NEW DELHI -- The Indian government's decision to allow field trials of the controversial genetically-engineered (GE) cotton has come under flak from farmers' rights activists who allege this would ruin thousands of tillers in the country.
What has made the permission given to U.S. seed giant Monsanto even more objectionable is the fact that GE cotton has been rejected in leading Western nations, say the critics.
A press note issued mid-July by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), said that Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO) has been ''permitted to undertake field trials and generate environmental safety data on transgenic cotton in various agroclimatic regions of the country.''
The trials would be carried out by a joint venture company formed by MAHYCO AND Monsanto that holds the patents for the genetically engineered Bt-Cotton.
What has upset the activists even more is that the government did not entrust this task to its own fine farm research facilities.
''From start to finish, Monsanto-Mahyco's Bt-Cotton affair has been shrouded in secrecy,'' said Michelle Chawla, anti-GE campaigner in India for global environmental watchdog Greenpeace.
Chawla said the government's decision was objectionable because it was taken without public consultation nor debate. She pointed out that the European Union and several other countries have banned the planting or import of Bt-Cotton.
Greenpeace has joined farmers' rights groups to demand withdrawal of the permission to Monsanto. Any decision on trials of GE cotton should be preceded by a public debate on its likely impact on India's agriculture and environment.
According to well-known food rights activist Vandana Shiva, ''the intention is to expand transgenic cotton cultivation without waiting for socio-economic assessment and biosafety studies.''
Shiva described this as yet another attempt to introduce monoculture farming in the country that has already proved disastrous for tens of thousands of small farmers. The strength of Indian agriculture are its myriad smallholdings and the immense wealth of its biodiversity, she said.
The last attempt at introducing monocultures in cotton cultivation ended in tragedy in 1998 when hundreds of cotton farmers in southern Andhra Pradesh state killed themselves on being unable to repay creditors.
The farmers had borrowed heavily to buy specialised, costly pesticides they were advised to spray on their hybrid cotton farms. However, the chemicals were no use against the bollworm pest that destroyed their harvests.
The Andhra Pradesh disaster was caused by two bollworm species -- Heliothis and Spodoptera. According to Shiva, laboratory tests have shown that the two species are capable of picking up resistance to pesticides from a bacterium that is introduced by genetic engineering into Bt-cotton.
''Disasters such as the one that led to the cotton suicides in Andhra Pradesh cannot be excluded with large-scale planting of genetically engineered crops,'' she said.
Shiva compared the permission to Monsanto to generate biosafety data on Bt-cotton to ''trusting the automobile industry to generate data on vehicular pollution or the tobacco industry to conduct research on lung cancer.''
Opponents of genetically-engineered cotton point out that Texan farmers in the United State had sued Monsanto after bollworms attacked 18,000 hectares planted with Bt-cotton and ordinary pesticides had to be used to save the crops.
Activists allege that the U.S. agribusiness company has been illegally testing its Bt-cotton seeds in India since 1998.
A few years ago, protestors led by the famed, firebrand farmers' rights activist, Prof. Nanjundaswamy of the Karnataka State Farmers' Association, had uprooted Monsanto Bt-cotton farms in south India.
High costs of transgenic farming and consumer reluctance to buy GE products have led to a 25 percent drop in the area under GE crops in the United States, forcing companies like Monsanto to turn to India, say activists.
Taking advantage of the 1998 cotton disaster in Andhra Pradesh, seed transnational corporations (TNCs) have offered Bt-cotton as a miracle cure for pest problems. Activists like Nanjundaswamy have even accused the TNCs of having a hand in the cotton crop failures.
The perils of transgenic farm technology were discussed at an international conference of anti-GE crop experts held here last year.
Splicing toxins into plants can have far more disastrous results than simple crop failure from bollworms, the meet noted.
''Corporations like Monsanto are manipulating science and promoting scientific fraud to silence and censor the safety debate, which they see as an interference in their profits,'' said Mae Wan Ho who teaches bio-electrodynamics at Britain's Open University.
It was only this year that Monsanto informed competent authorities in Britain of the existence of additional genetic sequences in its Roundup Ready Soya.
This is said to have raised serious doubts about the scientific validity and accuracy of the company's claims and risk assessment, said Chawla of Greenpeace.
She would like to see reassessments under Indian conditions of how much faster bollworms developed resistance to Bt-cotton.
- 181 Food and Agriculture