Right time to review a decade of Bt cotton: National conference questions the success claims



New Delhi, June 12, 2012: A two-day national conference to review ten years of Bt cotton experience in India, by various stakeholders including farmers’ groups, regulators, industry and civil society groups, acknowledged the phenomenon of large-scale adoption of Bt cotton by farmers in India even as distress amongst cotton farmers has been exacerbated, especially for the majority of cotton farmers growing the crop in risky, rainfed conditions. The conference was co-organised by Centre for Environment Education, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and Council for Social Development and covered a variety of facets related to Bt cotton: performance against claims including pesticide usage, riskiness and suicides, regulatory regime, emerging scientific evidence, socio-political implications and so on. The conference was organized in the context of ten years of approved Bt cotton cultivation in the country, without a formal and official review by the government, even as many definitive statements are being made by the Government of India in various fora (including in the Parliament). The Bt brinjal debate in India a couple of years ago also brought to the fore the need to review the experience of Bt cotton in India comprehensively.

In his remarks in the concluding session of the conference, Mr Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development stated that the structural transformation of the cotton economy, with area of cotton increasing by 20-30%, yields nearly doubling and production trebling (making India the second largest cotton producer in the world) in the last two decades and factors that have contributed to the same, should be studied. He felt that causal correlations’ analysis should be taken up, given the many factors that could have contributed to yield increases including hybrid seed, good climate, irrigation etc. The large scale adoption of Bt cotton is also a reality, he stated. He also stated that there is a need to support sustainable alternatives like NPM to the same extent as support to transgenics.

There is a mixed picture of Bt cotton on the ground from different data sources and analyses. Farmers who grow Bt cotton in rainfed conditions, who constitute a majority of Bt cotton farmers, have not gained from its cultivation, even while their distress has been exacerbated by it (riskiness studies). The macro-data bears this out, that rainfed (Bt) cotton yields even in a state like Gujarat remain as low as one quintal per acre in unirrigated cotton (as per Navsari Agriculture University information). The macro data shows that pesticide consumption in different states has not declined but is either the same or is on the increase in different states except in the case of Andhra Pradesh (Directorate of Plant Protection & Quarantine Services data). Several micro-studies however show that pesticide use has decreased especially for bollworm control initially, while it is on the rise again now, for other pests as well as bollworm including newer cocktails of toxic chemicals (Gujarat Institute for Development Research, for instance). In the recent past, yields have stagnated and are showing a decline. Further, seed monopolies and lack of choices are clearly pointing to a threat on our seed sovereignty.

“The conference noted that Bt cotton farmers are also committing suicides; experiences from the field and academic analysis shared in the conference established the riskiness of Bt cotton cultivation. Further, a variety of data sources are putting out contradictory/inconsistent data which does not allow for any clear evaluation to take place. In this context, the government should not be making any definitive statements on the success of Bt cotton in India. In fact, the current situation clearly points to the dire need for an appropriate monitoring system to be put in place right at the beginning, which is sadly lacking in India. The conference noted that there is no level playing field being created by the government for promoting ecological alternatives with the same support as is being given to transgenic promotion. Bt cotton has taken away seed choices for farmers, especially the ones who wish to remain GM-Free including organic farmers”, noted Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

“We need a holistic regulatory system in the country which takes into account issues that go beyond yields and production – other social, cultural and political parameters need to be incorporated. Further, the sustainability debate has to drive our decision-making related to GMOs. The precautionary principle has rightly guided the nation’s decision with regard to Bt brinjal – this should be our constant guiding principle. I agree with what Mr Jairam Ramesh said that this is the right time for a review of Bt cotton – this should include an area- and zone-wise review”, said Mr Kartikeya Sarabhai, of Centre for Environment Education.

Chairing a session on regulatory system in India, Mr M F Farooqui, Chairperson of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee agreed that the regulatory regime needs to be improved in many ways in the country.

Reflecting on the emerging scientific evidence related to Bt cotton and its impacts, Dr Pushpa Bhargava pointed out that many recent studies actually point to the risks and unpredictability associated with GM plants and that it would be irresponsible to take the technology to farmers and into the open without first taking up independent, long term, comprehensive risk assessment, including for chronic impacts. He also emphasized that transgenics should be considered an option at all, only after a thorough need assessment and only if no other alternative exist.

The conference also agreed that India’s decision-making on GMOs should be guided by broad policy directives, which prevent transgenic research and development in crops for which we are the Centre of Origin/Diversity, in which we have trade security interests and GMOs that pose serious socio-economic concerns like in the case of herbicide tolerance. Further, there is an urgent need to put into place a liability and redress regime into place, in addition to labeling for upholding consumer rights. All of these are in line with India’s commitments made in the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol. Further, sustainability frameworks and perspectives being incorporated into our education and research systems was emphasized.

Prof Muchkund Dubey, President, Council for Social Development and Dr T Haque, Director of Council for Social Development welcomed the gathering and emphasized the importance of the meeting, which included around 150 participants from across India.

For more information, contact:

Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture at 09000699702

Mr Atul Pandya, Centre for Environment Education at 9825406608

Dr Pushpa Bhargava: 09949476067

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