A bitter Harvest for Farmers in India BT cotton and Monsanto


A woman picking cotton in a field near Nagarju...

A woman picking cotton in a field near Nagarjuna Sagar, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bt Cotton, a bitter harvest for farmers
Kavitha Kuruganti
It is clear that the mounting evidence that is coming into the public domain, including the internal advisory from the agriculture ministry linking farm distress and suicides with Bt cotton, is causing panic among GM promoters and their lobbies in the country as their false hype and failed promises lie exposed. The biotechnology industry constantly claims that Bt cotton is responsible for the impressive yield growth in cotton that the country witnessed for a few years in the recent past.
Just two common-sense questions are asked to bust the myth: how can Bt technology increase yields when the pest incidence itself, across crops and not just cotton, has been low over the past decade? Two, how does one explain cotton yield increases in India that have happened at an impressive rate when the same is not present in any other country that has adopted Bt cotton? Even a lay person can point out that the reasons lie not in Bt cotton, but on good old factors like large-scale shift to hybrid seed sources (it is only in India that Bt cotton comes in hybrid seed form and not varieties). In the past decade, the area under cotton hybrids rose to 85.5 per cent of our cotton area from being around 40 per cent in 2000. Uptil 2005, 100 per cent of cotton area in the north zone was under varieties; now, 95 per cent of cotton cultivated in Punjab and Haryana is with hybrid seed. Similarly, there has been a significant shift to irrigated cotton cultivation. Sixty-five per cent of Gujarat’s cotton is irrigated today while it was only 39.5 per cent in 2000, contributing 84 per cent of the state’s cotton production, even as Gujarat is the largest cotton producer in the country. The state’s average productivity figures complete the story: in irrigated conditions, it is 689 kg per hectare of lint whereas in unirrigated conditions, it is a mere 247 kg per hectare.
What’s more, the top cotton scientists in the country have this to say: “The use of irrigation facilities, bringing new lands under Bt cotton, low pest activity, well-distributed rainfall, the overwhelming shift towards hybrid cotton and introduction of pesticides with novel modes of action are important factors that helped cotton productivity, not just the introduction of the novel Bt gene.”
Analysis of yield also shows that impressive productivity increases in cotton have happened before Bt cotton became prevalent. In the five-year period from 2000-01 to 2004-05, yield increased by 69 per cent. In the Bt cotton period starting from 2005-06, a moderate 17 per cent increase in yield is shown over three years up to 2007-08 (554 kg per hectare compared to 470 kg per hectare). Further, the yields show a downward trend since then.
If we look at the chemical pesticide usage, one more Bt cotton lie gets exposed. Insecticide usage in cotton (value) increased from `597 crore in 2002 to `880 crore in 2010 (data from CICR’s director). Pesticide consumption data in volume across crops from Government of India shows an increase in pesticide use in all the major cotton-growing states (Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka) except Andhra Pradesh. The most damning number to expose the hype around Bt cotton is related to farm suicides in a state like Maharashtra. The annual average number of suicides in the state during 1997-2002 was 2,833 and it was 4,067 during 2003-08 (P Sainath’s information, based on NCRB data). If nothing else, it is clear that Bt cotton has not provided any solution to the crisis here, but only seems to have exacerbated the distress.
Behind all the hype and lies around Bt cotton, the truth is that it has been a bitter harvest for Indian cotton farmers and a bonanza of prosperity for seed and pesticide companies. The story of Bt cotton once again showcases how sustainable, safer and affordable alternatives, even though they exist, do not receive the attention and investment that they deserve. Ten years after Bt cotton introduction, the government should examine the cotton crisis independently and in a nuanced manner undeterred by aggressive propaganda by seed companies. It should also step in urgently to promote alternatives like non-pesticide management that have a proven track record and direct public sector seed companies to produce high quality conventional cotton seeds to provide genuine choices for cotton farmers.

Kuruganti is national convenor of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture

The Seed Emergency: The Threat to Food and Democracy


Vandana Shiva

Patenting seeds has led to a farming and food crisis – and huge profits for US biotechnology corporations.

The seed is the first link in the food chain – and seed sovereignty is the foundation of food sovereignty. If farmers do not have their own seeds or access to open pollinated varieties that they can save, improve and exchange, they have no seed sovereignty – and consequently no food sovereignty.

The deepening agrarian and food crisis has its roots in changes in the seed supply system, and the erosion of seed diversity and seed sovereignty.

Seed sovereignty includes the farmer’s rights to save, breed and exchange seeds, to have access to diverse open source seeds which can be saved – and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants. It is based on reclaiming seeds and biodiversity as commons and public good.

The past twenty years have seen a very rapid erosion of seed diversity and seed sovereignty, and the concentration of the control over seeds by a very small number of giant corporations. In 1995, when the UN organised the Plant Genetic Resources Conference in Leipzig, it was reported that 75 per cent of all agricultural biodiversity had disappeared because of the introduction of “modern” varieties, which are always cultivated as monocultures. Since then, the erosion has accelerated.

The introduction of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement of the World Trade Organisation has accelerated the spread of genetically engineered seeds – which can be patented – and for which royalties can be collected. Navdanya was started in response to the introduction of these patents on seeds in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – a forerunner to the WTO – about which a Monsanto representative later stated: “In drafting these agreements, we were the patient, diagnostician [and] physician all in one.” Corporations defined a problem – and for them the problem was farmers saving seeds. They offered a solution, and the solution was to make it illegal for farmers to save seed – by introducing patents and intellectual property rights [PDF] on those very seeds. As a result, acreage under GM corn, soya, canola, cotton has increased dramatically.

Threats to seed sovereignty

Besides displacing and destroying diversity, patented GMO seeds are also undermining seed sovereignty. Across the world, new seed laws are being introduced which enforce compulsory registration of seeds, thus making it impossible for small farmers to grow their own diversity, and forcing them into dependency on giant seed corporations. Corporations are also patenting climate resilient seeds evolved by farmers – thus robbing farmers of using their own seeds and knowledge for climate adaptation.

Another threat to seed sovereignty is genetic contamination. India has lost its cotton seeds because of contamination from Bt Cotton – a strain engineered to contain the pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. Canada has lost its canola seed because of contamination from Roundup Ready canola. And Mexico has lost its corn due to contamination from Bt Cotton.

After contamination, biotech seed corporations sue farmers with patent infringement cases, as happened in the case of Percy Schmeiser. That is why more than 80 groups came together and filed a case to prevent Monsanto from suing farmers whose seed had been contaminated.

As a farmer’s seed supply is eroded, and farmers become dependent on patented GMO seed, the result is debt. India, the home of cotton, has lost its cotton seed diversity and cotton seed sovereignty. Some 95 per cent of the country’s cotton seed is now controlled by Monsanto – and the debt trap created by being forced to buy seed every year – with royalty payments – has pushed hundreds of thousands of farmers to suicide; of the 250,000 farmer suicides, the majority are in the cotton belt.

Seeding control

Even as the disappearance of biodiversity and seed sovereignty creates a major crisis for agriculture and food security, corporations are pushing governments to use public money to destroy the public seed supply and replace it with unreliable non-renewable, patented seed – which must be bought each and every year.

In Europe, the 1994 regulation for protection of plant varieties forces farmers to make a “compulsory voluntary contribution” to seed companies. The terms themselves are contradictory. What is compulsory cannot be voluntary.

In France, a law was passed in November 2011, which makes royalty payments compulsory. As Agriculture Minister Bruna Le Marie stated: “Seeds can be longer be royalty free, as is currently the case.” Of the 5,000 or so cultivated plant varieties, 600 are protected by certificate in France, and these account for 99 per cent of the varieties grown by farmers.

The “compulsory voluntary contribution”, in other words a royalty, is justified on grounds that “a fee is paid to certificate holders [seed companies] to sustain funding of research and efforts to improve genetic resources”.

Monsanto pirates biodiversity and genetic resources from farming communities, as it did in the case of a wheat biopiracy case fought by Navdanya with Greenpeace, and climate resilient crops and brinjal (also known as aubergine or eggplant) varieties for Bt Brinjal. As Monsanto states, “it draws from a collection of germ-plasm that is unparalleled in history” and “mines the diversity in this genetic library to develop elite seeds faster than ever before”.

In effect, what is taking place is the enclosure of the genetic commons of our biodiversity and the intellectual commons of public breeding by farming communities and public institutions. And the GMO seeds Monsanto is offering are failing. This is not “improvement” of genetic resources, but degradation. This is not innovation but piracy.

For example, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) – being pushed by the Gates Foundation – is a major assault on Africa’s seed sovereignty.

Agribusiness

The 2009 US Global Food Security Act [PDF] also called the Lugar-Casey Act [PDF], “A bill to authorise appropriations for fiscal years 2010 through 2014 to provide assistance to foreign countries to promote food security, to stimulate rural economies, and to improve emergency response to food crisis, to amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and for other purposes”.

The amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act would “include research on bio-technological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology”. The $ 7.7bn that goes with the bill would go to benefit Monsanto to push GM seeds.

An article in Forbes, titled “Why Uncle Sam Supports Franken Foods”, shows how agribusiness is the only sector in which US has a positive trade balance. Hence the push for GMOs – because they bring royalties to the US. However, royalties for Monsanto are based on debt, suicidal farmers and the disappearance of biodiversity worldwide.

Under the US Global Food Security Act, Nepal signed an agreement with USAID and Monsanto. This led to massive protests across the country. India was forced to allow patents on seeds through the first dispute brought by the US against India in the WTO. Since 2004, India has also been trying to introduce a Seed Act which would require farmers to register their own seeds and take licenses. This in effect would force farmers from using their indigenous seed varieties. By creating a Seed Satyagraha – a non-cooperation movement in Gandhi’s footsteps, handing over hundreds of thousands of signatures to the prime minister, and working with parliament – we have so far prevented the Seed Law from being introduced.

India has signed a US-India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, with Monsanto on the Board. Individual states are also being pressured to sign agreements with Monsanto. One example is the Monsanto-Rajasthan Memorandum of Understanding, under which Monsanto would get intellectual property rights to all genetic resources, and to carry out research on indigenous seeds. It took a campaign by Navdanya and a “Monsanto Quit India” Bija Yatra [“seed pilgrimage”] to force the government of Rajasthan to cancel the MOU.

This asymmetric pressure of Monsanto on the US government, and the joint pressure of both on the governments across the world, is a major threat to the future of seeds, the future of food and the future of democracy.
TRANSCEND Member Prof. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecofeminist, philosopher, activist, and author of more than 20 books and 500 papers. She is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and has campaigned for biodiversity, conservation and farmers’ rights, winning the Right Livelihood Award [Alternative Nobel Prize] in 1993. She is executive director of the Navdanya Trust

Source: TRANSCEND Media Service, Sunday, February 12, 2012

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