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Rice Article: Thailand  

Bitter-sweet of GM crops
By Pennapa Hongthong
The Nation, January 7, 2004

Before the government makes any decision on lifting the ban on field tests for genetically modified (GM) crops or allows farmers to grow GM crops for commercial purposes it should heed the experience of other Asian countries.

Since June 2001, about 12,000 cotton farmers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh’s Warangal district have decided to grow genetically modified cotton, called Bt cotton, following the suggestion of the world’s biggest transnational seed company Monsanto. Unfortunately, about 200 of them committed suicide in the first year of growing the crop.

The Hindu, a prestigious English-language daily, last May reported a story about the demand made by non-governmental organisations for the Andhra Pradesh state government, which authorised the growing of Bt cotton, to take responsibility for the deaths of the farmers.

In Indonesia, Monsanto decided to temporarily stop providing Bt cotton seed to the market early last year after starting the business in 2000. The company reasoned that it could not continue the business which still has an uncertain future in that country.

Bt cotton was developed through plant biotechnology by inserting a gene of bacteria into the plant’s genome to enable it to resist ballworm, a major pest for cotton. The company claimed that it would help in decreasing the use of pesticide. Bt cotton was introduced to farmers in India as well as in other countries around the world with the promise of higher yields and lower cost when compared with conventional varieties.

When cotton farmers in India’s Warangal district first heard about Bt cotton, they thought it would be a great chance for them. Unfortunately, that hope turned to despair in very short time.

Speaking on a video produced by a group of farmers with help from non-governmental organisations, Nallapu Ramulu, from Warangal’s Chinda Nekkonda village, said he unhesitatingly believed everything the company’s representatives said. They came to his village to convince local farmers to switch to Bt. He and other farmers planted the cotton with enthusiasm and hope. The video was presented to Thai media recently by Deccan Development Society (DDS), an Indian NGO that works to promote people’s participation in development.

In the first few months, Ramulu, like the other farmers, was delighted with the crop since it grew fast, looked healthy and started producing buds and balls. Most satisfying was that the leaves were not being eaten by worms like conventional cotton.

Unfortunately, their euphoria did not last to the end of the crop season. In the fourth month, Ramulu’s mood changed. In October, he noticed that the Bt cotton stopped growing and producing new buds and balls while the existing balls did not get any bigger. His hope of cultivating about one tonne of Bt cotton an acre had gone. He was totally in despair by November when the Bt cotton returned only 400-500 kg of cotton per acre.

Ramulu’s experience seemed a bit better than many farmers who have to continue spraying expensive pesticide on their Bt cotton farm since it had failed to kill the worm pest as the company promised.

The Indian Bt cotton farmers’ despair hit rock bottom when they went to sell their product. The staple of the Bt cotton was shorter than the conventional variety, which forced the price down, bringing them less money.

Research on the impact of Bt cotton on the Warangal farmers conducted by Indian agricultural scientists showed that 71 per cent of the farmers who grew Bt cotton suffered losses and only 29 per cent made some profit.

“Plant it again? No. Just doing it once has brought me enough debt. If we plant it again, my family might be broken up,” Ramulu said in the video, which has been distributed worldwide.

The same situation happened to farmers in Indonesia and the Philippines who have experience in growing Bt cotton and Bt corn. Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds have been available in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi since 2000. However, the company decided to stop providing the seed to that market early this year. There was a clear indication from farmers that they would not grow the crop longer due to its disappointing outcome. Many farmers demonstrated their anger to the company by burning Bt cotton plants grown on their own farms.

Though it wants to promote GM crops, the Indonesian government is playing it safe with its farmers by allowing the planting of Bt cotton on a temporary basis that is renewable annually, which means a rather uncertain future for Monsanto. The company wants a total and permanent commitment without any regulation from the government.

It is true that not all farmers who have grown GM crops have suffered. Some are quite happy and still have hope for the future with their biotechnological plants. It is not a waste of time to listen to the despair of experienced farmers. Learning from others might help us to avoid repeating their tragedy.

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