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Commentary :: Economy and Trade : Environment

CONFLUENCE: GM Cotton Disaster In India

During India's past several growing seasons, crop failures and problems caused by cotton genetically modified (GM) to resist insects hurt farmers there so badly economically that many sustained irrevocable losses and hundreds of farmers committed suicide.
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These findings were contained in an independent scientific study released in April 2005 from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a major cotton growing region. Biotech crops were again suspect this past June when an Indian TV station reported on an investigation into Andhra Pradesh farmers' charges that goats were taking ill and dying after eating GM cotton.

The three year study looked at the economic and environmental impact of Bollgard, a Bt cotton crop genetically modified to resist bollworms, that is patented and marketed by Monsanto([search]) in India through its subsidiary, Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Ltd. P.V. Satheesh is director of one of the organizations that conducted the research, the Deccan Development Society of Andhra Pradesh, India, a grassroots collaboration of scientists, village people and farmers. Quoted online by the Third World Network Biosafety Information Service, Satheesh said: "The use of transgenic [GM] crops has unleashed new hazards into our farms. The profit—driven life science industry is more life-destroying than life giving…Claims of increased yields, reduced pesticide use and larger profits for farmers have proved to be false."

Earlier this year, in the district of Warangal (in Andhra Pradesh), villagers could not figure out why an unusually high number of sheep and goats were getting sick and dying, according to an online report by NDTV, an Indian broadcaster. One shepherd said, "They were grazing on Bollgard cotton. In 4-5 days, they became ill, their stomachs swelled up and they died." An independent fact-finding team surveyed three villages and found that livestock who grazed continuously on Bollgard cotton fields became listless, developed lesions in their mouths, had nasal discharges and blackish diarrhea and had a mortality rate three to five times higher than usual.

Few media outlets in the US have reported the problems the GM cotton has caused for farmers — while some have reported just the opposite. Take, for example, the three-part series written by St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Rachel Melcer during her visit to India in June 2004 ("Growing India's Future: An Agrarian Society Reaches For The Future"). Melcer wrote that for India to improve the lives and productivity of its subsistence farmers, "They need access to capital to buy modern [read: GM] seeds, fertilizer and pesticides." She repeated Monsanto's now-discredited claims that the company's Bollgard seeds boosted yields and reduced the use of pesticides.

The Andhra Pradesh study found that:

-Yields of the non-GM cotton surpassed yields from three varieties of Bollgard (MECH 12, MECH 162 and MECH 184) by nearly 30%, with 10% less expense.

-Decreases in pesticide use with Bollgard crops as compared to non-GM cotton was insignificant

-Farmers purchasing Bollgard seeds had to pay 3-4 times more than conventional varieties and had to take extra time to manure, irrigate and look after their crops. Farmers using non-GM seeds earned on average 60% more than farmers using Bollgard seeds.

-Bollgard cotton was an "utter failure" for farmers planting it, culminating in violent street protests and the burning of seed outlets in the city of Warangal.

-There was evidence that Bollgard was spreading a root rot: farmers complained that after planting the GM cotton, they were unable to grow other crops in the same soil in subsequent years.

-Bollgard has "acquired a very bad name, with more than 200 farmers committing suicide due to heavy pest infestations leading to irrevocable losses."

In Maharastra, another southern Indian state, an estimated 700 farmers have taken their lives since June 2005 because of debt due to cotton crop failures, according to Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute (www.oaklandinstitute.org). A recently released Cornell University study of Chinese cotton farmers found that after seven years of cultivationin, there was "a net average income of eight percent less than conventional cotton farmers becasue Bt seed [marketed by Monsanto as Bollgard] is triple the cost of conventional seed," Mittal explained in a recent interview.

The three suspect varieties of Bollgard were banned in Andhra Pradsh by India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) last year. However, Mahyco-Monsanto is intoducing six new varieties of GM cotton. "The biotech industry…continues to spin Bt cotton as the way to improve the livelihoods of poor farmers," Mittal said.

"Genetic engineering and Bt cotton will not revoluionize the countryside in the developing countires or improve food security, but a new farm economy base on the principle of food sovereigny and farmers' rights will," Mittal added.

This story appears in the current print issue of Confluence([search]) Newspaper. If you would like to contact the author or the Confluence editors about this story, please use any of the following:

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