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The Dramatic Failure of Monsanto’s Transgenic Cotton

The fact remains that on February 20, 2002, much to the chagrin of peasant and ecological organizations, India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave a green light to the cultivation of Bt cotton. Mahyco Monsanto Biotech pulled out all the stops: it hired a Bollywood star to promote GMOs on television (which enjoys a large audience in India), while tens of thousands of posters were put up throughout the country showing smiling farmers posing next to shiny new tractors, supposedly acquired with the profits from Bt cotton.

The first year, 55,000 farmers, 2 percent of India’s cotton growers, agreed to join the transgenic adventure. “I heard it is a miracle seed that will free me from the bondage of pesticide spraying,” a twenty-six-year-old farmer from Andhra Pradesh, one of the first states to authorize the marketing of GMOs (in March 2002), told the Washington Post in 2003. “Last season, every time I saw pests, I panicked, I sprayed pesticides on my cotton crop about twenty times. This season, with the new seed, I sprayed only three times.”

Regardless of this obvious advantage (which soon disappeared because insects developed resistance to Bt plants), the remainder of the picture was much less brilliant, as farmers interviewed by the Washington Post reported at the end of their first GM harvest. “I got less money for my Bt cotton because the buyers at the market said the staple fiber length was shorter,” said one. The yield also did not improve. “The price of the seed is so high, now I wonder if it was really worth it.” In fact, because the patenting of seeds has (for now) remained prohibited in India, Monsanto could not apply the same system as in North America, that is, require that farmers buy their seeds every year under threat of legal action. To make up for its “losses,” it decided to rely on a quadrupling of seed prices: while a 450-gram packet of conventional seeds sold for 450 rupees, the same amount of Bt seeds cost 1,850 rupees. Finally, the Washington Post reported, “the ruinous boll weevils have not disappeared.” These less-than-stellar results did not keep Ranjana Smetacek, public relations director for Monsanto India from declaring confidently: “Bt cotton has done very well in all the five states where it was planted.”

Around 78 percent of the farmers who had cultivated Bollgard this year, said they would not go for Bt the next year.
The accounts presented by the Washington Post were, however, confirmed by several studies. The first was commissioned in 2002 by the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defense of Diversity (CDD), which brought together 140 civil society organizations, including the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a very respected NGO that specializes in careful farming and sustainable development. The CDD asked two agronomists, Dr. Abdul Qayum, a former official in the state Agriculture Department, and Kiran Sakkhari, to compare the agricultural and economic results of Bollgard with those of non-transgenic cotton in the district of Warangal, where 12,300 farmers had succumbed to Monsanto’s promises.

The two scientists followed a very rigorous methodology consisting of monthly observation of the transgenic crops, from planting in August 2002 to the end of the season in April 2003, in three experimental groups. In two villages, where twenty-two farmers had planted GMOs, four were selected by random drawing. In midseason (November 2002), twenty-one farmers from eleven villages were questioned about the state of their transgenic crops, followed up by a visit to their fields. Finally, at the end of the season, in April 2003, a survey was conducted among 225 small farmers, chosen at random among the 1,200 Bt cotton producers in the district, 38.2 percent of whom owned less than five acres, 37.4 percent between five and ten acres, and 24.4 percent more than ten acres (the latter were considered large farmers in India). During the same period, they also recorded the performance of producers of conventional cotton (the control group). I provide all these details to emphasize that a scientific study worthy of the name requires this kind of effort, or else it’s nothing but smoke and mirrors. The results of this large field investigation were conclusive: “The cost of cultivation for Bt cotton was Rs. 1092 more than that for non-Bt cotton because there was only a meager reduction in the pesticides consumption on Bt crop. On an average, there was a significant reduction (35 percent) in the total yield of Bt cotton, while there was a net loss of Rs. 1295 in Bt cultivation in comparison with non-Bt cotton, where the net profit was Rs. 5368. Around 78 percent of the farmers, who had cultivated Bollgard this year, said they would not go for Bt the next year.”

To put flesh on this scientifically irreproachable investigation, the DDS added to the initiative a group of “barefoot camerawomen,” to use the expression of P.V. Satheesh, the founder and director of the ecological organization. The six women, all illiterate peasants and dalits (untouchables, on the bottom rung of the traditional social scale), were trained in video techniques in a workshop set up by the DDS in October 2001 in the little village of Patapur under the name of Community Media Trust. From August 2002 to April 2003, they shot film monthly of six small Bt cotton producers in the district of Warangal who were participants in the agronomists’ study.

The result was a film that is an extraordinary document of the failure of transgenic crops. It shows first all the hope that farmers placed in Bt seeds. Everything goes well for the first two months: the plants are healthy and there are no insects. Then disillusionment strikes. The plants are very small and cotton bolls less numerous than in the adjacent conventional cotton fields. In the October dry season, when parasites have deserted the traditional crops, the GM plants are besieged by cotton thrips and whiteflies. In November, when the harvest begins, anxiety can be seen in farmers’ faces: the yields are very low, the bolls hard to pick, and the cotton fiber shorter, which means a 20 percent reduction in price.

I met the filmmakers in December 2006 in a cotton field in Warangal where they had come to film with the two agronomists. I was impressed by the professionalism of these extraordinary women, who, carrying sleeping babies on their backs, set up camera, stand, microphones, and reflector to interview a group of farmers who were desperate because of the failure of their Bt crops.

Since the first report published by the two agronomists, the situation had only gotten worse, triggering the second wave of suicides, which soon reached the state of Maharashtra. Worried by this tragic situation, the Andhra Pradesh government conducted a study that confirmed the conclusions reached by Qayum and Sakkhari. Aware of the electoral consequences this disaster might have, the head of the Agriculture Department, Raghuveera Reddy, then demanded that Mahyco indemnify the farmers for the failure of their crops, a demand the company ignored.

Propaganda and Monopoly

In its defense, Monsanto brandished a study very opportunely published in Science on February 7, 2003. The influence of scientific studies is extraordinary as long as they are backed by prestigious journals, which seldom or never verify the source of the data presented. Matin Qaim, then at the University of Bonn, and David Zilberman of the University of California, Berkeley, neither of whom “had ever set foot in India,” as Vandana Shiva put it, found that according to field trials carried out in “different states in India,” Bt cotton “substantially reduces pest damage and increases yields… as much as 87 percent.” “What is really disturbing is that the article extolling the outstanding performance of Bt cotton is based exclusively on data supplied by the company that owns Bt cotton, Mahyco-Monsanto,” commented the Times of India. “The data presented by the authors is… not based on the first Bt cotton harvest—as one would expect—but on the yield from a few selected trial plots belonging to the company. No data from farmers’ fields has been included.” And yet the newspaper noted that “the same paper has been quoted extensively by several agencies as proof of the spectacular performance of GM crops”—which indeed was the purpose of the publication in Science.

The article was commented on at length in a 2004 FAO report titled Agricultural Biotechnology Meeting the Needs of the Poor? This document caused a lot of ink to flow, because it was an argument in favor of GMOs. It was claimed that they were capable of “increasing overall agricultural productivity” and that they “could help reduce environmental damage caused by toxic chemicals,” according to the introductory note by Jacques Diouf, the director general of the UN organization. The report was in any event deeply satisfying to Monsanto, which hastened to put it online.

“Who will pay for the failure of Bt cotton?” the newspaper asked, pointing out that a law passed in 2001 required breeders to indemnify farmers who had been “deceived”
Similarly in France, just before the Science article was published, Agence France-Presse distributed a laudatory presentation of it. I quote an excerpt, because it illustrates perfectly how disinformation stealthily makes its way through the media, although one would be hard pressed to attack the press agency, because after all it was only extrapolating from the carefully calculated unspoken suggestions of the original article: “Cotton genetically modified to resist a harmful insect could see yields increase as much as 80 percent, according to researchers who carried out trials in India,” the dispatch stated. “The results of their work are surprising: before this, only a tiny increase in yields had been observed in similar trials conducted in China and the United States.” One can imagine the impact this information—widely picked up by the media, such as, for example, Le Bulletin des Agriculteurs in Quebec—might have on small and midsize farmers who are constantly struggling for survival. This was especially the case because, disregarding all the data collected in the field, Qaim made so bold as to assert that “despite the higher cost of seeds, farmers quintupled their revenues with genetically modified cotton.” His colleague David Zilberman had the virtue of clearly revealing the real purpose of the study in an interview with the Washington Post in May 2003: “It would be a shame if anti-GMO fears kept important technology away from those who stand to benefit the most from it.”

The Times of India was more prosaic. “Who will pay for the failure of Bt cotton?” the newspaper asked, pointing out that a law passed in 2001, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, required breeders to indemnify farmers who had been “deceived” about the seeds they were sold with respect to “yield, quality, pest resistance,” and so on.

This was precisely the law that the Andhra Pradesh Commissioner of Agriculture intended to apply. When he was unable to do so, he decided in May 2005 to ban from the state three varieties of Bt cotton produced by Mahyco Monsanto (which were introduced a short time later in the state of Maharashtra). In January 2006, the conflict with Monsanto reached a new stage: Agriculture Commissioner Raghuveera Reddy filed a complaint against Mahyco Monsanto with the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC), the Indian body charged with regulating commercial practices and antitrust laws, denouncing the exorbitant price of transgenic seeds as well as the monopoly established by the GMO giant on the Indian subcontinent. On May 11, 2006, the MRTPC found in favor of the commissioner and required that the price of a 450-gram packet of seeds be reduced to the price Monsanto charged in the United States and China, a maximum of 750 rupees (as opposed to 1,850 rupees). Five days later, the company appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was dismissed on the grounds that the decision was entirely a state matter.

That was the situation when I got to Andhra Pradesh in December 2006. Mahyco Monsanto had finally lowered its seed price to the level demanded by the state government, but the conflict was far from over, because the thorny problem of financial compensation remained. “In January 2006,” Kiran Sakkhari told me, “the Agriculture Department threatened to cancel the company’s marketing licenses if it did not indemnify farmers for their last three harvests.”

“But I thought Andhra Pradesh had banned three Bt cotton varieties in 2005.”

“That’s right. But Mahyco Monsanto immediately replaced them with new transgenic varieties. The government was unable to stop it, short of asking New Delhi to totally prohibit GMOs. And the result was just as catastrophic, as we showed in a second study. This year there is a chance that it will be even worse, because, as you can see in this field of Bollgard cotton, the plants have been attacked by a disease known as rhizoctonia, which causes rot in the section of the plant between the root and the stalk. The plant eventually dries out and dies.

“Farmers say they’ve never seen that,” Abdul Qayum said. “In our first study, we saw the disease in only a few Bt cotton plants. But it spread over time, and now it can be observed in many Bt cotton fields that are beginning to contaminate non-transgenic fields. Personally, I think there is a bad interaction between the receiving plant and the gene introduced into it. It causes weakness in the plant so that it is no longer resistant to rhizoctonia.”

“Generally,” Sakkhari went on, “Bt cotton is not resistant to stress conditions such as drought or heavy rains.”

“But, ” I said, “according to Monsanto, sales of transgenic seeds are constantly rising in India.”

“That’s what the company claims, and overall it’s true, even if the figures it presents are hard to verify. But the situation can in large part be explained by the monopoly it was able to establish in India, where it has become very difficult to find non-transgenic cotton seeds. And this is very worrying, because, as we found in our second study, the promise that Bt cotton would reduce the use of pesticides has not been kept; quite the reverse.”

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