India: Farmers or FIIs? The Bt cotton question has to be framed this way Print E-mail

101 Kishan Residency, Street no- 5,
Begumpet, Hyderabad-16, AP, India

Phone:  + 91-40-27764577 / 27764744

Dear friends,
This is a response to an article written by Dr Gurcharan Das in the  on November 4, 2007 called  "Let Biotech Crops Bloom".  Das accuses environmental activists of  "spreading disinformation and misleading the public". The response exposes the disinformation spread by the likes of Gurcharan Das who have all their life been on the payroll of transnational corporations and have such an intimate knowledge of agriculture that they cannot distinguish between a cotton and a castor plant.

with warm regards
p v satheesh
Director
Deccan Development Society
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
November 14, 2007

Farmers or FIIs? The Bt cotton question has to be framed this way

Dr Gurcharan Das in his recent article in the Times of India [TOI, 4th November, 2007] makes a forceful argument for cultivation of GE crops in India, particularly Bt Cotton. It is not probably coincidental that the ISAAA, the biotech industry’s lobby organization, which relentlessly and aggressively mongers genetically engineered crops all over the world, held its Board Meeting in Delhi last month and decided to take some selected Indian farmers 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 as 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 internet, studies various reports, enters into discussion groups with fellow farmers. And hence has far more information on the development in the GE world than the Indian farmer and therefore can make a more informed decision. Therefore the ISAAA and GE industry has made a deliberate decision to focus on Asia where farmers are less suspecting and are prone to be influenced by the hype generated by a less critical media.

The ISAAA propaganda blitz through trusted lieutenants like Gurcharan Das, who have nothing to do with agriculture but are restricted to a monetary vision of the world [because all their fat salaries come from being management consultants to multinational corporations, and will be stopped if they stop singing the MNC tunes] is quite significant from all these contexts. This vision is however a purely stock market vision of agriculture and has very little relationship with a far wider and more crucial issue of the impact of this kind of agriculture can have on the well being of small farming families. It has no clue on the impacts of Bt cotton on the health of the soil, cattle and farm workers, which is the crux of the entire debate on agriculture. Or should we assume that agriculture need to become subservient to stock markets and speak the same language as the Dalal Street?

However just for the sake of picking up the argument with Dr Das, let us examine what has Bt cotton done to 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, Hannover, 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 kgs 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.1435 per Ha. In other words, non Bt farmers were earning 7.5 times more than Bt farmers. Where does this leave the myth of riches that Dr Das weaves for Indian farmers?

For the last five years, we in 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 the Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh. These are systematic scientific studies and are open for anybody’s inspection. [Incidentally the study commissioned by Monsanto on Bt cotton in India is not open for outside scrutiny. They hide it under the title “trade secret”. Most of the data that trade gurus such as Dr Das depend on these “out of public scrutiny” studies]. Our studies carried out from 2002-2007 have the following data to offer:

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 [-]1295/acre [negative] while non Bt farmers in the same year earned Rs.5368/acre, i.e. 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 away 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: 2002:2638; 2003:2626; 2004: 2740; 2005: 2425; 2006:2832] was a Bt farmer. And their numbers have kept on rising year after year. Probably this does not count for the industry lobbyists such as Dr Das since these figures are not reflected in the Sensex.

Let us get back to Dr Das’ argument that Bt technology has proved a miracle in tackling the pest problem on 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 methods. And what was the yield difference between the two? NPM farmers who had access to good non-Bt hybrids earned Rs.4500/acre whereas Bt farmers earned Rs.4408/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 Bt industry responded to this trend? Almost as if by the wave of a magic wand, seed industry which formed an undeclared cartel, made non Bt seeds disappear from the market. They were almost threatened 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 Musharaff’s vision of democracy in Pakistan.

In admission of the failure of their first generation Bt cotton seeds [called Bollgard] to protect cotton plants, 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 diseasecalled Root Rot disease to cotton. Farmers described this disease as something “we had never seen in our lives”. Bt crop especially the Bollgard II had severe infestation by the symptom resembling Rhizoctonia root rot, Cercospora Leaf Spot, Black Arm, and severe Zinc deficiency.

The damage is aggravated due to moderate infestation by the mealy bugs [It might also be nice if Dr Das took a short drive from his luxurious corporate house in Delhi a few miles 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 enquiry and came to a conclusion that there was indeed a relationship between grazing Bt plants and death of the cattle.

This leads us to the question of understanding 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 seed 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 will 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 what pain goes through a small farmer when he has to uproot the very crop he has planted?

In the USA, the mother of genetic engineering technology, as per the data published by the US Department of Agriculture [USDA], over the seven years 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 the genetically engineered crops in the world. But the farmers have found an interesting graph in their farm economics. As the production goes up their incomes come down. This strange phenomenon is due to the fact that as the technology gets more sophisticated, input costs soar. The Canadian farmers are aeons away from their bullock ploughing two acre holding Indian farmers. Their farm sizes measure in 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 red year after year. And Vidarbha continues to happen. Besides economic collapse, they are also “reaping” other benefits such as mounting soil toxicity, cattle death and dangers for their health.

This is not necessary. Years ago, when there was no Bt cotton on the fields in 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 1000 kgs to 1400 kgs per acre. Compare these yield levels to the 2007 yield data for the Bt cotton growers in US. According to the US Department of Agriculture [USDA], Bt cotton farmers got an yield of about 1800 kgs per Ha or 720 kgs 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 and getting sophisticated towards 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 the 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 cloths 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 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 organized and are not so aware will be made guinea pigs by the GE lobbyists such as Dr Das. This is economic terrorism at its worst. For these terrorists, nothing else matters but the sound of fading dollars!

Should Indian farmers listen to these voices of economic terrorism emanating from the people 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 and preserve their all - time well being? 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 an issue of fight between life and death. Of farming controlled by farmers or colonised by profit hungry corporations.

p v satheesh