Gearing up for Bt cotton
ANDHRA Pradesh, the state where more than 500 farmers committed suicide after a failed crop in 1998, is now set to officially explore the commercial viability of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton. Earlier this year, in March, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) cleared the commercial use of Bt cotton.
Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (MMB), a joint venture of the Mumbai based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited, and the US multinational giant Monsanto, plans to sell 1,05,000 packets of Bt cotton seeds this year. Each packet containing 450 grams of seeds will be sold in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
In Andhra Pradesh, sowing will take place in approximately 1,214 hectares of land in the districts of Adilabad, Mahabubnagar, Warangal and some parts of Guntur. A packet of 450 grams of Bt cotton seed is sold at Rs 1,600, which would amount to more than Rs 3000 per kilogram. According to A Giridhar of Deccan Development Society, a Hyderabad based non-governmental organisation (NGO) dealing with sustainable development: "This amount is tremendously high when compared to the price of the conventional seed which is sold at Rs 450 per kilogramme."
According to GEAC rules, a refuge belt - comprising one-fifth of every field - has to be set up where planting of non-Bt varieties will be mandatory. "The responsibility of effective enforcement of refuge cultivation will rest upon the companies and the farmers," avers V Sobhanadreeswara, the state's agriculture minister.
However, many question whether the farmers will implement GEAC guidelines in Bt cotton fields. "Many farmers do not have sufficient land to spare as refuge area, and this is leading to heated debates," says R Murli, general secretary of Modern Architecture for Rural India (MARI), an NGO working with farmers in Warangal district. Giridhar too believes that a majority of the farmers are unaware of the implications of growing Bt cotton. "They do not know about the quantity to buy, and that once sown the seeds will be of no use for the next season."
Ranjana Smatacek, director, government and public affairs, Monsanto Holdings Private Limited, Mumbai, counters the claim: "Each packet gives detailed instructions in eight local languages. The seeds are also sold by well trained dealers." When asked about refuge cultivation, she adds: "We are also providing 120 gram packets of high yielding hybrid non-Bt cotton seed along with the Bt seed."
The big rush among farmers for Bt cotton seeds is a major source of worry. "The trend in Warangal district is to experiment with any new variety of crop or pesticide," says Murli. He claims that a few scientists travelled to the villages, but failed to offer clear details about Bt cotton. "Since they represented the government, they took a neutral stand and were not ready to explain all aspects of transgenic cotton," he adds.
"This decision is a step towards an ecological disaster. Bt cotton is effective only in case of the American bollworm, which is just one among 250 pests that attack the cotton crop," cautions P V Satheesh, convener of Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity, a forum which discusses agricultural options for the state's future.