Agriculture: What ails Bt cotton?

Agriculture: What ails Bt cotton?

Chennai, March (Debashis Banerji*) — The claim of the genetic engineering
industry to precision, predictability and safety is not backed by its own
experiences or by the science of genetics.

Exactly a year ago, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the
Government of India’s Ministry of Environment approved Bt cotton for
cultivation in India. Monsanto, the US agrochemical giant which provided the
seeds, claims that more than 50,000 farmers planted Bt cotton in over 40,000

The experience of these farmers has however been extremely uneven, with
reports of crop failure and disappointments from all over India.

Farmers have clearly found the seeds too expensive. Their per hectare cost
is, after all, four times that of non-Bt seeds. And the yields have been
reported to be less than half of those promised by the company. Bt is not
engineered to produce higher yields. Indeed, the world-over, there is no
commercially released transgenic crop that has been modified to give better
productivity. Acreage under genetically-modified (GM) crops comprises mainly
herbicide-tolerant (85 per cent) and some pest-resistant (15 per cent) crops
(Current Science, Feb. 2003). Bt cotton is also aimed at substantially
reducing pesticide costs. But this has not happened either. Bt plants are
engineered only to resist bollworm attack. Farmers continue to complain of
sucking pests such as aphids, jassids and white mosquitoes. And even
bollworm resistance has been generally poor. Bt cotton is an instance of the
plant acting as pesticide. If the plant does not grow well, the toxin inside
it will not be produced at the lethal level required to kill the bollworm.

Bt plants engineered in the cool climes of the US have not grown well in the
harsh drylands of India. Especially when grown by small farmers, who are
hardly in a position to set aside land for “refugia” prescribed by the
company. Farmers have also complained about the quality (texture and length
of fibre) of Bt cotton.

Some of the most startling evidence of Bt failure comes from a report
commissioned by the GEAC, following widespread complaints of sudden collapse
of the crop in the Mandleshwar block, Khargone district, Madhya Pradesh
(MP). The seven-member team of scientists comprised a cotton pathologist,
physiologist, agronomist, entomologist, soil scientist and a plant breeder
from the Jawaharlal Nehru Agricultural University of western MP It found
large-scale evidence of wilting and drying of Bt cotton plants at the peak
bolling stage, accompanied by leaf-drooping and shedding, as also forced
bursting of immature bolls. Much lesser evidence of the same was found in
non-Bt plants. In direct testimony to the complete failure of the Bt
strategy of planting non-Bt “refugia,” it was found that refuge plants were
doing much better than Bt plants! Through microbial and nutrient studies of
the soil, the team carefully ruled out the possibility that the wilting was
due to a microbe (such as the fungus, Fusarium) or some nutrient deficiency.
A decisive indication of a deeper malady is provided by its most dramatic
finding that in a large number of cases, where two seeds were sown at a
single dibbling point, only one Bt plant wilted, while the other remained
healthy. The report suggestively proposes that a “genetically controlled
physiological disorder” may be responsible.

It is crucial that instead of either celebrating or mourning this failure,
we try and understand it in scientific terms. Could it be that the failure
of Bt cotton yet again illustrates the fact that genetic engineering as
practised today is based on an over-simplified understanding of the “central
dogma” of molecular biology proposed by Francis Crick in 1958? Ignoring all
scientific developments in the field since then? Continuing to harbour the
illusion that the genome of an organism fully and exclusively determines its
inherited traits? Completely ignoring the latest discoveries of molecular
biology, taking which into account would undermine the very enterprise of
the genetic engineers?

Over the last 30 years, culminating most decisively in the Human Genome
Project (1990-2001), fundamental research in molecular biology has raised
difficult questions about this overly deterministic view of the genetics of
life. The Human Genome Project revealed that the difference in the number of
genes across species is too small to explain their vastly diverse features.
And even more recent research reported in Nature suggests that it could be
the little explored RNA-based networks of gene regulation that are critical
to understanding these variations. Merely inserting genes may, therefore,
not be enough to produce the trait one desires.

Not just that, it may also be unexpectedly dangerous. Contrary to the claims
of genetic engineers, the interplay between the alien gene and the genome of
its host transgenic plant is inherently unpredictable. Belgian researchers
recently found that inserting an alien gene had inadvertently modified the
genome of the host plant of Monsanto’s transgenic soyabean. This abnormal
DNA was large enough to produce a new, potentially harmful protein (P.
Windels et al, 2001). Problems have occurred the other way round as well.
Kohli et al report in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences
that in some transgenic rice plants, the enzymes had rearranged the
nucleotide sequence of the alien bacterial gene with quite unforeseeable
consequences. And no attempt is being made to monitor such eventualities
either. No tests are being conducted to show whether the transgenic plant is
producing a protein with the same amino-acid sequence as the original
bacterial protein. Nor are GM companies being asked to provide information
on the biochemical activity of the alien gene, that would help track
unexpected impacts. It is no surprise then that Bt cotton crops in India
have shown such wildly varying results.

This may also explain why 99% of the acreage under transgenic crops is still
limited to just four countries worldwide, with the US (where the GM
companies are based) alone accounting for nearly 70% of this area. We must
also note the significant fact that more than 80% of GM acreage in the US is
occupied by the herbicide-tolerant soyabean. Monsanto first provided
American farmers with a herbicide to clear the soya fields of weeds. When
this herbicide started killing the crop itself, the company provided farmers
with soyabean that had been genetically modified to “tolerate” the
herbicide. In this way, it was able to maintain sales of both its herbicide
and its GM soya! What relevance can such crops have for Indian soya farmers?

Meanwhile, evidence on dangerous consequences of genetic engineering
continues to accumulate, confirming theoretical apprehensions. In a paper
entitled “Don’t Clone Humans” (Science, 2001), Jaenisch and Wilmut provide
chilling evidence of development failure in clones before or immediately
after birth. They report how even apparently normal clones show kidney or
brain malformations. A high frequency of enlarged hearts, gastric ulcers,
arthritis and renal disease has also been found in genetically-modified
pigs. And the December 2002 issue of Nature brings the sad news that a
child, being treated with gene therapy for the life-threatening Severe
Combined Immunodeficiency Disease (SCID), has developed leukaemia. It
appears that the corrective gene inserted into the child’s body unexpectedly
activated another gene, causing one of his cells to proliferate

The claim of the genetic engineering industry to precision, predictability
and safety is not backed by its own experiences or by the science of
genetics. Indeed, our understanding of genomics remains quite rudimentary.
It would be best, therefore, that while building the basic blocks of this
science, we proceed with abundant caution in its technological applications.

[*Debashis Banerji is a plant physiologist. The above article appeared in
The Hindu, Chennai of 18 March 2003.]

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