In August 2002, when the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (in its new avatar GEAC is Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) allowed the commercial cultivation of “Bollgard I” cotton in India, the first genetically engineered crop in the country, I asked, “Bt Cotton–Boon or Bane?” in the Business Line newspaper. In the article I had argued that Bt cotton was bound to fail in India.

My reasoning was that the recombinant gene technology used is a technique where much is not clearly understood because it is at the very frontier of biological science, and the results from such a technique in plant breeding would be loaded with uncertainty and danger. But half-baked science often finds its own lobbyists for personal and pecuniary reasons.

Let us start with how the science behind Bt technology has failed. When you transpose an alien gene (in this case from a soil habiting bacterium, Bacillus thurengiensis, known popularly as Bt) into a plant cell targeting a specific pest, in this case the dreaded American Bollworm (the most devastating cotton pest), it is expected that the protein configuration, which acts as a “poison” when in the gut of the pest will stay stable. But it has not done that.

That, in layman’s language, is the prime reason for failure. Resistance to the bollworm started faltering after about three or four cotton crop seasons, and other pests like the mealy bug also began to appear. At the same time, nobody ever thought of what might happen to the soil, in which there are millions of other bacteria, many quite beneficial to the host plant. Without going into the intricacies of microbial science, I can say what happens is soil “fatigue”.

This is also an important reason why the so-called green revolution faltered after about a decade of “unstoppable” spread in India. “Fatigue” is a result of the plunging carbon profile of soils. The inherent fertility of soil is a function of its organic content. Organic matter is nothing but organic carbon, its reservoir is soil humus. A soil with high organic content is more productive than one with low organic matter. The soils of Punjab, the “cradle” of the green revolution, have been virtually stripped of organic content because of continuous monocropping—rice-wheat rotation coupled with excessive use of chemical fertiliser. This in turn affected productivity as the soils could not sustain crops any more. Yields declined or reached a plateau.

Go to Punjab, the “cradle” of the green revolution, or Haryana or western Uttar Pradesh, and you will understand what I write here. The soils are degraded, the aquifers running dry, the ground water highly polluted (loaded with so much nitrate that it is unpotable), and biodiversity is vanishing due to continuous monoculture with “imported” high yielding varieties (HYVs).

True, India produced more food, large amounts of foodgrains for a while, but at what environmental and human cost? The innumerable farmers’ suicide due to unsustainable input costs leading to bankruptcy is another “feather” in the green revolution lobbyists’ cap.

This is not the central theme of this article, but the story of Bt Cotton too seems to have come full circle in a similar way. The same tale of declining yields is the reason why the promoters of Bt technology are scrambling to come out with newer versions of the original. So now we have “Bollgard II”, and only God knows when the “development” of the newer versions will stop.

An analogy from automobile technology will make it clearer. Though the internal combustion engine is the basic foundation of a four-wheeler, the exterior “dressing” that the auto maker keeps heaping on “newer” models keeps the customers coming. Voila! We have an automobile revolution, like the Bt cotton “revolution”.

In Beijing, nearly 1,500 automobiles are added to the roads every day. Delhi is not far behind with 1000. That is the reason we have “newer” and “newer” models every other year. When “resistance” to bollworm breaks down, it will then be the mealy bugs, and when that resistance breaks down, it will be another pest. The pest gets smarter than the plant. This is the inevitable price we pay in biological science of this kind. Where are the “miracle” dwarf varieties of wheat or rice, introduced in India during the heyday of the green revolution? They have been wiped out. For wheat, “Brown Rust” is the classic example.

In the process of engineering the cotton miracle, we have committed a greater folly. We are eliminating the native varieties that have stood the test of time, and survived the ravages of pest and disease though producing less lint. At one stroke, Monsanto has succeeded in reducing vastly many of India’s robust native varieties. We are the real losers, while Monsanto and its peddlers have been the gainers.

As of now, Bt cotton covers around 90 per cent of the area under cotton. In 2011-12, Bt cotton productivity was 485 kg of lint per hectare, down from 560 kg in 2007. In other words, there is an annual yield reduction of more than 5 per cent. The danger signal is flashing. Will Monsanto answer, please?

The country now spends close to ₹1,600 crores on cotton pest control by insecticide, about 50 per cent of the total spent on all crops put together. By comparison, cotton occupies just about 5 per cent of the total cropped area .

It should be noted that wherever increasing yields were reported, it was under “high intensive” agriculture. That means an ample supply of water, fertilisers, and supplemental insecticidal sprays to protect the crop against bollworm. Remove this cover, and the crop falters. This is the tragedy of the cotton farmer. Bt cotton, when grown in rain-fed areas, has failed miserably. The most telling example is from Andhra Pradesh. Of the total cotton cropped area of 47 lakh acres, the crop failed in 33.73 lakh acres. Remember, almost the whole area is rain-fed.

Go to Vidarbha, the “cotton belt” of Maharashtra, where the maximum farmers’ suicides have been reported. Why? They were simply broke taking huge loans from unscrupulous moneylenders to prop up an unsustainable “high input technology”—exorbitantly priced seeds (when Bollgard I was introduced in India, it cost an unheard of ₹1,950 for a 500 gm seed packet, while in China the same year, the same Monsanto was selling the same quantity for just $2. At the going exchange rate then, it worked to about ₹100). This speaks volumes for the kind of financial mass destruction that this MNC and its Indian subsidiary have inflicted on Indian cotton farmers.

Punjab, however, seems to have few complaints about Bt cotton. Perhaps it has something to do with their nature, as they are always willing to try out new things, whether they be farmers or mechanics. They are less bothered with the longer term consequences.

This is also why Punjab’s farmers went headlong for the green revolution. For about a decade and a half everything was fine with the continuous rice-wheat rotation propped up by a “high input technology”—unbridled use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and excessive water. The consequences of that rush are only now beginning to show up, to their grief.

Coming back to Monsanto, it is pertinent to point out some crucial scientific facts concerning Bt cotton. In November 2009, Monsanto scientists detected unusual survival of the pink bollworm (another major cotton pest), in Bt cotton fields, as earlier predicted by this author. In January and February 2010, field samples were tested at Monsanto’s laboratories. It is now confirmed that pink bollworm is resistant to the pest killing protein in Bt cotton.

Until then, Monsanto had stuck to the argument that “There have been no confirmed cases of poor field performance of Bt cotton attributable to insect resistance”. That argument was rendered scientifically incorrect by Monsanto itself. To understand the significance of this, one must look back nearly three decades at commercial cotton cultivation in India.

The country now spends close to ₹1,600 crores on cotton pest control by insecticide, about 50 per cent of the total spent on all crops put together. By comparison, cotton occupies just about 5 per cent of the total cropped area. At the height of the green revolution came the widespread use of hybrid seeds and cotton was no exception. However, with time, came the pests as well.

It was in the early 1980s that fourth generation synthetic pyrethroids surfaced as “effective” pest control measures in cotton. With “high input technology”—the hallmark of the green revolution—the initial success rate was spectacular. Soon, however, the pests outsmarted the insecticides and cotton began to succumb to them. The result was similar to what happened in Kuttanad, the “rice bowl” of Kerala, where the brown plant hopper (BPH) nearly wiped out the crop after the introduction of “miracle” dwarf high yielding rice varieties.

The high-powered central team that probed the failure of the cotton crop in northern India noted that in the cropping season (October 2010-September 2011), the major cause of crop failure was the build up of the bollworm in the early part of the season, followed by rapid succession of the broods and epidemic outbreaks from September-October.
The team strongly recommended that the use of synthetic pyrethroids be banned at least for three years, and that a real reprieve could be obtained only by mixing the cotton crop with others, such as maize, sorghum (for fodder), and bajra (millet), to encourage the multiplication of predators and parasitoids.

In other words, the central team’s report clearly showed that it was the “monoculture” of cotton--the commodity mindset and the hallmark of the green revolution–that was at the root of the tragedy. It is eloquent testimony to the misery that can be caused by an indiscriminate enthusiasm for untried technologies whose consequences cannot be estimated.

The question India must now address is: Can Bt technology save the cotton crop? To understand this, one must examine what happened in the United States, where it was first introduced in 1996. Bt cotton is the result of recombinant gene technology. It is a biochemical fusion between an organism of animal origin and an organism of plant origin. The transferred gene triggers an enzymatic reaction in the cotton plant that blocks protein digestion in the gut of the insect that sucks the cotton cell sap.

The intention is the death of the bollworm. In earlier times, direct sprays of the bacterial broth were resorted to in the US. However, after the fusion technology was perfected, the genetically engineered plant started to behave as though it had created its own insecticide to control the bollworm.

Commercial exploitation started in the US in 1997 and a review of field data clearly shows that the question of decreasing, or eliminating insecticidal sprays to control the bollworm, as claimed by Monsanto through Mahyco, its Indian subsidiary, is exaggerated. It is borne out by the field experience of Bt cotton farmers on the whole in India.

Even the economics of Bt cotton cultivation has been exaggerated. In many fields, yield (both quantity and quality as judged by lint size) was shown to be less than from non-Bt cotton by almost 15 per cent.

More damaging are the environmental consequences and “vertical gene transfer”, the biggest risk factor for sustainable use of transgenic plants in the developing world. Non-target plants will definitely acquire pest resistance due to pollen transfer from Bt cotton and insects feeding on non-toxic plants in the vicinity will be affected. There is likely to be a dramatic change in insect population, beneficial and predatory, required to maintain natural balance in the ecosystem.

This has already begun to happen in India, and cannot be reversed now, since we have been cultivating Bt cotton for a decade. Even Monsanto has admitted this, against its own earlier claims. But the adverse environmental fallout will not be seen overnight. It will build up over time. Once again Punjab, the “cradle” of the green revolution, provides the best analogy.

The overall soil degradation and increasing salinity due to excessive use of irrigation water, depleting aquifers are almost impossible to repair. One way would be to return to crop diversification, where more legumes, which improve soil fertility, are planted. It is heartening to note that the Finance Minister in his budget for 2013-14 has allocated ₹500 crores for the crop diversification programme. It is to be hoped that this amount will be well spent in states like Punjab, the iconic victim of chemically driven agriculture.

The most worrisome aspect of Bt technology is that it uses a “Gene Use Restriction Technique” (GURT)—the production of lethal proteins in the seed at the time of maturity, which will render the seed harvested from one season infertile when planted in the following season, a common practice of Indian farmers. They traditionally save seeds from the previous crop for use in the following seasons. This will no more be possible in the case of Bt cotton. In short, Indian farmers will simply be perpetually tied to the supplier, be it Mosanto or any other producing Bt cotton, and end up as their slaves.

This brings us to the crucial question. Should we dispense with this technology promoted by an alien MNC? There is, of course, the thought that the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which has the mandate to steer India’s agricultural research, could take it up.

It is my considered opinion that Bt technology, as of now, is half-baked science. The claim that Bt cotton will need no more insecticidal sprays has been rubbished even in the US, the home of this technology. China, slowly but surely, is steering away from Bt cotton.

It is not the increase in yields per se that leads to its widespread use, but the promise that farmers will no longer need to protect their crop with insecticidal sprays. The larger question we have to ask is, should we succumb to the same lure as before, and pay a far greater price in terms of environmental integrity, with the total elimination of our numerous native cotton varieties, some of which are highly pest and disease resistant. Their yield is no doubt low but lint quality is high.

Do we choose to make Indian cotton farmers slaves to agribusiness or choose other alternatives? There are quite a number available. The only roadblock is that we are not intent on learning.