On February 12, 2011, the justice department and the US department of agriculture held a meeting in Ankeny, in suburban Iowa, the “corn belt” of US, to probe alleged “competitive dynamics of the seed industry”. Outside, a huge coalition of families of farmers, consumers and other critics of corporate agriculture gathered chanting “bust up big ag (agriculture)” demanding the end of the stranglehold of Monsanto on the seed industry through unfair market manipulation. It would be educative to examine our experience.
In November 2009, Monsanto’s scientists detected unusual survival of the dreaded pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella) in Bt cotton fields, thrashing its very stand that Bolgard I, India’s first genetically modified (GM) crop, officially released for commercial cultivation by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC, then, now rechristened as Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) on March 26, 2002, is resistant to the dreaded insect attack. This author was the first agricultural scientist in India to raise objection to the GEAC’s decision, based on incontrovertible facts. A heated debate followed, including a PIL in Supreme Court. In January and February 2010, samples taken from the fields were tested in Monsanto’s laboratories, confirming that Bolgard I was, indeed, susceptible to the pink bollworm attack, and the pest is now resistant to the pest-killing protein in Bolgard I. Monsanto has been arguing that “there has been no confirmed cases of poor field performance of Bt cotton attributable to insect resistance”. Eight years down the line Monsanto admitted its failure. The question is why?
Before I answer, here are some important facts. Bolgard I was priced at Rs 1950 for a 450-gram packet and Monsanto garnered a sale of Rs 260 crore in the first cotton season justifying the astronomical price based on a “trait value” of Rs 1250 per packet. This author, while in China, noted that the same Bt cotton seed was selling at USD 2 a packet (equivalent to about Rs 100 then)–a far cry from the Rs 1950 charged to Indian farmers. An outcry followed, and the Andhra Pradesh government, where cotton is a principal crop, intervened, invoking the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices (MRTP) law and clamped a ceiling price at Rs 750. Still, the company made huge profits. Obviously, Monsanto had different business strategies in India and China. The Bt cotton produced by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences was offering stiff competition, while in India that was not the case, because both ICAR and the Central Cotton Research Institute chose to sleep, and when they woke up and tried, the attempt not only failed, but was a fraud.
Approximately Rs 1600 crore is spent annually on cotton pest control through insecticidal sprays, about 50 per cent of the total spent on all crops. India’s cotton cropped area is about 5 per cent of the total. At the height of the so-called green revolution came hybrid cotton, and with time came the pests as well, like in other crops. In the 1980s fourth-generation synthetic pyrethroids surfaced as “effective” pest control for hybrid cotton, with initial “spectacular” success. Soon, the pests outsmarted the insecticidal sprays and cotton began to succumb.
The high-powered central team of agricultural experts, which probed the failure of cotton in northern India, noted that the major cause for crop failure was the build-up of the bollworm in the early part of the season, followed by rapid succession of the broods and their epidemic outbreaks from September to October. The team strongly recommended banning pyrethroids for three years and noted a reprieve could be had only by mixing cotton crop with others to encourage multiplication of the predators and parasitoids. The team pointedly noted that the “monoculture mindset” of the green revolution enthusiasts was at the centre of this tragedy. The time-tested practice of mixed cropping was rapidly giving way to monoculture, and, environmental havoc was beginning to strike.
Can Bt technology save the cotton crop forever? Let us take the US example, where it was introduced in 1996. Bt cotton derives its name because of the transfer of a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium—Bacillus thuringiensis—into the plant cell through what is known as the “recombinant gene technology”. A biochemical fusion at the genetic level, between a plant cell and a bacterium, leads to an enzymatic reaction that blocks protein digestion in the gut of the bollworm, when it feeds on the cotton plant. Earlier, direct sprays of the bacterial broth were resorted to in the US. However, after perfecting the fusion technology, the genetically engineered cotton plant started to behave as though it created its own insecticide. Commercial exploitation started in the US in 1997 and review of field data clearly shows full elimination of insecticidal sprays, as claimed by Monsanto, simply doesn’t happen. Similar is the experience here.
Both Vertical Gene Transfer and Gene Use Restriction Technique, features of the Bt technology, portends ill for Indian farming. The former will lead to non-target plants acquiring pest resistance, and, the latter will render seeds of one season not germinating when used in the next.
Monsanto introduced Bolard II in 2006 and is now readying with an insecticide—Round Up Ready Flex (RRF), selectively used for Bt cotton and Bollgard III. The MNC is laying the foundation to tie the Indian farmer permanently to its seed and insecticide. And, its strategy is to completely eliminate all native cotton varieties in future, perhaps, 10-15 years from now. This will simply be suicidal to Indian cotton farming. It is worth noting in this context that Monsanto recently received the World Food Prize.
Monsanto’s belated “admission” of failure of Bolgard I is a clever and devious business strategy rather than an unequivocal admission of technology failure. Interestingly, Monsanto India had suggested that Indian farmers should now switch to Bolgard II to delay the resistance built up by the insect. The Supreme Court had ordered Monsanto to sell Bolgard I at a reduced price, until the issue of royalty is resolved. Monsanto has shot down two birds: leave the Bolgard I behind and the competition that cropped up from other private vendors, who bought its technology, and go for a kill by the “new” product, Bolgard II. It must be noted that the US justice department has launched an anti-trust investigation against Monsanto, which controls over 90 per cent of the biotech crops worldwide.
(The author is an international agricultural scientist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)