India judges Bt cotton

April 2011

Picture from Wiki Commons
A two-day conference of senior judges and farmers in India has identified some very uncomfortable aspects relating to the regulatory procedures and growing of GM insecticidal, 'Bt' cotton. The issue under consideration was “Emerging Jurisprudence of Genetic Engineering: Food, Farming and Biosafety”.

Eleven farmers described their experiences after they had been “duped” into cultivating GM cotton. Besides being given inadequate information on the identity and quality of the seed, the company gave false promises of high yields and low pesticide use.

The farmers' evidence included:
  • Bt cotton seeds were found to be good for an initial boost in production for one or two years, after which there was consistent failure
  • There were large scale losses of Bt crops in a good number of farms due to the pods failing to mature and break open naturally, and instances of the plants starting to die off before providing any yield.
  • When farmers chose to revert to traditional cotton or other crops, the soil required restoration at considerable cost before profitable cultivation was possible
  • Farm workers suffered severe, non-healing, skin irritations and disease, bronchial and other health problems.
  • Cattle grazed on cotton residues, as is customary, developed health problems including diarrhoea, and diseases which veterinarians were unable diagnose. There were increases in livestock mortality, abortion, and infertility rates.
  • Pests increased in the neighbourhood of Bt cotton.
  • The farmers also noted how GM cotton was destroying their heritage. Previously excellent local varieties of traditional seed have, essentially, been lost. Government and seed agencies have not taken steps to maintain this supply or to support the farmers.
Five high court judges, including one chief justice, listened to the farmers' experiences and then made a number of 'observations' (judges are not allowed to give 'opinions' outside of court):
  • GM legislation must be in accordance with the fundamental rights of the citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution
  • Regulatory procedure on GM must be independent of the seed manufacturers
  • The identity of persons involved in GM regulatory procedure must be in the public domain to ensure scrutiny, transparency and credibility
  • GM agriculture should only be permitted if it doesn't in any way impair biodiversity or other ecological parameters
  • Any provision which would enable the silencing of the Indian public voice should necessarily be excluded from the statute (this was in response to an earlier provision made by the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill that anyone questioning the safety of GM products without scientific proof would be liable to imprisonment and a hefty fine).

If the above observations seem a bit extreme, it's worth noting that all of the statements emerging from this Indian conference resoundingly echo earlier complaints from Colombian Bt cotton growers.

In 2007, the Colombian authorities were condemned for their failure to regulate GM. An open letter from the Latin American Scientific Conference of Agroecology warned the government that:
“cultural tradition, historically the facilitator of national food security, will be vulnerable and ruined by the irresponsible (GM) policies of the Colombian state, which measures agricultural activity in terms of productivity and increases social inequality in the Colombian rural sector, forgetting their commitment to national sovereignty starting with food as a fundamental human right.”
The realities of these predictions unfolded in 2010 when Monsanto was fined for the poor performance of its GM cotton seed during the 2008-2009 growing season: “Seven years after having released the seeds of GM cotton commercially, their failure is evident. They did not live up to promises of being more productive, nor of reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, nor the lowering of production costs, nor the generation of greater profits for growers. Monsanto presented GMO technology as a the redemption of the cotton industry; in reality it has helped to take growers to the bottom of an abyss ...” (Red por una America Latina Libre de TransgĂ©nicos).


Curiously, the BBC World Service seems to have adopted its own a pro-GM, pro-biotech-company version of journalism. In fact, activist and scientist, Vandana Shiva, has suggested the BBC be renamed the 'Biotech Broadcasting Company'.

Less than two weeks after the Indian conference, the BBC collaborated with biotech giant DuPont to produce a panel discussion entitled “Feeding India: What will it take? (A Global Collaboratory on Food)”. The focus of the discussion was food security and the potential for new technology to boost food production and related environmental and sustainability issues. The outcome of the discussion is under wraps, but the panel chosen by the BBC was one hundred percent pro-GM (see note below), which suggests a foregone conclusion that India should grow and eat GM.

Has our BBC been primed to support the UK government's Foresight Report? (see FORESIGHT - April 2011)? Let's hope the Indian government listens to its own judges and not to the BBC.

BBC/DuPont panel chosen to discuss “Feeding India: What will it take? (A Global Collaboratory on Food)”
  • President of DuPont, South Asia
  • CEO and Director of CropLife India, and Retired Executive Director of Syngenta
  • The father of India's Green Revolution
  • Depute Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research
  • A pro-GM farmer well-known to Monsanto and DuPont

  • Farmers from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Anhra narrate bitter Bt cotton tales, Daily News & Analysis,, 28.03.11
  • Judge' round table on genetic engineering, Southern Action on Genetic Engineering Press Release 27.03.11
  • Carmelo Ruiz Marrero, GM cotton has been a failure in Colombia, Americas Program Biodiversity Report, April 2010,
  • BBC/DuPont collaborating on pro-GM fest, and Aruna Rodrigues

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