Home--Issues--Agriculture and Biotechnology

Bt Cotton: Seeds of Discontent

By Meena Menon and Nityanand Jayaraman
India Resource Center
March 25, 2002

"We commit to transparency by making published scientific data and data summaries on product safety and benefits publicly available and accessible, and we commit to working within the rigorous science-based regulation as required by appropriate Government agencies around the world." Monsanto's Corporate Pledge

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The plot is uncannily similar. Desperate farmers, pest-ridden crops, a market of endless demand that promises riches to those who can supply, and a magic technology that promises to cure all ills. Less than half a century ago, green revolution was the panacea. Now, its the gene revolution. Gene or green, the proponents of the revolution remain the same multinational chemical companies like Monsanto and Novartis.

Many farming sector observers in India caution that an obvious Government-industry nexus is pushing genetically modified seeds in India without heeding the concerns around the potentially devastating environmental and social impacts of the technology in a largely agrarian economy such as India.

U.S. chemical giant Monsanto's efforts -- through its Indian partner Mahyco -- to seek approval for commercializing the controversial transgenic Bt Cotton seeds in India has come under intense criticism. Cotton, a pest prone crop, is grown widely in India. Monsanto hopes that its transgenic variety, known as 'bollgard' cotton, can corner this market. Monsanto's cotton carries a gene from a naturally occurring toxic bacterium Bacillus Thurigensis. Splicing this gene within the genetic structure of the cotton makes the cotton plant poisonous to the boll weevil, a notorious cotton pest.

Critics of the Indian Government's handling of the Bt Cotton evaluations say that the Government has condoned serious irregularities and safety violations. They complain that the process lacks transparency and public debate, and that the Government has neither the political will nor the technical and infrastructural ability to monitor or regulate this controversial technology.

After a four-year period of controversy and negotiations shrouded in secrecy, the Government of India is set to approve the commercial planting of Monsanto's Bt Cotton in India.

Monsanto has been operating in India since 1949, and is a market leader in agricultural chemicals. It operates three Indian subsidiaries: Monsanto India, Monsanto Enterprises and Monsanto Chemicals, and early in 1998, Monsanto acquired a 26 per cent stake in the Indian seed company Mahyco. A corporate profile of Monsanto can be downloaded from: www.genewatch.org

Fabric of Death

Ironically, it is cotton -- touted as the poster child of the failed Green Revolution -- that is set to herald the genetic age in Indian agriculture. More than 50 percent of the total pesticides used in India are sprayed on cotton crops. This has exacted a deadly toll both on the farming and on the farmers.

According to New Delhi-based food and trade policy expert Devinder Sharma, more than 10,000 cotton farmers have killed themselves after the introduction of fourth-generation pesticides, called synthetic pyrethroids, less than 20 years ago. Farmers are caught in vicious cycles of debt to meet the high costs of green revolution cotton farming: debts they incur to purchase pesticides, fertilizers, water pumpsets and hybrid seeds. For many, the only way out of the debt trap is to swallow the very pesticides they purchase with their loans.

This year, the cycle of suicides continued as large-scale crop failures floored the already debt-ridden cotton farmers from the Northern state of Punjab to Karnataka in the South. Forced to deliver a quick-fix remedy, the Government of India has latched on to the biotech bandwagon. Estimates place the Indian market for biotechnology at $2.5 billion.

Critics say that...the Government has condoned serious irregularities and safety violations...the process lacks transparency and public debate; and that the Government has neither the political will nor the technical and infrastructural ability to monitor or regulate this controversial technology.

Behind Closed Doors

In April 1998, the first field trials of Bt Cotton were permitted by the Indian Department of Biotechnology's Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM).

According to Afsar H. Jafri, program coordinator at Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, this was a procedural irregularity. The Review Committee, which had authorized the import of Bt seeds in 1995, was empowered only to grant clearances for contained genetic experiments -- in laboratories or greenhouses. Permissions for field trials, Jafri says, ought to have been given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee.

The Research Foundation, which is run by well-known globalization critic Dr. Vandana Shiva, took the matter to the Indian Supreme Court challenging the allegedly "illegal" field trials.

Even before the case was decided, permission was granted in July 2000 for large-scale field trials this time by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Dr. Manju Sharma, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, said the decision was taken after reviewing the data from the controversial small-scale field trials. According to Dr. Sharma, the data is "totally confidential" but that they allow a "clear inference" from it that Bt is safe. 1

To date, none of the data generated by Monsanto has been made public. Approval for commercial planting was imminent last year. On June 18, 2001, an open dialogue was called by the GEAC in response to public pressure. The meeting was attended by Greenpeace, scientists, officials and farmers. Questions raised about the scientific aspects of Bt cotton were dismissed and no primary data was used to counter the points of contention raised by Greenpeace.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, however, ordered a one-year extension for field trials of Bt cotton before taking a decision. In a press note 2, the Committee said the dates of planting Bt cotton were late, in some cases by three months. As a result of the late planting, the pest load was low and the yield data and the net agronomic advantage derived from the study could not reflect true values, Committee members reasoned.

This time around, the trials were to be held under the direct supervision of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The data from these tests are reportedly with the Government. [Since this report was written, news accounts indicate that the ICAR has responded positively to the tests, and that the Government will be announcing the commercial use of Bt Cotton anytime now --CWI editor]

As far as Monsanto is concerned, the ball is in the Government's court. "All trial data has been systematically recorded by Mahyco as required and submitted to the concerned authorities," says Ranjana Smetacek, the director of Government & Public Affairs at Monsanto. "If you are speaking of those Government authorities, I imagine they are governed by a protocol and abide by it." DBT secretary Dr. Sharma refused to talk to CorpWatch India.

The results of the second round of large-scale trials on 100 hectares are yet to see the light of day. But the decision to commercialize Bt Cotton is a fait accompli.

According to Dr. Sharma, the results from the latest round of trials of Bt cotton, commissioned last June, were satisfactory. She told the national daily Indian Express in Bangalore that it is upto the GEAC, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests to decide on a commercialisation date. 3

A Twist in the Tale

Shortly after public interest groups challenged the Governments haste in fast-tracking Bt Cotton approvals in the Supreme Court, the cotton controversy took an interesting turn. In January 2001, a 10-member U.S. delegation, comprising judges and scientists, met Supreme Court Chief Justice A.S. Anand in New Delhi. According to a report in the national daily The Hindu, the object of the meeting with the Chief Justice was to impress upon him and the judicial fraternity the benefits of biotechnology.1 The delegation was organized by U.S.-based non-profit Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts.

Responding to The Hindu, Einstein Institute director Dr. Franklin Zweig, who led the delegation, denied that the two-hour meeting was to influence the judiciary. He said it was to educate the judge(s) about the basic principles of public information for use of courts and court systems. The delegation offered to hold workshops for the judges of the Indian Supreme and High courts to educate them about transgenics and safety protocols in biotech research.


  1. Transgenics: US team meets CJI. Gargi Parsai, The Hindu. 5 January, 2001. New Delhi

Who Knows What's Good for the Farmers?

The Government, it seems, made up its mind long ago. It has virtually ignored the vigorous anti-GMO campaigns. In November 1998, farmers from the Southern state of Karnataka burnt down a field where Bt Cotton was being surreptitiously tested by Monsanto-Mahyco. This direct action, which launched the "Operation Cremate Monsanto" campaign, had the full participation of farmer Basanna Hunsole, the owner of the experimental plot.

Hunsole says Monsanto merely told him that the seeds would give him good results and withheld information that the seed was genetically modified. Hunsole adds that the Bt Cotton performed "miserably" in comparison to the traditional varieties planted by him in the nearby plots.

This year, the cycle of suicides continued as large-scale crop failures floored the already debt-ridden cotton farmers...

Vijay Jhawandia of Maharashtra-based farmers organization Shetkari Sanghatana concurs. His visits to field test sites at Wardha in Central India, he says, have left him with the impression that the yields and pest-resistance abilities of Bt Cotton are vastly overrated. "I feel Bt cotton has failed in Maharashtra and there must be an open discussion on this," he said. "Scientists should answer some questions -- why is Bt cotton failing here while other varieties are doing well?"

Jhawandia also says that the pests are rapidly developing resistance to the Bt gene. CorpWatch India was unable to verify this claim. However, agricultural columnist Devinder Sharma says that evidence from China and Australia do point to the possibility of increased immunity of pests to Bt.

"It is widely accepted that in the case of Bt Cotton, the third generation of the pest is the most problematic," writes Sharma in an article published by Centre for Alternative Agricultural Media. 5 "It is true that in southern China farmers have been growing this variety. But what is not known is that now they have to spray pesticides to control third and fourth generation of American bollworm insects. In Australia too, farmers have now been advised to go in for more sprays because of a drop in expression levels. With the insect increasingly developing immunity against the Bt toxin in the plant, scientists are now trying to introduce genetically manipulated varieties with two Bt genes."

GM crops in Canada are in danger of causing nuisance weeds, according to a BBC News report citing research by English Nature, a UK Governmental agency that champions wildlife conservation in Britain. The research shows that genetically manipulated "herbicide-resistant oilseed rape is crossbreeding at the edge of fields. The plants are accumulating extra genes and are rapidly becoming resistant to agrochemical sprays, says English Nature." The agency warns that this "could lead to rogue GM crop plants that are harder to control."

Free for all

Even as the controversy rages on, the Government is causing increasing concern among its critics by exposing its inability, or unwillingness as some say, to monitor and regulate the entry and spread of genetically modified organisms. These concerns take on a serious shade in light of the growing body of evidence pointing to the irreversible effects on genetic pollution on traditional and wild varieties of plants.

Speaking at a conference at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore in December 1998, Department of Biotechnology secretary Dr. Manju Sharma sought to reassure skeptics: "We have a built-in level of mechanical checks to prevent import of unwanted material."

The first challenge to Sharma's assertion came in June 2001, when a Greenpeace expose pointed to contamination of popular food products such as Pringles potato chips and Isomil baby food with Monsanto's genetically engineered crops. Importing or selling any genetically engineered food products without the prior approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee is illegal under Indian law.6 Greenpeace confirmed with the Approval Committee that neither Monsanto, nor the manufacturers of Pringles and Isomil, Proctor & Gamble and Abbott Laboratories respectively, had sought or obtained approval from the GEAC. Despite the weight of evidence, the GEAC failed to take any action.

Late last year, the GEAC was caught sleeping yet again. Monsanto-Mahyco tipped off the Government that several thousand hectares of land in Gujarat were already under Bt Cotton production, using seeds distributed by Gujarat-based Navbharat Seeds Pvt Ltd. The Committee ordered that the fields be burnt. However, local farmers, who claimed they did not know that the Navbharat seeds were transgenic, opposed this. In any case, as Rajni Dave of Ahmedabad-based NGO Human Technology Forum points out, the damage may have already been done. More than 100 tons of Bt seeds were collected from cotton ginning factories in Gujarat. No estimate is available of the quantity of Bt seeds that may have already escaped notice.

Gene Campaign, a New Delhi based organisation, has filed a petition in the Delhi High court charging the Government with negligence for allowing large-scale planting of Bt cotton. The petition, which was admitted by the court, demands that GMOs be released only after a rigorous regulatory procedure and an evaluation by an independent regulatory agency (not the government controlled GEAC).

Its proven inabilities notwithstanding, the Government has promised to allow 20 genetically manipulated crops for commercial planting this year. Indian daily Economic Times reports that: "Such crops will range from transgenic cotton and mustard to protein-fortified potatoes and pest-busting tomatoes, Manju Sharma, secretary in the department of biotechnology (BDT), told journalists on the sidelines of the ongoing India Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum."7

The evaluation process for these crops will likely begin after the approval is firmed.


  1. Fire in the Cotton Fields Keya Acharya. Bulletin 15, Centre for Alternative Agriculture Media. www.farmedia.org/bulletins/bulletin15.html

  2. Press note can be viewed at: www.poptel.org.uk/panap/latest/gepress.htm

  3. Indian Express January 24, 2002. New Delhi edition

  4. India Cheers While Monsanto Burns, Paul Kingsnorth. The Ecologist, February 1, 1999

  5. Stepping onto a Booby Trap Devinder Sharma. www.farmedia.org/bulletins

  6. Rule 7(1) of the Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Micro Organisms Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells (1989) states "No person shall import, export, transport, manufacture, process, use or sell any hazardous microorganisms genetically engineered organisms/substances or cells except with the approval of the Genetic Engineering. Approval Committee." Rule 11 states: "Foodstuff, ingredients in food stuffs and additives including processing and containing or consisting of genetically engineered organisms or cells, shall not be produced, sold, imported or used except with the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee."

  7. Govt to allow commercial production of 20 GM crops Economic Times. 5 December, 2001.

Meena Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai and writes regularly on social movements in India. Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai based freelance journalist.

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