Bt cotton is a genetically modified organism (GMO) cotton variety. It was the first GM crop variety to get approval for commercialisation in India.
What is Bt cotton?
Bacillus thuringiensis commonly referred to as Bt, is inserted into the cotton seed through genetic engineering. This fusion of genes creates a protein which protects the crop from external attacks by insects and pests and eliminates the use of large amount of pesticides and insecticides.
How was it launched in India?
In 1998, Monsanto India (a subsidiary of Monsanto Co. USA) tied up with Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company- Mahyco, which is now called Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Ltd (MMB) to market Bt cotton hybrid seeds. Named as Bollgard, these hybrid seeds were developed by Monsanto. They sell Bollgard (BG-I) and Bollgard II ( BG-II) to seed companies which then sell Bt seeds to farmers.
Bt cotton was said to have an advantage over non-Bt cotton because it increases the yield of cotton by killing the different varieties of bollworms (pests that attacks the fruiting bodies of cotton crops), thus reducing the use of pesticides. But Bt cotton seeds have their own limitations, they not only cost more but are more water intensive.
Bt cotton seeds lose vigour in one generation, which means they are essentially Terminator seeds whose reproductive abilities are shut off using Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), making second generation seeds sterile. Hence it needs to be purchased from the company or distributor.
What’s with the Bt cotton conundrum over the years ?
Since its introduction in 2002, Monsanto Technology has been controversial. After Monsanto admitted that the pink bollworm (a kind of pest) was resistant to BG-I and claimed BG-II would control the bollworm, it is said they continued looting marginalised small farmers. By claiming Bollgard-II was better technology than the first version, Monsanto was able to mislead farmers and charge even higher price.
Farmers usually plant cotton at intervals of three feet by three feet in an acre. The Monsanto officials told farmers that there was improved seed in the form of Bollgard-II and it was time to increase the number of plants per acre. They asked farmers to plant seeds closer and reduce the distance between plants. While they informed the farmers that only early maturing varieties would do better in dryland conditions, they did not mention the fact that the seeds would do better in irrigated conditions.
Failure of BG-II technology led to Pink bollworm pest menace and heavy use of pesticides. Some farmers also raised concerns about new kinds of pests destroying the crops.
Though, it has been debated that the farmers are also to be blamed since they were advised to sow non-Bt or traditional cotton variety around their Bt cotton crop, to which they did not pay heed. However, it is believed that Monsanto Technology lured them into shifting to Bt cotton en masse so as to procure higher yields.
Cotton production rose from 14 million bales in the pre-Bt year of 2001-’02 to 39 million bales in 2014-’15, a rise of almost 180%. India overtook China in the year 2014 as the biggest cotton producer in the world. However, the alluring promise of higher yields and lower pesticides usage was failed when researchers found out Indian cotton yields increased by 69% in 2000-2005 when Bt cotton was less than 6% of the total cotton area, but only 10% in ten years(2005-2015) when Bt cotton grew to 94% of total cotton area. It was also reported that pesticide use was doubled in the year 2015-2016 .
After the initial burst of production, Bt cotton hybrids seeds stagnated cotton yields as they were unsuitable for rain-fed area, it could provide protection only against one type of cotton pest and left the crop open for attack from other pest like Aphids.
Why Monsanto is embroiled in legal cases?
MMB licenses the Bollgard -II technology to nearly four dozen seed companies, for which it charges a royalty fee and technology fee. Compared to Bt cotton, local seeds used to cost INR 5-9 per kg before Monsanto destroyed alternatives, including local hybrid seed supply, through licensing arrangements and acquisitions.
Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said that the pink bollworm attacks are a failure of the technology for which Monsanto charges a fee.
Nuziveedu Seeds, which uses Monsanto Bt Technology, roped in RSS and its another affiliate Bharatiya Kisan Sangh to help them fight Monsanto for “loot”. Monsanto also faced scrutiny under India’s competition laws, and was locked in a bitter battle with seed companies. Following imposition of price control by Indian government and facing headwinds in the cotton seeds market, Monsanto sold off its small branded cotton seed business to local firm Tierra Agrotech while remaining fully committed to India’s agriculture sector.
Why are we concerned?
Besides the problem of pink bollworms, cotton is also plagued by use of illegal herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton seeds (BG-III) – the third generation seed technology developed by Monsanto. It is also known as Roundup Ready Flex seeds (RRF).
Despite the ban of herbicide tolerant BG-III by government, it is being illegally sold in states including Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. RRF, a glyphosate-based herbicide has been declared a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Farmers are supposed to use the glyphosate on weeds in non-crop areas only. However, they are using it on herbicide resistant cotton fields, due to which the glyphosate gets into seed.
Cotton-seed oil which is mixed with BT1, BT2 and BT3 is widely used by the roadside eateries in the city. It was also observed that oil seed cake is used in dairy industry. Apart from its use in roadside eateries, they are also used to mix with other cooking oils.
Glyphosate has been linked to cancer, kidney failure, pregnancy complications, disruptive endocrine, DNA damage and other health issues due to which it has been banned by several countries.
There have been debates over GM crops in the past. First being Bt Brinjal and recently it was GM Mustard. GM mustard is a glufosinate herbicide resistant crop. Glufosinate is a neurotoxic pesticide that causes damage to nerves and the brain. Mustard is used in every kitchen of India. Herbicide tolerance would mean increased plant residues.
Recently, Telangana government pitched in to educate farmers about herbicide tolerant seeds. They have issued the warning “These seeds don’t have any permission for sale. Don’t buy them. The government holds no responsibility if you plant them. Glyphosate is not environment-friendly.”
The country needs a democratic debate on the systems of food and agriculture that protect biodiversity, people’s health as well as farmers’ livelihoods. Decisions about what we eat and how our food is grown can’t be left to committees connected to the biotech industry and disconnected from the democratic processes that should govern our lives and our food.
Ankita is Content Developer in Civil Services Institute and currently living in New Delhi.