The ongoing debate on biotechnology crops in India took a new turn on Friday when American seed firm Monsanto disclosed that cotton pest–pink bollworm–has developed resistance to its much-touted Bt cotton variety in Gujarat.
The company has reported to the regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), that pink bollworm has developed resistance to its genetically modified (GM) cotton variety, Bollgard I, in Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot districts in Gujarat.
This was detected by the company during field monitoring in the 2009 cotton season.
The Bt cotton variety in question was developed using a gene–Cry1AC–derived from soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. It was supposed to be resistant to pest attacks. But, of late, the pest has developed resistance to the gene.
The same gene has been used in Bt brinjal to make it resistant to pests. Bollgard cotton was cited as a great success of GM technology by Union science minister Prithviraj Chavan in his July 2009 letter to former health minister A. Ramadoss.
“Resistance is natural and expected,” Monsanto said in a statement. The company blamed pink bollworm resistance to Cry1Ac protein in Gujarat to “early use of unapproved Bt cotton seeds” by farmers and “limited refuge planting”. Farmers are supposed to maintain a distance between Bt cotton farms and other farms as a “refuge”. It also advised farmers to take up “need-based application of insecticide sprays” and “properly manage crop residue and unopened bolls after harvest”. A second generation variety, Bollgard II, introduced by Monsanto in 2006, contains two proteins, Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab.
The company says no resistance has been observed in the variety anywhere in the country, including Gujarat.
The revelation has not surprised environment action groups. “This is the pattern Monsanto has been following everywhere. Once Bollgard 1 fails, they start pushing Bollgard 2 and tell farmers to apply more pesticides. This is a vicious circle that Indian cotton farmers have got into,” Devinder Sharma of Forum for Biotechnology and Food Safety said.
“There is a lesson here for Bt brinjal because the arguments in favour of the crop are same as those given for Bollgard cotton,” Kavita Kuruganti of Kheti Virasat said.
In a report submitted to environment minister Jairam Ramesh, K.R. Kranthi of the Central Institute for Cotton Research had cautioned about the likely failure of Bt cotton. “Farmers are not following the recommended ‘refugia’. With about 90 per cent area under Bt cotton, bollworms can develop resistance soon. The concern needs to be addressed on priority before it is too late,” the report says.
Not only has Bt cotton been rendered ineffective, it has also led to detection of some new pests never before reported from India. It is toxic only to bollworm and does not control any other pests of cotton. “New sucking pests have emerged as major pests causing significant economic losses”, the report says.
At the same time, productivity of cotton has fallen from 560 kg lint per hectare in 2007 to 512 kg lint per hectare in 2009.
And pesticide expenditure has gone up from from Rs 597 crore in 2002 to Rs 791 crore in 2009.