Mekaleswari, a farmer in Komala village, Ranganathpally Mandal, Andhra Pradesh, had planted Bollgaurd (Monsanto's brand of Bt cotton) in two acres. "We planted the way they told us to. What do I know? They said pests won't come. Didn't happen like that. Crop is full of pests. Ate into the leaves. Holes all over," she says. She points out that seed dealers then gave her pesticide and asked farmers to spray once. Despite that, pests overwhelmed their crops. "Again I bought mandu (pesticide) and sprayed. Thrice. Pests still continued to eat away", she says. Here and there, a plant grew one or two or three or five bolls. Some plants have none whatsoever, adds Mekaleswari.

Saimallu from Mogilicherla village in Warangal District traveled in the rain to collect his four packets of Bt cotton seeds. There was hope then of getting out of the rut of pesticide driven cultivation; an expectation introduced by the decision of the government in allowing Bt cotton into Warangal. It was meant to be a crop that promised relief from pests. But to his sheer surprise, within thirty days of him planting the seeds pests had begun attacking his crop. He was not alone in this, many other farmers using Bt cotton faced this and more. Today Saimallu says, "After all this what should we do? Drink pesticide?"

Bt cotton is a transgenic variety of cotton genetically modified to contain a gene of bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) foreign to its genome. Bt itself is a naturally occurring bacteria in soil which otherwise is not normally found in cotton. The US registered multinational corporation, Monsanto, first developed Bt cotton. The company claims that the seeds have the strength to fight bollworms within the plant, reduce insecticide use, give higher yield and so on. In India, Bt cotton seeds are marketed by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Ltd. The central government had permitted three Bt cotton varieties MECH 162, MECH 12 & MECH 184 for commercial cultivation in India in March 2002. Bt cotton is the only government approved GE crop in India, with clearances only for specific varieties.

On 3 May 2005, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) at the Ministry of Environment and Forests cancelled its earlier approval for Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Ltd, for the commercial cultivation of three varieties of transgenic Bt cotton seeds in Andhra Pradesh.

How must one read the decision of the GEAC? A short-lived breather for civil society organizations who will otherwise continue their lobbying efforts? A delay tactic with a final decision to be in favour of the seed's promoters?

India approved six new Bt cotton varieties for North India in early April 2005.
 •  No pesticides, no pests
 •  Case for a moratorium on GM
 •  Understanding the Bt cotton maze
Trends on decision making in this matter in the last five years or so do not offer much hope. Even before Bt cotton was approved for commercial release, the government was in more ways that one warned of disastrous consequences of this transgenic (genetically engineered) product worldwide. In one such media outreach attempt in November 2001, Kalpavriksh, Deccan Development Society (Andhra Pradesh) and Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (West Bengal) stated that "It is a simple fact that GE crops have not yet been shown to stand up to the above tests, and that worldwide, there is increasing evidence that in fact they may be causing long-term damage." The civil society organizations said that government decisions on technologies and products were being made without knowing how to deal with consequences and that this was "playing with fire."

But the government was not to pay heed to this, though one wishes it had.

The result, farmers in AP were stunned with what was happening on their fields. Protests have been ongoing. At a press conference organised by the Deccan Development Society this April, farmers aired their grievances. Local news channels have also been broadcasting coverage of farmer resentment.

A recent long-term study has thrown up startling facts that uncover the false claims surrounding Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh. The realities within which AP cotton farmers are surviving is now more evident. The study titled Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh: A three year assessment was undertaken during August 2002 - March 2004. Two scientists, Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari led the effort in Warangal, Nalgonda, Adilabad and Kurnool districts of Andhra Pradesh. Dr.Qayum is a former Joint Director of Agriculture, Commissionerate of Agriculture, Government of Andhra Pradesh (now retired) and Dr.Sakkhari works with the Permaculture Association of India.

The research was carried out with the support of Deccan Development Society, Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity and Permaculture Association of India. DDS is a member of the AP coalition and is also the secretariat. DDS is a known proponent of non-GM agriculture.

The Qayum and Sakkhari study looked at several questions. Did Bt cotton deliver high yields as promised and did the use of pesticides reduce? Or did it generate losses and contaminate fields? It found that the Mahyco-Monsanto seeds failed the farming community on all counts. At the release of their report in Hyderabad on 14th April 2005, the two scientists highlighted some clear facts:

  • Monsanto's Bt cotton seed was three times costlier
  • Farmers spent 75% more on irrigation
  • There were 8% more spent on fertilisers for growing Bt cotton
  • The pesticide consumption was just 8% less for Bt than what the farmer’s were using for the hybrid seeds.
  • Yield benefit was just 5% more for the Bt seeds
  • Bt seeds required 15% more overall investments for their cultivation

    Monsanto's seeds resulted in a net loss of Rs 252/- per acre while non-Bt hybrids helped farmers with a net benefit of Rs.597/- per acre. The findings were quite a contrast to the industry's claim that "Bollworm resistant Bt varieties could increase the yields by 30 to 40 per cent and require 70 per cent less pesticide" (as pronounced by Raju Barwale, Managing Director of Mahyco seed company in June 2002).

    Deccan Development Society's website and publications are at:
     •  The 3-year AP study
    Readers may wonder why farmers buy suspect Bt seeds when non-Bt options are also being commercially marketed to them. Cotton farming in the districts of AP had over the last few decades come to rely heavily on external inputs, including hybrid seeds and pesticides. But the crops were not yielding farmers the desired benefits. The huge propaganda with Bt cotton seeds projected as being solutions to pesticide driven cotton farming (since the claim is that they obviate the need for pesticides) came across to the farmers as 'welcome' change.

    Civil society organisations that were warning farmers with their outreach had not been able to match the advertisements in the local news channels by the promoting firms, promising prosperity. The funding and scale of the advertisements has been massive and then again, Bt cotton seeds were also supported by a willing government.

    But in itself, this saga is not unique to India. Farmers in Indonesia used Bt cotton and gave it up; those in Mali are dead against their entry; in Thailand civil society groups have unearthed political conspiracies around it and disallowed its entry. Still, in India, decision makers seem pro-Bt, with the GEAC having recently approved six new Bt cotton varieties for North India in early April 2005. The issue is about the technology itself, but in giving approvals for North India, the GEAC appears to be turning the matter into one of seed varieties.

    Stiil, it is a small victory for the farmers that the GEAC is able to see the reality for Andhra Pradesh. After three years of disasters in South India, NGOs have produced data to counter that of Monsanto's. If that push had not come in, it is likely that the GEAC would have extended approval in AP as well. This is why the current decision is a breather and that too because of extensive lobbying. In the meantime the reality is that farmers' lives have been played around with in the name of an experimental technology, and the central government allowed this to happen. It is also a reminder that those who make policies must be consistent in their thinking about socio-economic development and not just be swayed by motives of seed companies.