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Finally I have seen Bt cotton
by PV Satheesh

Bt cotton had always been an object of curiosity. I had read millions of words on it - on websites, in emails, and on the pages of magazines. Its seductive pictures in the Monsanto journal Biotechnology Update had heightened my curiosity. I had fought pitched battles against it in the South Indian State of Andhra Pradesh from where Monsanto was told to get out by the state parliament. I had joined forces with others to halt its approval for large field trials by the Government of India. I had addressed innumerable media conferences against it.

But I had never seen it.

Finally I did - in July last year.

I saw it in the district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh which is about 250 kms away from Pastapur, the village where I have been living and working for the last 15 years. Warangal District represents a perfect model for the devastation inflicted by industry promoted agriculture - devastation especially for small and marginal farmers. Until about 20 years ago its rich and fertile black soils grew dozens of varieties of - mainly food - crops. But this all changed with the influx of farmers from the coastal part of the State, who had rendered their own soils lifeless by growing tobacco and cotton for decades. They came looking for fresh soils to continue their destructive brand of agriculture and found Warangal ideal. The locals copied them and started cotton cultivation on their small and marginal farms. This was a recipe for disaster.

In 1998 alone, more than 150 farmers in Warangal committed suicide by consuming pesticides which they had bought to fight the pests on their cotton fields. They felt that this was the only way they could get off the pesticide treadmill they had climbed onto. The increasing resistance of pests to pesticides, the decreasing yields and the tightening debt trap had left no option for them but die.

The Government played a diabolical role in this affair. It blamed everyone for the farmers' suicides but itself: pesticide dealers for supplying 'spurious' pesticides, seed agencies for inferior seeds that did not germinate, and farmers themselves for glutting the market with cotton leading to low prices. Everyone was game for the government's blame machinery. But the government would never admit that by promoting monocultures in a district which had grown a rich variety of crops, it had forced farmers to destroy their soils and crops. The Government's inhuman attitude was so blatant that one senior minister even made a public statement that farmers were committing suicide to attract insurance.

This situation provided the ideal entry point for the biotech industry. Bt cotton had been kicked out by the government once already, following intense pressure from NGOs, led by the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity and a number of farmers groups. But playing on farmers despair and governmental machinations, Bt cotton was now to be planted in Warangal.

Three years were an aeon

During those three years Andhra Pradesh had become the favourite hunting ground for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Bill Gates had become the state's patron saint. Dead and buried were the evocative imageries of the state where its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had described himself as the "First Servant of the people". The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, has turned a democratic state into a corporation, and enjoys the title of "CEO of Andhra Pradesh" that he has been given. His 'corporation' is answerable to an invisible Board of Governors made up of the World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank and the UK's Department for International Development. This is a state which never stops priding itself on its supposed position as the "Knowledge Hub" of India. With the rise of a number of cheap labour subsidiaries to US computer industries, the State masquerades this effort as building a new knowledge society. For a Chief Minister smitten with information technology, the next step to salvation is… biotechnology.

The state embraced biotechnology in an obscene hurry. It has already set up the Genome Valley project, a blatant policy to support the biotech industry. When the Government of India granted approval for planting of Bt Cotton in the country, Andhra Pradesh was obviously the first choice destination. It had the most supportive government and a fake farmer's organisation on the payroll of Monsanto. Farmers were desperate and willing to clutch any straw. The government was desperate to add another feather of modernity to its dunce's cap. Curiously, the State's Agriculture Minister advised small farmers not to expect much from Bt, but failed to say why they were promoting it so eagerly.

Preparations for planting began in the months of May and June, 2002. At the same time the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity, a coalition of over 140 civil society groups in Andhra Pradesh, of which I am the convenor, also started to get ready. Having failed in our attempt to halt the approval for planting, we decided to go to the farmers and explain to them the implications of planting Bt cotton. By and large we succeeded. The District had planned to plant Bt on more than 4,500 acres. But as a result of the vigorous campaign by Coalition partners in 100 villages, this area was reduced by two thirds. Many farmers who had bought the Bt cotton seeds from the dealers returned them after listening to the arguments of the activists. The final planting was only done on just over 1,500 acres.

Buoyed by the success of its campaign, the Coalition planned its next season's campaign by systematically documenting of the experiences of farmers who had planted it this year. Stories were pouring in from various parts of India - from Madhya Pradesh in Central India, from Vidarbha in the West and from different parts of Andhra Pradesh (Adilabad, Mahboobnagar and Warangal), farmers, agricultural scientists and activists were citing examples from site after site of the collapse of Bt. In one region of Vidarbha, a farmers group had decided to sue Monsanto for five billion rupees ($10.5 million) of compensation.

Bt cotton captured on celluloid

Things were hotting up in Warangal too. The Community Media Trust of Pastapur, a remarkable media group of farming women, tracked the experiences of half a dozen Bt farmers in Warangal by regularly visiting and filming them on their farms from the time they planted their Bt until they harvested it. Every one of these farmers had started Bt cotton cultivation with great hope. In the first two months they had exulted over the results on their farms: the plants were doing well, the pests were no where to be seen, and the cotton bolls had set in good numbers. The farmers thought they had discovered their panacea.

But as they moved towards the fourth month the smiles started waning. Their Bt plants were very short in stature and had fewer bolls than their conventional hybrid plants growing in the adjacent fields. And suddenly they were discovering that due to the prevailing drought, pests had almost disappeared from even the conventional hybrids. But thrips and white flies had attacked their Bt plants vigorously. By November, smiles had turned to frowns. The Bt cotton yields were less than those promised by Mahyco-Monsanto. The bolls were difficult to pluck and labour expenses were 25% more than for their conventional hybrids. And when the farmers took their cotton to market, Bt cotton was selling for 20% less than conventional varieties because of its shorter staple lengths.

The farmers were furious

In a remarkable final sequence of the film, angry farmers were saying one after the other that they would never touch Bt again in their life. This is interesting. Because in its submission before the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Government of India (the committee which regulates all the field sowing of GM crops), Monsanto-Mahyco had claimed that Bt cotton would increase yields by 50%. What had resulted was actually the reverse.

In another study in Warangal, two agricultural scientists reported that "farmers growing Bt earned 40% less than non-Bt farmers, pesticide sprays have not come down because of Bt and safety protocols have been completely lacking in the Bt farms". Furthermore, "at the end of the cotton season the Bt farmers in Warangal will have earned about five to six thousand rupees ($105-125) more per acre than non-Bt farmers".

Study after study and experience after experience has shown that Bt cotton in India has given yields lower than conventional cotton, has not reduced pesticide sprays, and the monetary returns have been miserably lower. A series of devastating reports and damning newspaper articles on Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh sent the Mahyco-Monsanto company hurrying off to develop new face-saving strategies. For once the industry had no reply.

In a meeting of Bt farmers at Warangal, organised by the AP Coalition in Defence of Diversity, farmer after farmer stood up and narrated the losses and failures they had suffered by planting Bt. Every one of them was despondent. Then the question came: Would they plant Bt cotton the next season? What one farmer told the meeting stunned me. "See, we read the progress made by China by planting Bt Cotton. How can we refuse the technology?"

He was a small farmer. He had been devastated by his own Bt experience this year. But he was already dreaming of another season; dreaming of a triumph that he will never see. The campaign of (mis)information by the industry and government had won over his personal experience; propaganda over reality. The insidiousness of the biotech industry had started working even before he had overcome his personal trauma. How can we disprove this myth? Can reality help realisation or is the dream induced by the Life industry too powerful for personal realities to overcome?

I had finally seen Bt Cotton. For what it was.


PV Satheesh is the Director of the Deccan Development Society, which works with more than 5,000 women farmers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, faciliating activities from seed saving and community grain funds to setting up collective land leases.
He is also the convenor of the AP Coalition in Defence of Diversity and the India Coordinator of the South Asia Network for Food, Ecology & Culture (SANFEC). Satheesh is a member of GRAIN's board and is pictured here with a farmer from Medak district in Andhra Pradesh.
Here, they are discussing the millet and hibiscus varieties growing on her small, but diverse, farm.

Reference for this article: P V Sateesh, 2003, Finally I have seen Bt cotton, Seedling, January 2003, GRAIN
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