs [-]252/acre while their non Bt counterparts recorded an earning of Rs 592/acre.
This is far from the great wealth for Indian farmers that Dr Das conjures up. In fact all the small farmers in this country who went after Bt cotton suffered uniform failure. In Vidarbha region, every second cotton farmer who has committed suicide (the latest official figures for farmer suicides in six districts of Vidarbha are: 2002:2,638; 2003:2,626; 2004: 2,740; 2005: 2,425; 2006:2,832) was a Bt farmer. And their numbers have kept on rising year after year. But industry lobbyists such as Dr Das wouldn't know this since these figures are not reflected in the Sensex.
Let us get back to Dr Das's argument that Bt technology has proved a miracle in tackling the pest problem in cotton. The major pest on cotton is bollworm and farmers have, over the years, spent a fortune on pesticide sprays to kill this pest. In 2006 Bt cotton farmers in AP had spent 41% more than those cotton farmers who were practicing Non Pesticidal Management (NPM) methods. And what was the yield difference between the two? NPM farmers who had access to good non-Bt hybrids earned Rs 4,500/acre whereas Bt farmers earned Rs 4,408/acre. Thus non-Bt farmers had not only spent 40% less on pesticides but also earned 2% more than Bt farmers in terms of net returns. This is not an isolated figure. This has been a consistent trend over the last five years.
And how has the Bt industry responded to this trend? Almost as if by the wave of a magic wand, the seed industry which formed an undeclared cartel, made non-Bt seeds disappear from the market. They were threatened by the fact that while Bt was consistently failing for small farmers, good non Bt-seeds were performing infinitely better. They did not want to compete with it. And therefore decided to kill non-Bt seeds. Consequently whether they are willing or not, farmers are now forced to plant Bt cotton. This situation ruthlessly forced on farmers is dubbed by the industry as the great spread of Bt cotton. This is akin to President Musharraf's vision of democracy in Pakistan .
In admission of the failure of their first-generation Bt cotton seeds (called Bollgard) to protect cotton plants, the Bt industry has brought in a new seed called Bollgard II. We will tell you the story of Bollgard a bit later. Before that, let us take a quick look at what has happened to the small farmers growing Bt cotton in AP. When Bt stepped into the soils of Andhra Pradesh in 2002-2003, it brought a new disease called Root Rot disease to cotton. Farmers described this disease as something "we had never seen in our lives". Bt crop especially the Bollgard II were severely infested with symptoms resembling Rhizoctonia root rot, Cercospora Leaf Spot, Black Arm, and severe Zinc deficiency.
The damage is aggravated due to moderate infestation by the mealy bug (Dr Das could take a short drive from Delhi into Punjab to see how mealy bugs have made a quick meal of Bt cotton fields while leaving non-Bt plants untouched).
In 2003, the Rhizoctonia Root Rot was reported on 3% of soils in AP. Within five years, by 2007, it had spread to about 42% of the cotton-growing farms. The root rot disease does not allow a second crop such as chilli to succeed on the farms where Bt had been planted whereas in all non-Bt cotton soils, chilli grows famously well. The failure of chilli to grow on Bt cotton soils is obviously due to the toxicity passed on by the Bt plant to the soil.
In many shocking and widely reported incidents in 2005, thousands of sheep and goat died in Warangal after consuming Bt cotton plants. Even an unwilling state government, after a lot of pressure from civil society groups, had to institute its own inquiry and came to a conclusion that there was indeed a relationship between grazing Bt plants and death of the cattle.
This leads us to understand the very nature of a Bt plant. Bt (Bacillus Thurengisis) is a pesticide which is injected into the very seed of Bt cotton. What this means is that when we plant Bt seeds in the soil, we are raising a poisonous plant. At every stage of its growth it exudes poison from all parts of it: roots, stem, leaves, pods etc. Therefore when soils are constantly attacked by the toxicity of the Bt roots, won't it have an effect on the soil bacteria? This is the problem being faced by farmers in Warangal and other parts of AP. In fact in 2006, farmers in Mustyalapalle and Sikandranagar of Yadagirigutta Mandal in Nalgonda district of AP uprooted their own Bt plants in nearly 500 acres since all of them had wilted completely because of the Rhizoctonia root rot disease. They knew that if they let the plants grow further, all their soils would get toxic. This is the story of the great ability of Bt cotton to reduce pest use. Can Dr Das and his cohorts ever understand the pain a small farmer goes through when he has to uproot the very crop he has planted?
In the USA, the mother of genetic engineering technology, according to data published by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), over the seven-year period from 1995-2001, herbicide and insecticide use marginally increased whereas the global use of these materials actually decreased. The significance of this data is that it was during this period that US started growing genetically engineered crops while the rest of the world did not.
In Canada , there is a very revealing situation. Canada is the second largest adaptor of genetically engineered crops in the world. But the farmers have found an interesting graph in their farm economics. As production goes up their incomes come down. This strange phenomenon is due to the fact that as technology gets more sophisticated, input costs soar. Canadian farmers are aeons away from their bullock-ploughing two-acre-holding Indian farmers. Their farms measure thousands of hectares. They mount heavy tractors for their farming operations and are guided by sets of computers mounted in the driver's enclosure. They are what scientists want Indian farmers to be: precision farmers. But they go bankrupt at regular intervals. This is a national scandal in that country.
The same fate has met their far poorer Indian cousins. To farm Bt cotton, they pay 400% more for the seed and "reap" benefits that are scandalously marginal. They continue to go into the red year after year. Besides economic collapse, they are also "reaping" other benefits such as mounting soil toxicity, cattle death and dangers to their health.
This is not necessary. Years ago, when there was no Bt cotton in the fields of Warangal , farmers grew their own desi hybrids called RAASI or Tulsi or Banni. And scores of farmers proudly recall that they got yields ranging from 1,000 kg to 1,400 kg per acre. Compare these yield levels to the 2007 yield data for the Bt cotton growers in the US . According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Bt cotton farmers got a yield of about 1,800 kg per ha or 720 kg per acre, almost 25% less than the Indian non-Bt farmers! So much for the yield efficiency of Bt cotton.
And finally when the world is becoming more and more aware of the use of non-natural material in agriculture the argument that GE cultivation in India will usher in unprecedented prosperity for Indian farmers is to paint a fools' paradise. Already a strong movement in the West advocating the use of organic cotton is gaining ground. This will block all GE cotton from coming into countries that are the prime importers of cotton material. Already we have seen how billions of dollars worth of Chinese toys were withdrawn from the US market for using toxic paint. If a toy gets such a serious reaction from consumers, what will be the response to the food that people eat and clothes that they continuously wear if they contain toxic material? This is worth a serious thought. Already the basmati traders in India whose prosperity is completely dependent upon the export market have demanded banning GE rice trials in their region and have succeeded in getting this ban approved by the government. Smart people. But the cotton farmers who are not so organised and are not so aware will be made guinea pigs by GE lobbyists. This is economic terrorism at its worst.
Should Indian farmers listen to the economic terrorists who are on the payrolls of predatory international corporates and stridently articulate a short-term get-rich-quick advice or go by their strong traditional wisdom of keeping their soils, crops and cattle healthy? Soils and land are the only assets that farmers possess. Corporates that sell Genetically Engineered seeds are global predators. They move wherever they see a new pasture. Burning soils, making them toxic deserts, does not mean a thing for them. But for a small farmer to have his farm and soils get toxic and to see his cattle die eating the poisonous plants from genetic engineering labs will be to court death itself.
Therefore the issue of Bt cotton is not an issue of conflict between environment and prosperity. It is a fight between life and death. Of farming controlled by farmers or colonised by profit-hungry corporations.
(PV Satheesh is Director of the Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad )
InfoChange News & Features, November 2007


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