August 16th 2017

Society / Health & Science

India's cotton crop failure should caution Kenyans on GM technology

Indian media has reported of more suicides by farmers in Punjab and Haryana regions in the aftermath of cotton crop failure.

By Derrick Kirakadkiraka@kenyafreepress.comTuesday, 31 May 2016 10:55 EAT

Environment cotton under attack

At a time when Kenya is rushing to adopt full-spectrum genetically modified crops as a solution to food and agricultural security, the failure of genetically modified cotton in India and Pakistan provide a context that our agricultural policymakers should understand.

Cotton is one of the oldest crops on the Indian subcontinent and is grown extensively in India, which is the world’s largest producer of the crop and the second largest exporter of cotton products.

Indian media continues to report of suicides by farmers in Punjab and Haryana regions, which provide 15 per cent of the country’s cotton output, in the aftermath of extensive damage to the cotton crop in the 2015-2016 season.

Many Indian farmers who depend on cotton for their family sustenance take commercial loans for seeds and cultivation, so crop failure affect them adversely. This year’s failure, which environmental activists say was unprecedented, saw many farmers take their own lives.

The acreage under cotton farming in the two regions has also dwindled considerably as farmers avoid the crop following its devastation by the pink silk worm that infects genetically modified cotton and not the indigenous species. Genetically modified cotton (popularly known as Bt cotton) has been found to be susceptible to the worm, which is so strong that its traces remain even in harvested crops and can survive in the soil to affect the next season's crop.

Genetically modified cotton (known commonly as Bt cotton) was introduced in India in 1995 by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Pvt. Ltd, a joint venture between Mahyco and Monsanto. It became a huge success and was widely adopted. In just five years, the area under Bt cotton grew over 210 times to record over 6.2 million ha, while the number of Bt farmers rose by 190 times to reach 3.8 million.

As of 2016, around eight million farmers grow cotton in India and Bt cotton technology supplied by MMBL makes up over 90 percent of the seed market, according to Indian agriculture statistics.

Despite the initial success, the widespread failure of the cotton has led to growing resistance in the two regions and other parts of the country. This is because the failure arose from poor quality seeds, bollworm resistance and secondary pests, the very problems that genetic modification was to address.

A Joint Action Committee appointed by the Punjab and Haryana state governments established the native non-GM variety (arboreum) is immune to cotton leaf curl viral disease and comparatively tolerant to white fly and other sucking insect pests. Its cultivation has risen.

Across the border, destruction by the pink bollworm in Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces has reduced cotton production, moving the country from a net exporter to importer of cotton in a matter of years.

According to figures from Pakistan’s Cotton Commissioner published in the country’s media in May-June, the country had to import cotton worth $4 billion in 2015 to meet demand.

Production in Punjab declined from 10.5 million bales to 7.4 million bales, while that in Sindh went down from 4.4 million bales to 3.4 million bales.

Anti-GM protesters accuse multinationals promoting GM crops of trying to control India’s agriculture and market. Suman Sahai, convener of Delhi-based nongovernmental organization Gene Campaign, was reported asking the government to suspend Bt cotton given the repeated failure of cotton to meet it promises.

Currently GM cotton is the only transgenic crop commercially available in farmer fields in India, but there are plans to approve transgenic mustard seed available in farmer fields. Anti-GM campaigners say this could be a gateway to several other GM food crops which may pose health and ecological risks.

In Kenya, opposition to GM technologies is not quite organized. GM crops have won considerable support from government officials. In 2009, the then Agriculture Minister William Ruto lifted the ban on genetically modified seeds.

The goal, according to Ruto, was to maximize agricultural production, improve health services and conserve the environment. The buzz from the pro-GMO bandwagon has died down, but there are no official estimates on the amount of GM products being consumed in Kenya.

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