The Bt Cotton Controversy A Leap Into the Dark?

SOMETIME in late 1998, Monsanto — the US based multinational corporation — was tipped off by a call to its (now defunct) freephone “sneak” line that Percy Schmeiser, a 68-year-old Canadian farmer was growing Roundup Ready — a genetically modified (GM) variety of rapeseed oil, the patent for which was held by Monsanto. Monsanto asked Robinson Investigations, retained by them throughout Canada to gather information on errant farmers, to take samples from Schmeiser’s farm. Schmeiser’s crop was found to possess traces of Monsanto’s patented variety.


Schmeiser argued that he had never bought seed from Monsanto or signed a contract. In spite of these protestations Monsanto sued him for cultivating their patented variety, demanding all profits from the crop and substantial punitive damages. In court, Schmeiser argued that his crop could have been contaminated by seeds from passing trucks laden with Roundup Ready oilseeds rape, or from nearby fields that were growing the variety, through insects or wind. On March 29 of this year a Canadian court ruled that Percy Schmeiser was guilty and must pay Monsanto thousands of dollars for violating Monsanto’s patent. Schmeiser is one of more than 1,000 Canadian farmers investigated by Monsanto in the past three years for allegedly growing its patented GM crops and breaking the conditions of the company’s technology use agreement (TUA).

The TUA gives farmers the right, for a price of 10 dollar an acre, to grow GM crops, and allows Monsanto unlimited access to their fields, seed stores and crops for up to three years. Farmers must also agree to destroy any leftover seed each year in order to protect Monsanto’s patent. If they wish to buy the seed the following year, they must sign the TUA and again pay the fee.

At the root of this situation, is the Patent system that covers manufacture, sale and distribution of seeds. Under Canadian patent law, as in the US and many other developing countries, it is illegal for farmers to reuse patented seed, or to grow such seed without signing a licensing agreement. This is a system that was agreed to under the WTO agreement of 1995, and all countries are required to switch over to such a system. The Indian Plant Varieties Act is being given its finishing touches, and is likely to have the same restrictive clauses that Seed Patent Acts in developed countries have. The ruling against Schmeiser establishes an even more dangerous precedent because it means that farmers can be forced to pay royalties on GM seeds found on their land, even if they didn’t buy the seeds, or benefit from them.


While India’s Plant Varieties Act still awaits approval by parliament, the government has already initiated measures to allow entry to seed giants like Monsanto. The country’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is poised to approve the commercialisation of Monsanto’s Bt Cotton. This is the final hurdle in getting approval for commercial use of Bt cotton seeds. In 1995, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO) filed an application with department of biotechnology (DBT) to import Bt cotton seed from Monsanto.

The seed was backcrossed with Indian seed. Risk assessment studies were carried out between 1996 and 1998, followed by field trials in 40 locations in nine states. In 1999-2000, field trials were repeated in 10 locations in six states and data submitted to Review Committee of Genetic Modification.

At the centre of the controversy is the genetically altered variety of cotton called Bolgard Cotton or Bt Cotton. The variety has been designed by Monsanto to withstand attacks against a common pest that has been known to ravage vast tracts of cotton plantations, called the Bollworm — hence the

name coined for the new variety that guards against Bollworm is “Bolgard”.

The new variety has been designed by inserting the genes of a bacteria called Bacillus thuringeinsis (Bt) into cotton. This bacteria which is found in the soil produces a toxin that is lethal to the Bollworm. Farmers in the US have traditionally used this property of the Bt bacteria to guard against infestation by the Bollworm. They periodically dust the cotton crops with dried extracts of soil rich in the bacteria. When a gene of this bacteria, which is responsible for producing the Bt toxin that is lethal to the Bollworm, is inserted into cotton, the altered cotton variety continuously produces the toxin. This provides continuous protection against the pest and Monsanto claims that the technology would minimise pesticide usage and increase production by 20-25 per cent. Three Bt crops are now commercially available: corn, cotton, and potato. So far, cotton is the most popular of the Bt crops, though the others too are under different stages of commercialisation outside this country.

The technology used to produce the genetically altered variety is commonly known as genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is the process whereby genes of one species are implanted in another species, to give new traits to the recipient. For thousands of years hybrid varieties have been created by farmers by cross breeding of plants and animals, in order to propagate beneficial traits. But till now the movement of genes has only been possible between closely-related species. There was no method, for example, by which dog genes could get into cats. Unlike conventional breeding, in which new species are created more or less at random, genetic engineering allows specific genes to be identified, isolated, copied, and introduced into other organisms in much more direct and controlled ways. It allows scientists the theoretical possibility to remove genes from a snake or a mosquito and implant them in a tomato or a cow.


Many scientists have questioned the wisdom of using the Bt cotton seed. The

Bt toxin contained by the Bt crops is no different from other chemical pesticides. Early on it will cause a temporary reduction of pesticide use (and associated costs), but resistance will eventually develop unless effective countermeasures are taken. Some of those countermeasures are in place as a result of requirements imposed by EPA as the condition of permits. But there are important scientific questions about whether those plans will work. Doubts about the resistance management plans currently in place for Bt-cotton include concerns that pests might develop resistance to Bt, perhaps in as few as three to five years. If that is the case, cotton farmers will soon be back to ground zero looking for yet another pesticide.

In the meantime, they may enjoy a temporary reduction in pesticide use as a

result of adopting Bt crops, but not necessarily any greater reduction than had someone introduced a new chemical pesticide. The loss of Bt, if it occurs, will have ramifications far beyond the conventional cotton fields. Bt, because of its natural origin and lack of toxicity for nontarget organisms like fish and mammals, has been widely used by the organic community and other farmers using integrated pest management (IPM) and other sustainable agriculture approaches. Although many of these farmers would never choose to use genetically engineered crops, Bt will become useless for them, too. Through no fault of theirs, a valuable natural pesticide will have been lost. Moreover, the cotton crop in India is affected by about 130 species of insects and few species of mites are responsible to a greater extent for low yields in India. The Bollgard variety does not provide protection against these insect species — it only protects against caterpillars.

The Bt Cotton technology has also been criticised for its promotion of monoculture. This is a broader problem, not limited only to the issue of Bt Cotton. Widespread propagation of genetically altered varieties of a particular type precludes the use of different varieties of crops in the same area. It leads to huge areas being planted with the same variety. Such cropping techniques are especially vulnerable to extensive damage by pests

and sudden climatic changes like drought. This happens because if the variety becomes vulnerable to a certain pest, crops in the whole area may be destroyed. We have seen this happen in past years in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, leading to a spate of suicides by farmers, whose crops had been so ravaged. In mixed cropping patterns, where different varieties are grown in the same area, a pest may kill one variety while a different variety would still survive. Exotic varieties (i.e. varieties imported from a different country or region, like the Bt Cotton) are particularly prone to such disasters, as unlike local varieties they have not developed resistance to local pests.


Curiously, while India rushes in to allow genetically modified crops, trials of genetically engineered organisms (GEO) have been banned or restricted in countries of the European Union, Japan, Brazil and many other countries. In New Zealand, a major controversy has developed over revelations that a US government official threatened serious economic reprisals if the country went forward with a law on mandatory labeling of food products to indicate whether they had been made from genetically modified crops. In Brazil, one of the nation’s largest supermarket chains, Carrefour, has come out against the commercialization of Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant “Roundup Ready” soybeans. England has been particularly harsh in not allowing GM crops and even Monsanto’s staff canteen in England is not allowed to use GM foods! More than 24 leading African agriculturalists and environmental scientists representing their countries at the UN issued a statement last year against moves to commercialise genetically modified seeds. The statement said, “We do not believe that such companies (Monsanto) or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.”

Because they are live organisms, genetically modified organisms cannot be “recalled” after their release. Environmentalists claim that the technology of genetic modification is still too unpredictable to warrant widespread replication, given the irreversible nature of the technology. Past experience shows that it is still difficult to predict the course of such organisms accurately.


For countries like India, the biggest danger in allowing commercial use of GM crops is related to the story we began with. The US has consistently argued for liberal laws regarding trials on genetically altered varieties and at the same time is pushing for strong patent protection for seeds, plant varieties, and genetically modified plants, animals and micro-organisms. It does so for its own interests. The world today consist of the bio-diversity rich (or gene rich) South and the Patent rich South. What it means is that an overwhelming majority of plant and animal species reside in the countries in Africa, Asia and South America while Patents for a variety of technologies are largely held by corporations in the US, Europe and Japan. Till recently there was a general consensus that life form patenting is a subject that should not even be considered. But the US has tried to alter the rules of the game by aggressively promoting the concept of life-form patenting. Even the European Union was reluctant to fall in line, but major concessions have now been provided in this area in the last couple of years, though strong opposition to life-form patenting persists in many European countries. The US wants life form patenting in order to wrest control over the remaining biological resources of the globe. It also wants to wrest control over agricultural production all over the world.

If something doesn’t change soon, it is safe to predict that a small number of corporations — the majority of them American and the remainder European – will have a monopoly on the seeds needed to raise all of the world’s major food crops. Then the hungry, like the well-fed, will have to pay the corporate owners of this new technology for permission to eat. Companies like Monsanto are the cutting edge of the drive by the United States to wrest control of global food production — and hunger.