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article imageGMO Bt cotton falsely blamed for whitefly attack on India's crop

By Karen Graham     Nov 6, 2015 in Environment
The ineffectiveness of genetically modified cotton against attacks by whitefly in India's cotton-belt states of Punjab and Haryana, has caused a rural crisis, causing protests and at least a dozen suicides.
In October, The reported that 75 percent of India's cotton crop had been damaged by whitefly, an agricultural pest that is very difficult to manage.
At the same time, Punjab Agricultural University (RAU) was advising farmers to avoid using GM cotton seed and instead sow traditional non-Bt varieties of American and indigenous cotton. The destruction of the cotton harvest resulted in at least three farmers near the city of Bhatinda committing suicide, as well as another dozen suicides in other areas, and led to tens of thousands protesting, demanding state aid.
Whiteflies feed by tapping into the phloem of plants  introducing toxic saliva and decreasing the pl...
Whiteflies feed by tapping into the phloem of plants, introducing toxic saliva and decreasing the plants' overall turgor pressure. Since whiteflies congregate in large numbers, susceptible plants can be quickly overwhelmed.
"We poured all our money into buying pesticides and worked day and night to save the crop. But it failed miserably," said Thana Singh, 67, whose son died after taking poison during a protest in Punjab. Singh, as well as many other farmers have turned to planting other crops, such as lentils to rebuild their livelihoods, says Reuters.
However, as Reuters points out, about 13 years ago, these same farmers raised their first bumper crop of GM cotton. GM cotton quickly caught on, increasing crop yields and increasing farmers' standard of living. Crop yield was increased four-fold, making India the world's top cotton producer and the world's second-largest exporter.
Monsanto Bt cotton seeds engineered for a specific pest
Agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto has sold their Bt cotton seeds to over seven million farmers in India, through local seed firms operating under licence. Monsanto's Bt cotton has been genetically modified to provide resistance to specific types of insects, namely bollworms.
Monsanto s Bt cotton does nothing for whitefly infestations.
Monsanto's Bt cotton does nothing for whitefly infestations.
BT cotton seeds have been engineered to produce a natural insecticide to bollworm using a strain of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt cotton is ineffective against many cotton pests such as plant bugs, stink bugs, whitefly, a sucking pest, and aphids according to studies.
Conflict and false claims
In defense of Monsanto's Bt cotton, The Business Standard ran a story on what the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprise-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) insists is a false claim by farmers in blaming Monsanto's Bt cotton seeds as being the reason their crops were damaged.
Tens of thousands of protesters demand money from government for cotton crop losses.
Tens of thousands of protesters demand money from government for cotton crop losses.
Times of India
"The recent outbreak of whitefly attack has no relation with Bt technology in cotton," ABLE-AG Executive Director Shivendra Bajaj said in a statement. Bajaj added that any claims of damage caused by whitefly being linked to Bt technology should be backed up by data with evidence to the effect.
The problem with whitefly infestations is that there are no approved agricultural biotechnology solutions available today. Most farmers are urged to use multiple pesticides, one after the other so that the pest doesn't develop a resistance to the chemical. This is what has been happening with farmers in India.
However, the loss of the cotton harvest this year may well be a combination of factors, and all of them together paints a gloomy picture of bigger problems for the country. For example, a 2008 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute showed that indebtedness of Indian farmers was linked to a number of problems, "including a lack of reliable credit, changes in government policies, cropping patterns, plant and insect resistance to pesticides, and even shifts in the crops planted on the farm."
Additionally, much has been written about the lack of irrigation, unavailability of credit sources and lack of crop insurance by over 80 percent of India's farmers. Climate change has burdened the country with unpredictable weather, with excessive rain levels, extreme heat and in some areas, drought. Excess rain can and will damage crops.
Agriculture is linked closely with India's economy, and while India's economy is doing better, its agricultural sector is not keeping up, due to low growth and low output. And with prime Minister Modi's new banking scheme, many farmers take out loans but have no savings to repay them. It has turned into a vicious cycle of indebtedness and failure. So to blame an international company for a disastrous cotton season may not be altogether right.
More about gmo cotton, india's farmers, 75 crop loss, monsanto sales slow, farmer suicides
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