In a half-page feature in The Guardian Society, journalist Sue Branford looks at the stories behind Bt cotton which was billed as a “wonder product” that would solve the serious problems of pests. Branford meets Indian farmers and scientists Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakhari who assessed Bt cotton’s performance and say that what has been happening on the ground has been very different from the official success story.
Branford writes, “Despite claims by the company, farmers were not achieving big yields… They found that pesticide use was not falling either, because farmers were facing serious problems with secondary pests. They worked out that, on average, the income of non-Bt farmers was 60% higher than that of Bt farmers. Monsanto contests these numbers. There have been other, more alarming problems. In her chat with the visiting farmers, [cotton farmer] Sattemma says she had seen several of her neighbour’s goats die after spending all day grazing on post-harvest Bt cotton plants. Such a story could be dismissed as anecdotal, if it were not backed up by more solid evidence. In 2006, more than 1,800 sheep died in similar circumstances in other villages in Warangal district. The symptoms and post-mortem findings suggested that they had died from severe toxicity. Hundreds of agricultural workers had also developed allergic symptoms when exposed to Bt cotton.”
Many farmers, like Sattemma, have not followed the debate around Bt cotton. She says it was practical considerations that led to the change in farming. “It was the 15 women in our village’s self-help group who got things going,” she says. “We were worried about the health of our children. We got the men on our side by showing them that they would save money.”
In Yenabavi, about 30 miles away, the farmers have gone further, becoming organic and declaring their village GMO-free. Their conversion also began with dissatisfaction with pesticides, this time because they didn’t work. “Ten years ago, this field was covered with red-headed hairy caterpillars,” says Malliah, the farmer who has led the change. “I kept applying more pesticides but I couldn’t get rid of them.” By chance, an organic agronomist was visiting. He showed Malliah how to set up solar-powered light traps and, to Malliah’s delight, they worked. Since then, he and the other farmers have developed other natural pest controls.
The Guardian Society (30 July, p.8)