Environmental disaster in the making
A recent Cornell University report has answered this question very well through a study done in China to assess Bt cotton that is in its seventh year of cultivation there. Growing secondary pest populations have slowly eroded the benefits of Bt technology, the study concludes, pointing out that total pesticide use and expenditure for Chinese Bt cotton farmers is the same as their conventional counterparts. The study shows a three-fold increase of pesticide use now compared to the initial years of Bt cotton adoption, taking back the Bt cotton farmers to nearly the same levels of pesticide use as before the advent of Bt cotton, thanks to such changes in farm ecology. This is inevitable, as any knowledgeable farmer would tell you.
Similarly, data from the US compiled from USDA data, 10 years after the adoption of GM crops, shows that the use of chemicals has only increased with GM crops even as super-weeds and super-pests (not easily controllable by the chemicals used earlier) are emerging.
Experience in India from various studies shows that sucking pests are higher on Bt cotton and the pesticide use has not come down as promised. Further, there are newer diseases emerging on Bt cotton -- official monitoring by state governments records this.
It should be realised that even a few sprays of pesticides will damage the farm ecology by killing beneficial insects too and GM crops incidentally are not guaranteeing a complete elimination of such pesticides! They target only specific insects with their reductionist science. That is not the case with many non-chemical alternatives, however.
Very often GM crops are shown as part of an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) approach. A closer look will show that GM crops are actually defying many IPM principles. For example, IPM does not advocate a single chemical with the same mode of action and asks for alternation of methods/chemicals with different modes of action. In India, thanks to the generous giving away of the Bt genes genes on a payment by some institutions, all major crops are being converted into Bt crops -- Bt Brinjal, Bt Rice, Bt Tomato, Bt Cabbage, Bt Cauliflower, Bt Maize and so on. It does not take a genius to guess what kind of an environmental disaster this monoculture would lead to.
What is also interesting to note is that the biotech industry would like to paint itself environment-friendly while on the one hand, there are no guarantees against potential environmental hazards from GM crops and on the other, most major players in the biotech industry are selling agri-chemicals and have a major chunk in the pesticide industry themselves! The same players who thrust agri-chemicals down our throats are now saying that these chemicals are bad and therefore, GM crops should be adopted. How about getting accountable for the damage caused so far?
Important also is the recognition that pesticide reduction and elimination can be achieved through simple political will as the Indonesian example shows us. This does not require the answer of GM crops, which comes with a baggage of several undesirable, unpredictable and irreversible environmental and health hazards. One of the glaring problems with decision-making related to GM crops is that the rationale of pesticide use reduction is being employed for glossing over the many ill-effects that they bring along.
It should be realised that the basic problem that the farmer has begun with is pest management and not pesticide management. Our experience in thousands of acres of NPM (Non-Pesticidal Management of crops) shows that elimination of pesticide use itself is enough to restore farm ecologies and to improve the environment.
(The writer is consultant, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secandrabad, Andhra Pradesh, India)