GMO versions of 'desi' indigenous cotton threaten our organic future

Weeding a cotton field in Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh, South India. Photo: jankie vis Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Weeding a cotton field in Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh, South India. Photo: jankie vis Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
India's decision to release GMO cotton seeds that incorporate genes for Bt toxins into indigenous 'desi' varieties threatens disaster for the country's small and organic cotton farmers, writes Vandana Shiva. The danger is that the GMO characteristics will spread rapidly into the gene pool, contaminating India's unique heritage of cotton seed diversity.
Our future ecological security and our food security depends on biosafety. The Bt introduced in local 'desi' varieties will rob the farmers of their option to have GMO-free, organic cotton seeds.

Farmers, first of all, are breeders. They might not have the lab coats that have come to define modern plant breeding, but their wisdom, knowledge and contribution is unquestionable.

To be able to continue breeding, using their own seed, is their first right, their first freedom and their first duty. This right has been recognised in India's Plant Variety Protection and Farmers Rights Act:

"39 (iv) a farmer shall be deemed to be entitled to save, use, sow, resow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce including seed of a variety protected under this Act in the same manner as he was entitled before the coming into force of this Act."

All seeds bred by the public sector or by private corporations are based on varieties bred by farmers.

For the last two decades, Monsanto has forcefully monopolised the cotton seed sector with its Bt Cotton seeds, through illegal, illegitimate and corrupt means. It controls 95% of the cotton seed supply and collects royalties in the form of technology fees even tough it does not have a valid patent.

That is because Monsanto introduced Bt cotton into India illegally, before India changed its patent laws (following a WTO - TRIPS dispute), and when we did amend our patent act we introduced clause 3 (j) clearly defining that biological processes are not inventions:

Article 3(j) excludes from patentability "plants and animals in whole or in any part thereof other than microorganisms; but including seeds, varieties, and species, and essentially biological processes for production or propagation of plants and animals".

Knowing that Monsanto was collecting illegal royalties, and that there is an epidemic of farmers suicides (300,000 farmer suicides due to a debt trap created by costly seeds and chemicals) the government has failed to act. The government failed to break Monsanto's illegal monopoly, and it failed in its public duty to ensure a supply of safe, reliable, renewable seed for our farmers.

A stealth attack on India's biosafety regulations?

A Right To Information (RTI) request submitted by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) to the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur revealed that CICR has not released a single variety of cotton for the farmers of Vidarbha since Monsanto entered India's cotton seed market.

Suddenly, after 20 years of slumber, there is a flurry of activity - in the press, in the PMO, in the Agriculture Ministry - to rush the introduction of a straight variety of Bt cotton by the CICR, claiming that it will serve the farmer. 'Straight' is a word used to describe renewable varieties which are selections from farmers varieties. These farmers' varieties have been bred in the commons and belong to the commons.

Our future ecological security and our food security depends on biosafety. The Bt introduced in local 'desi' varieties will rob the farmers of their option to have GMO-free, organic cotton seeds.

Could this sudden rush be a desperate attempt by the biotech industry and government to use the public sector as a Trojan horse to dilute and dismantle India's Bbiosafety regulations? Could this be an attempt by Big Biotech to bypass the Indian Judiciary by bypassing the pending Supreme Court Case on GMO field trials? The biotech industry is using the public sector as a mask.

There are legal aspects related to GMO seeds. First is the issue of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) and royalty collections. The second is the issue of biosafety. Monsanto has violated both sets of regulation in India and must be held accountable for breaking the country's laws.

While Bt in straight varieties of cotton addresses the issues of seed costs for the future, it does not negate Monsanto's prior violations, nor is it any different from Monsanto's Bt when it comes to biosafety.

According to our field studies, at least 84% of the cases of farmers suicides in Vidarbha are related to debt and failure of Bt cotton crop. If the government is committed to protecting farmers' rights and bringing justice to the farmers, it must force Monsanto to compensate farmers for illegal royalties collected on the basis of an imaginary patent, and make reparations for the hundreds of thousands of farmers it has killed by collecting these illegitimate and illegal royalties.

Insurance statisticians have put the life of a 'prime aged worker', in the US, where Monsanto is based, at a median value of $7 million. 84% of 300,000 suicides, 252,000, are directly attributed to Monsanto's Bt-Cotton. By this calculation, Monsanto, in addition to the illegal royalties collected, owes the families of 'prime aged' working Indian farmers an amount of $1.764 trillion.

Unless action is taken on this front, the talk of straight Bt varieties is a distraction from Monsanto's criminal actions against the farmers and seed businesses of India, and the country at large.

It is also an attempt to use Indian tax payers' money and public institutions to open the flood gates for GMOs beyond cotton into our food - dismantling and weakening India's biosafety - without corporate liability.

Bt - reduced yields even with increased acreage

Monsanto has illegally collected $900 million as royalty from small farmers of India. This money was charged as technology fees for Bt-technology - a technology they promised would increase cotton yields, reduce the use of pesticide and increase farmers incomes

But all Bt managed to do was make money for Monsanto and push farmers to suicide. If Monsanto's goal, with Bt, was to wage war on Indian farmers, it's been a roaring success, in all other respects, Bt is a complete failure.

Dr. K.R. Kranthi, Director of the CICR, has assessed Bt Performance and its's impacts, as a scientist. He has found the failures of Bt and decrease in cotton yields after the introduction of Bt in India.

The tables (above right) are based on Dr Kranthi's own data and can be found here. Why is the CICR suddenly being forced to peddle a technology which has no gain in yields, but has tremendous biosafety risks and costs to the country?

Bt-toxification and death of our soils

Surely, the CICR is aware of the failures of Bt-technology and the havoc it has wreaked on the Indian cotton sector and the cotton farmers.

There has also been depletion of nutrients in the soil due to repeated cultivation of Bt cotton hybrids, which draw more nutrients and water from the soil. The crop is exhibiting nutrient deficiency especially in rain-fed zones where wilt and leaf-reddening problems are also getting more severe over the years. As Dr Kranthi writes,

"The leaf hoppers showed very high levels of resistance of up to 5,000-fold to imidacloprid and other neonicotinoid insecticides in central India. The neonicotinoids were introduced barely a decade ago. Progressive nutrient (macro and micro) depletion due to the source sink relationship because of Bt-cotton after Bt-cotton hybrid cultivation.

"Bt-cotton hybrids utilize more nutrients and water for higher yields and profits, therefore the soils are getting progressively depleted and need more nutrient recharging."

CD Mayee, of the GEAC - the agency entrusted with the regulation of biotechnology and GM field trials - and a friend to Monsanto, in his assessment, added:

"If the area under advanced transgenic seeds increases to 10 per cent in a few years from the present level of 4 per cent, the country's fertiliser consumption will increase 107 per cent to 220 kgs per hectare (ha) from the current levels (the latest available figure 2005-06), at 106 kgs per ha."

Located in the heart of the farmer suicide belt, being aware of the causes of these suicides and their relationship to Bt Cotton failure, why has CICR not released alternative seed for 20 years? Seeds that could have saved lives and alleviated the misery of Vidarbha's cotton farmers.

The CICR did not release a single cotton variety after Monsanto came to India, enabling Monsanto's monopolistic stranglehold on Vidarbha's cotton farmers. Aware of the failures of Bt technology, why is the CICR being made to introduce Bt genes into farmers varieties of cotton seed?

If, on the one hand, India faces pressure to change her IPR regime and on the other we face complete contamination of desi cotton by Bt, India will lose all the benefits of her cotton exports and will merely be paying Monsanto royalties to grow any cotton at all. If Monsanto has made the coffin for the Indian cotton farmer, the CICR seems intent to be the one lowering that coffin into an early grave.

Biosafety impacts of Bt GMO plants on soils and pollinators

Whether the introduction of Bt toxin into a plant (where it does not belong) is carried out by the public sector or an MNC, whether it is introduced in a straight variety or hybrid, it does not change the toxic impact Bt has on the environment and health. The Biosafety concerns for India, or any other country, remain the same.

A study of the impacts of Bt on soil ecosystems that we published in Applied Biological Research showed that beneficial soil organisms were being killed by the Bt toxin. Soil health has been destroyed by Bt cultivation.

Our ongoing research shows continued reduction in the ecological activity of the soils and staggering reductions in microbial populations in Bt-toxic soils. Compared to non-Bt soils, we have found that Bt has destroyed fungi populations by 31.4%, nitrifiers by 29.6% and bacteria by 256.5% in the years since we started gathering data in 2007.

Additionally, our studies on pollinators in the Bt cotton areas show a major decline in pollinator populations in Bt fields compared to organic fields. Diversity indices of pollinators in organic and inorganic farms show that organic farms had more species of pollinators: they prefer organic farms over Bt toxic farms.

A true cost study of Bt-cotton vs desi kappas

Shri Radha Mohan Singh, Agriculture Minister of India, wrote the foreword for, and also released our book Wealth per Acre, in which we have shown how agroecology based organic agriculture systems are far more efficient and increase the incomes of farmers.

The assessments of the economics of growing cotton in India show the desi varieties, farmed organically, earn farmers much more than false promises of Bt-Cotton. You can see this in the table (above right) from a CICR Annual Report that shows that the cost of seed is not the only expense that increases with the use of Bt technology, whether it's in hybrid or straight. Even compared to hybrid cotton seeds, Bt input costs are higher.

And because it's published in CICR's own annual report, they must also be aware of the fact. Their excuse that straight Bt seeds will be cheaper for the farmer and increase earnings is a fallacy. The development of straight variety Bt by CICR makes no sense for the farmers or the nation.

Farmers earn more with their own seeds, grown organically, than with the failed Bt-technology that the CICR is attempting to force on Indian cotton farmers, instead of helping them earn more by providing organic seeds. Seeds that they can grow organically without the use of imported chemicals, earn more, and help India through exports of organic cotton.

Future impact of Bt in 'straight' varieties on India's economy

The biosafety issues related to Bt crops are serious. Our future ecological security and our food security depends on biosafety. While Bt hybrids could not contaminate desi varieties, the Bt introduced in desi varieties will contaminate all desi varieties, robbing the farmers of their option to have GMO-free, organic cotton seeds.

If the CICR is being made to introduce Bt in an American 'straight' variety it will displace Indian 'straight' varieties and if it's in an Indian 'straight' variety it will contaminate Indian 'straight' varieties.

India is where cotton was domesticated. India is the leading producer of organic cotton, accounting for 74% of the world's organic cotton supply. The global organic cotton market is estimated to be $15.7 billion, with increasing demand. Without organic cotton seeds India cannot grow organic cotton. The global lack of non-GMO cotton seed is one of the most pressing issues with organic cotton today.

The introduction of Bt in 'straight' varieties poses a grave threat to the availability of organic cotton seeds, and to India's ability to grow and export organic cotton.

The CICR should be focusing on strengthening India's ability to provide organic cotton and increase farmers' earnings by working with farmers, doing participatory breeding with farmers' varieties for an organic GMO-free seed supply, instead of attempting to force Bt - a failed technology by CICR's own assessments. CICR should be increasing availability of desi seeds so that India can gain from her 74% market share of global organic cotton.

Instead, the CICR is attempting to destroy India's desi kappas seeds through contamination, blocking India's opportunity in organic cotton. If our government is serious about promoting India's rich cultural heritage, our handicrafts, our handlooms, the prime minister's office should not be attempting to expedite the death of India's fabric - khaadi.

Government must defend farmers, not attack them

The Government of India must protect the interests of the country and of the farmers.

1. Monsanto must be made to return all the money it has illegally taken from our farmers and hybrid seed companies and repatriated to the United States.

2. A comprehensive biosafety assessment of CCRI Bt cotton should be carried out in accordance with the law. Biosafety framework should be strengthened keeping in mind the TEC recommendations. On those recommendations we should not introduce any GMO in a crop for which India is the centre of diversity - like cotton.

3. A plan should be made for organic breeding of organic seed for the organic sector with a focus on participatory breeding with farmers. This will protect India's position as the leading producer of organic cotton and India's interests in the future.

We, at Navdanya have spent the last 30 years protecting the biodiversity of our crops, spreading organic seeds and organic crops, protecting species that provide the ecological services that make agriculture possible and defending the first right of the farmer to Bija Swaraj, Seed Sovereignty.

This means the right to have their own seeds, their own knowledge, to shape their own markets, their future and strengthen India by strengthening India's farmer communities.



Vandana Shiva is an Indian environmental and anti-globalization activist, and author of more than 20 books, and founder of Seed Freedom. Find out more at her personal website.

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