“None said ‘there are risks, so let's stop it'”

Wiebe E. Bijker, Professor, Department of Technology and Society Studies, Universiteit Maastricht, The Netherlands had chaired the Health Council committee. Photo : N. Sridharan
Wiebe E. Bijker, Professor, Department of Technology and Society Studies,
Universiteit Maastricht, The Netherlands had chaired the Health Council committee.
Photo : N. Sridharan


Genuine fear of genetically modified (GM) crops arising from relatively less studied science combined with the fear of the unknown and lack of transparency of the companies dealing with GM crops made most governments and their citizens in Europe and other countries oppose the technology.


Fearing that nanotechnology, another promising technology, may face the same fate, the U.K. Royal Society had published a detailed report on nanotechnology in 2004.


The report, made freely accessible to the common man, was published well before society had formed an opinion. It had listed out both the risks and benefits of the technology and the areas that still needed more investigation.


The Dutch Government had also initiated a similar exercise and for the same reasons. Wiebe E. Bijker, Professor, Faculty of Arts and Culture, Universiteit Maastricht, The Netherlands, who had chaired the committee formed by the Health Council of Netherlands was in Chennai recently. Professor Bijker spoke to R. Prasad about the challenges and outcome of the exercise.

GM crop use makes minor pests major problem

Pesticide use rising as Chinese farmers fight insects thriving on transgenic crop.

Jane Qiu


Mirid bugs have filled the gap created by killing other pests of cotton.Science/AAAS

Growing cotton that has been genetically modified to poison its main pest can lead to a boom in the numbers of other insects, a ten-year study in northern China has found.

In 1997, the Chinese government approved the commercial cultivation of cotton plants genetically modified to produce a toxin from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that is deadly to the bollworm Helicoverpa armigera. Outbreaks of larvae of the cotton bollworm moth in the early 1990s had hit crop yields and profits, and the pesticides used to control the bollworm damaged the environment and caused thousands of deaths from poisoning each year.

More than 4 million hectares of Bt cotton are now grown in China. Since the crop was approved, a team led by Kongming Wu, an entomologist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, has monitored pest populations at 38 locations in northern China, covering 3 million hectares of cotton and 26 million hectares of various other crops.

Numbers of mirid bugs (insects of the Miridae family), previously only minor pests in northern China, have increased 12-fold since 1997, they found. "Mirids are now a main pest in the region," says Wu. "Their rise in abundance is associated with the scale of Bt cotton cultivation."

Wu and his colleagues suspect that mirid populations increased because less broad-spectrum pesticide was used following the introduction of Bt cotton. "Mirids are not susceptible to the Bt toxin, so they started to thrive when farmers used less pesticide," says Wu. The study is published in this week's issue of Science1.

"Mirids can reduce cotton yields just as much as bollworms, up to 50% when not controlled," Wu adds. The insects are also emerging as a threat to crops such as green beans, cereals, vegetables and various fruits.

Rise of the mirids

The rise of mirids has driven Chinese farmers back to pesticides — they are currently using about two-thirds as much as they did before Bt cotton was introduced. As mirids develop resistance to the pesticides, Wu expects that farmers will soon spray as much as they ever did.

Two years ago, a study led by David Just, an economist at Cornell University at Ithaca, New York, concluded that the economic benefits of Bt cotton in China have eroded2. The team attributed this to increased pesticide use to deal with secondary pests.

The conclusion was controversial, with critics of the study focusing on the relatively small sample size and use of economic modelling. Wu's findings back up the earlier study, says David Andow, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota in St Paul.

"The finding reminds us yet again that genetic modified crops are not a magic bullet for pest control," says Andow. "They have to be part of an integrated pest-management system to retain long-term benefits."

From the ashes

Whenever a primary pest is targeted, other species are likely to rise in its place. For example, the boll weevil was once the main worldwide threat to cotton. As farmers sprayed pesticides against the weevils, bollworms developed resistance and rose to become the primary pest. Similarly, stink bugs have replaced bollworms as the primary pest in southeastern United States since Bt cotton was introduced.

Along with genetically modified crops, says Andow, farmers need effective systems for responding to changes in pest abundance. This needs to be based on research into the timing, dosage and frequency of pesticide use needed to tackle new pests. "When farmers decide how to control pests, they tend to overuse pesticides," he says.

Wu and his colleagues are seeking the most effective way to use pesticide, and trying to reduce mirid damage to cotton by growing crops the pests prefer nearby. Meanwhile, Chinese researchers are trying to develop cotton plants that kill both bollworms and mirids.

Wu stresses, however, that pest control must keep sight of the whole ecosystem. "The impact of genetically modified crops must be assessed on the landscape level, taking into account the ecological input of different organisms," he says. "This is the only way to ensure the sustainability of their application."

  • References

    1. Lu, Y. et al. Science advance online publication doi:10.1126/science.1187881 (2010).
    2. Wang, S., Just, D. & Pinstrup-Anderson, P. Int. J. Biotechnol. 10, 113-120 (2008). | Article

Four years of bitter harvest

Renitha Raveendran Nov 20, 2009




Sudhakar Kale, a farmer of Katpur village, shows the reddened leaves of Bt cotton plant.


Amravati : Since the seeds were first sown in their lands four years ago, farmers of Katpur village in Amravati district have been patiently waiting each season for wonders to happen. Nothing of the sort has happened yet.


With huge debts taking the lives of many farmers in the district, and even cattle purportedly dying after feeding on the plants, the 5,000-odd farmers of this Maharashtra village have decided to shun the Bt cotton — once introduced to them by seed companies as “miracle” seeds. Most of them are now growing soyabean. Some have also taken to organic farming.


“We were cheated by the seed companies. We did not get the yield promised by them, not even half of it. And the expenditure involved was so high that we incurred huge debts. We have heard that the government is now planning commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal. But we do not want Bt seeds of any crop anymore,” says Sahebrao Yawliker, a farmer.


With reddened leaves and shrivelled flowers of Bt cotton, the four-acre cultivation of farmer Anil Kale, adjacent to a greener brinjal fields, looks dull. “The red leaves are due to a disease called ‘lalya’, a rare one earlier. The stems are attacked by white flies. Even though the yield was less, it was stable. Now, to get rid of these flies, we have to spray pesticides four to five times more than that of normal cotton,” says Kale.


Ironically, those who push for GM crops underline that a major advantage of Bt crops is that they require minimal pesticides. Director of Research, Mahatma Phule Agricultural University, Dr Subhash Mehetre says that since the yield potential of Bt cotton is high, it requires more fertilizers. “Yes, Bt cotton requires more fertilizers, but then it also gives more yield. The expenditure involved, therefore, would be high,” he says.


The farmers, however, say there is little guarantee of getting back even what one spends . “Bt cotton requires huge quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. Even the seeds are expensive. If you calculate the expenditure and the outcome, the normal cotton cultivation is a better option,” says another farmer.


However, Mehtre is of the view that the decline in yield could be due to other factors like climatic change and lack of awareness about scientific methods of cultivation. “There are many misconceptions about GM crops. One is that it causes health hazards, which is untrue. Most farmers are not aware of the proper scientific methods to cultivate Bt cotton. According to statistics, there has been a considerable increase in cotton production over the last few years,” he says. But he wouldn’t bet on the viability of GM crops for the poor farmers of the country.


The brouhaha over the health hazards of GM products may not have reached the villagers, but the death of seven cows after eating Bt cotton plants has created quite a commotion. “We don’t want to take any chance. We have lost our cows. It’s better to stay away from things that are alien to us,” says another farmer, Vinod Ambadas Thaywade.


But district superintendent sgriculture officer of Amravati S Mule rubbished that the deaths were due to eating Bt cotton plants.


According to Dr K P Prabhakaran Nair, eminent international agricultural (soil) scientist, animals may have died after eating Bt cotton plants. “The death could be primarily due to ulceration in stomach. The biopsy tests done on the cattle shows that. Ruminants, especially cattle, have a different digestive system.


Ulceration can lead to severe internal bleeding. In addition, there could be hallucinogenic effects where in cases of cattle or sheep meet with instant death after accidentally grazing into Bt cotton fields,” he says.


Fake seeds that are sold under the label of Bt cotton in the market and unavailability of indigenous cotton seeds are other causes of worry.


According to Chandraprabha Bokey of Maharashtra Organic Farming Federation, the local market is flooded with many varieties of seeds that confuse farmers. “There is no proper system in place to keep a check on such things. They go by what the seed companies say,” she says.

Who owns the eggplant?

by Latha Jishnu, 10 Dec 2009, Business standard

Indians call it the brinjal. Other countries know it as the eggplant or aubergine. It is widely used the world over and every cuisine from the Chinese to the African has an encyclopaedia of recipes that establishes its popularity as a vegetable of daily use. And no vegetable has hogged the headlines as much as the brinjal in recent years — ever since Mahyco, the Indian partner of the biotech giant Monsanto, began its experiments to turn this commonly used vegetable into the genetically modified Bt brinjal. In recent months, it has seldom been out of the news in this country because of the controversy surrounding questionable procedures for testing and approval, and a high-profile case in the Supreme Court.

At least 76 lakh hectares are likely to be brought under Bt cotton this year (2009) despite the delay in monsoon. Last year, 68.92 lh were brought under Bt cotton, reflecting an ongoibg genetic pool transformation of the country’s age-old agriculture.