GM cotton has proved to be a grim experience for farmers as erratic rains and high costs of cultivation have resulted in poor returns. This appears to be a prime cause of the wave of farmer suicides that have touched nearly 9,000 since 2005 (Photo by Amit Shanker)
In the sweltering cotton fields of northern and western India, a special cotton seed that is tolerant to herbicides is spreading fast, making a mockery of the country’s ability to regulate the use of genetically modified (GM) technology. The seeds, according to reports from Gujarat, Punjab and Maharashtra, are those of biotech giant Monsanto which have been genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate, the active ingredient of its herbicide Roundup. India has yet to approve herbicide-tolerant seeds.
This is a replay of how GM technology took root in the country 12 years ago.
In 2001, reports were rife of the widespread use of Bt cotton, the GM cottonseed, in Gujarat where thousands of farmers had started illegal cultivation before the regulators could approve its commercial use. Following a campaign by the industry and leading media organisations, Bt cotton was cleared without some essential safeguards. Regulators did little to check how Bt cotton was being grown, whether the mandatory refugia or buffer zones were being maintained to prevent the contamination of non-Bt fields that would also help to slow down the resistance to Bt.
In 2013, history is repeating itself as herbicide-tolerant GM cotton known as Roundup Ready Flex (RRF) spreads illegally in at least three states. Roundup Ready Flex, first reported to be in use in Gujarat last season, has since spread to Punjab and Maharashtra although the regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, has not cleared the technology. This is being field-tested by Monsanto’s Indian partner, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company better known as Mahyco.
Mahyco, incidentally, was the first Indian company to get approval for the commercial release of Bt cotton that was marketed as Bollgard in 2002.
Farmers’ organisations in Maharashtra, particularly those in Vidarbha, have become alarmed by the spread of the illegal Roundup Ready Flex. The region is notorious for the huge numbers of suicides by primarily cotton farmers in the past 15 years and farmers’ lobbies have been blaming the use of GM technology or Bt cotton as it is known for the spate of suicides. Glyphosate kills only the weeds and leaves the crop, reducing labour for farmers. However, a significant concern with the heavy use of glyphosate is that it leads to the growth of superweeds that are resistant to glyphosate.
A recent report from Manitoba, Canada, says more than one million acres (404,686 hectares, one acre equals 0.4 ha) of Canadian farmland have glyphosate-resistant weeds growing on them. This estimate is based on a survey of 2,028 farmers, conducted by Stratus Agri-Marketing Inc. This is an extremely high figure which has been disputed but in the US, the biggest user of GM, pesticide use has gone up dramatically due GM herbicide-resistant weeds, warns Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Millions of acres of glyphosate-resistant weeds are causing real harm, such as increased tillage that increases soil erosion,” he points out.
In India, the spread of Roundup Ready GM cotton is matter of serious concern since GEAC had called for additional tests by Mahyco. Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a farmers’ advocacy group that is fighting to safeguard the sustainability of agriculture in drought-prone Vidarbha, says herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton is being openly sold at Rs1,500/ per packet of RRF (450 gm) “which is highly objectionable because RRF is yet to receive approval”.
GEAC sources say Mahyco has been asked to provide detailed data on the use of RRF and its impact on the environment and approval for its commercial release is some way off.