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SUICIDE: THE NEW HARVEST OF GM COTTON

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OAKLAND, Aug 1 2006 (IPS) - Evidence from the fields shows Monsanto\’s claims about its Bt cotton variety to be spurious, writes Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute (www.oaklandinstitute.org), a policy thinktank dedicated to creating a space for public participation and democratic debate on key social, economic, environmental and foreign policy issues. In this article, Mittal cites a new study by Cornell University researchers, the first to look at longer-term economic impact of Bt cotton. The study of 481 Chinese farmers in five major cotton-producing provinces found that after seven years of cultivation they had to spray up to 20 times in a growing season to deal with secondary insects, which resulted in a net average income of 8 percent less than conventional cotton farmers. Failure of Bt cotton crops in India resulted in the suicides of an estimated 700 farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, between June 1, 2005 and August 9, 2006, to escape debt incurred by buying the expensive GM seed. As Bt cotton continues to jostle for public acceptance, Bt crops have been attacked by \’\’Lalya\’\’ or \’\’reddening\’\’ as well, a disease unseen before which affected Bt more than the non-Bt cotton crop, resulting in 60 percent of farmers in Maharashtra failing to recover costs from their first GM harvest. Genetic engineering and Bt cotton will neither revolutionise the countryside in the developing countries nor improve food security, but a new farm economy based on the principle of food sovereignty and farmers\’ rights as the centrepiece of the country\’s economic development model will.

Monsanto’s website boasts that 2005 capped a decade in which the ”eager adoption” of technology resulted in the ”planting and harvesting of the billionth cumulative acre of biotech crops”. It goes on to hail the benefits that the technology allegedly provides to farmers: ”increased crop yields, the ability to reduce on-farm chemical use, the opportunity to transition to more environmentally-friendly farming practices, and savings in both time and money”.

This fits in well with the industry’s public relations exercise of preventing debate by creating a false sense of need. The key arguments used in this pro-industry publicity blitz are green washing –”biotech will create a world free of pesticides”- and poor washing –”We must accept genetic engineering to increase yields, reduce costs, and improve livelihoods of farmers.”

Evidence from the fields, however, shows these claims to be spurious. A new study by Cornell University researchers, the first to look at longer-term economic impact of Bt cotton, concluded that the Chinese cotton growers who were among the first farmers worldwide to plant Bt cotton –which is inserted with the Bacillus Thuringiensis gene to produce lethal toxins against bollworms– are seeing their profits disappear. A study of 481 Chinese farmers in five major cotton-producing provinces found that after seven years of cultivation they had to spray up to 20 times in a growing season to deal with secondary insects, which resulted in a net average income of 8 percent less than conventional cotton farmers because Bt seed is triple the cost of conventional seed. The researchers stressed that this could become a major threat in countries where Bt cotton has been widely planted.

One of the researchers of the study, Professor Per Pinstrup-Andersen, former director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, however, urged researchers and governments to come up with remedial actions before farmers stop using it. ”Bt cotton can help reduce poverty and undernourishment problems in developing countries if properly used,” he said.

Pinstrup-Anderson would do well to instead urge researchers to examine the harvest of farmer suicides in India. Between June 1, 2005 and August 9, 2006, an estimated 700 farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, took their own lives to escape indebtedness.

Ramesh Rathod, from the village of Bondgavhan, Vidarbha, committed suicide in December 2005. He had purchased a variety of Bt cotton at four times the cost of non-Bt seeds. Ramesh’s hopes were dashed when his crop had a severe pest attack and the leaves of the plants turned red before drying up. With the yield destroyed, he was in no position to pay back the loans he had taken to buy the seed. He consumed pesticide and died. Left behind to pay back the debt and shoulder the responsibility of a young family, Ramesh’s widow used two costly pesticides, Endosulphane and Tracer, against the bollworm pest, but the three acres of land did not even yield three quintals of cotton.

Cotton farmer Chandrakant Gurenule (34) from Yavatmal committed suicide in April 2006. He too had bought the genetically-modified cotton seeds for his 15-acre (six-hectare) farm, only to watch his crops fail for two successive years. When there was no hope left — he had sold the pair of bullocks he used to plough the fields and pawned his wife’s wedding jewelry — he doused himself in kerosene and lit a match.

As Bt cotton continues to jostle for public acceptance, travails of Indian farmers continue. Devastated by bollworm pest, Bt crops have been attacked by ”Lalya” or ”reddening” as well, a disease unseen before which affected Bt more than the non-Bt cotton crop, resulting in 60 percent of farmers in Maharashtra failing to recover costs from their first GM harvest. Some studies show that farmers are spending USD 136.26 per acre compared to USD 11.60 on non-Bt cotton since GM cotton requires more supplemental insecticide sprays.

This failure of Bt cotton crops resulted in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Indian government banning Monsanto’s Mech 12, Mech 184, and Mech 162 varieties in Andhra Pradesh (AP) while Mech 12 was banned all over Southern India. The local government in AP’s Warangal district demanded compensation from Monsanto Biotech Ltd., for farmers who lost their crop. In addition, the AP government, backed by the central government, challenged Monsanto under the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission for hugely overcharging farmers for its seed.

In the face of the evidence that small farmers have borne the brunt of Bt cotton’s problems, the biotech industry and its researchers nonetheless continue to spin Bt cotton as the way to improve livelihoods of poor farmers and to ensure food security.

Genetic engineering and Bt cotton will neither revolutionise the countryside in the developing countries nor improve food security, but a new farm economy based on the principle of food sovereignty and farmers’ rights as the centrepiece of the country’s economic development model will. It is time to renew the 1998 call of the African experts, who do not believe in the miracles of genetic engineering as the solution to food security: ”Let Nature’s Harvest Continue”. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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