Pests, Pesticides and Propaganda: the story of Bt Cotton

Pests, Pesticides and Propaganda: the story of Bt Cotton

By Dr Vandana Shiva

A whitefly epidemic has devastated the Bt cotton crop in Punjab forcing farmers to use 10-12 sprays – each costing Rs 3200. This, in addition to the high cost of Bt seeds sold by Monsanto-Mahyco Biotech. In Maharashtra, Haryana and Punjab, farmers growing non Bt, desi cotton have not been impacted by pests like Bt cotton has. And organic farmers in Punjab had no whitefly attack.

Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprise (ABLE) is clearly un-able to distinguish between science and Industry propaganda.

A scientific approach, to what is happening in Punjab, would draw the  inference that pesticides and Bt are creating pests, while non Bt seeds and organic practices are controlling them.

The second step would be to identify the ecological processes that create pests in Bt crops, and in fields using heavy doses of pesticides.

The third scientifically enlightened step would be to promote effective and sustainable pest control technologies such as ecological agriculture, and stop pushing failed and costly technologies like Bt and the pesticides that are peddled with it.

Instead of responding scientifically, the biotechnology lobby group has repeated the false claims of Monsanto – which has trapped millions of our farmers in debt and pushed hundreds of thousands to suicide. 300,000 farmers suicides should be a wakeup call for any nation.

Ecological science teaches us that pests are created by industrial agriculture through the following processes.

  1. Promotion of monocultures
  2. Chemical fertilisation of crops – which makes plants more vulnerable to pests
  3. Emergence of resistance in pests by spraying of pesticides
  4. Killing of friendly species which control pests and disruption of pest-predator balance

Bt. crops are not an alternative to these pest creating systems. They are a continuation of a non-sustainable strategy for pest control, which, instead of controlling pests, creates new pests and super pests. Monsanto advertised that Bt cotton would not need pesticide sprays, clearly a case of false advertising. The primary justification given for the genetic engineering of Bt traits into crops was that Bt will reduce the use of insecticides. A Monsanto brochure showed a picture of a few worms and stated – “You will see these in your cotton and that’s O.K. Don’t spray”. Even today, Monsanto apologists claim that Bt has reduced pesticide usage. The Punjab devastation shows this is not true.

Bt crops are pesticide-producing plants that are supposed to control pests. In the US, where Bt technology is from, Bt crops are registered as a pesticide.

Bt toxins are a family of related molecules produced, in nature, by a soil Bacterium – Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt.). Farmers and gardeners have used Bacillus thuringiensis in it’s natural form, as an organic pesticide, for more than 50 years. In recent times, Bt. genes have been genetically engineered into crops, making each and every cell in the plant produce toxins, through most of its life. Naturally occurring Bt and genetically engineered Bt are not substantially equivalent. The Bt in the soil bacterium is a pro-toxin which is in an inactive state. It is therefore safe for non-target insects. It  is transformed into a toxin by enzymes in the gut of the caterpillar family of insects. In the genetically engineered plant Bt plant the expression of the toxin does not need this pathway. Bt plants contain an artificial, truncated Bt gene and less processing is required to generate the toxin. It is therefore less selective, and may harm non-target insects that do not have the enzymes to process the pro-toxin, as well as the pests like the bollworm for which it is intended. This difference in the nature of the Bt in its naturally occurring bacterial form, and its genetically engineered form in plants is the reason the non target species are being impacted while the target species evolves resistance.

The false claim of substantial equivalence by the Biotechnology industry has blocked the scientific research that would assess the difference. Science has been substituted by Propaganda.

Genetically engineered Bt. crops are being touted as a sustainable pest control strategy while their failure is evident. Bt. crops are neither effective nor ecologically sustainable. Instead of controlling pests, Bt crops are creating pests, as is evident from the outbreak of whitefly which destroyed more than 60% of the Bt cotton crop in 2015. Since Bt was introduced in India, pests that had historically never affected non Bt cotton have become major cotton pests. Massive outbreaks of aphids, jassids, army bugs, mealy bugs have compelled farmers to use more pesticides than before. When I sued Monsanto in 1999 for its illegal introduction of Bt cotton into India without the mandatory approval from the GEAC, the data from the open field trials that they were compelled to submit to the Supreme Court revealed that even at the trial stage Bt was increasing aphids and jassids by 300%. Clearly this was overlooked in the assessment by the GEAC.

In a peer-reviewed study, Swiss scientists found that Bt crops are more vulnerable to pest attacks because genetic engineering disrupts the metabolic processes in plants that contribute to resisting insects. 

Evidence for such disruption of metabolic pathways by GM plants has been found in many lab studies and synthesised in a meta analysis through systems biology (found here)

The Royal Society has found that the processes of genetic modification to resist the bollworm makes Bt cotton more susceptible to non target pests such as aphids, because the plant has been induced to express Bt toxin in every cell through genetic engineering. Bt cotton contains reduced levels of induced terpenoids, which help the plant resist other pests.

Not only is Bt contributing to new pests, it is unable to control the target pest, the bollworm. In 1996, 2 million acres in the US were planted with Monsanto’s Bt. transgenic cotton called Bollgard. Bollworms were found to have infested thousands of acres planted with the new breed of cotton in Texas. The genetically engineered cotton did not survive the cotton bollworm attack. Monsanto was sued by 25 farmers over Bt. cotton planted on 18,000 acres, which suffered boll worm damage, following which, the farmers had to use pesticides in contrast to the corporate propaganda that genetic engineering meant an end to the pesticide era.

A second process through which Bt is contributing to increasing the pest problem, instead of reducing it, is by inducing Bt-resistance in pests and creating super pests.

The Bt. crop strategy is not a sustainable method for pest control because Bt plants continuously release toxins. Constant long-term exposure of pest populations to Bt encourages survival of individual pests that are genetically resistant to the toxin. As Margaret Mellon and Jane Rissler, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, state in their report Now or Never – “over many generations, the proportion of resistant individuals in pest populations can increase, reducing the efficacy of the Bt. toxin as pesticide.”

Scientists have estimated that widespread use of Bt. crops could lead to the loss of Bt’s efficacy against certain pest populations in as far as two to five years (Fred and Bruce, 1998). In India, the pink bollworm has developed resistance to Bt, and Monsanto is selling an even more expensive Bollgard II, which has stacked Bt genes. This too will contribute to evolution of resistance since the genetically engineered Bt crops continuously express the Bt toxin, throughout its growing season. Continued exposure to Bt toxins promotes development of resistance in insect populations, rendering Bt ineffective at the one job it is supposed to do.

The fact that the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) of the U.S. requires refugia of non-engineered crops to be planted near the engineered crops, reflects the reality of the creation of resistant strains of insects. Due to this risk of pest resistance, the EPA offers only conditional and temporary registration of varieties producing Bt. The EPA requires 4% “refugia” with Bt. cotton i.e. 4% of planted cotton is conventional and does not express the Bt. toxin. It therefore acts as a refuge for insects to survive and breed, and hence keeps the overall level of resistance in the population low. Even at a 4% refugia level, insect resistance will evolve in as little as 3 – 4 years. Even though Monsanto claims it has adhered to the regulations in India, it is common knowledge that the implementation of refugia has never been done. Additionally, the biosafety regulations have never been followed for Bt in India.

The failure of Monsanto’s Bollgard cotton in large areas in the U.S. shows the risks of extrapolating from trials on small plots to large scale commercial planting. A second lesson from the 1996 U.S. planting is that it is not easy to force farmers to leave refugia, at their own costs, in order to manage pest resistance. The extra costs of leaving 20 per cent land to non-Bt cotton to be sprayed with conventional insecticides should be internalised in assessment of the benefits of Bt cotton.

Scientists have recommended that 50 per cent area be planted with non-Bt cotton when farmers plant Bt cotton (Fred and Bruce, 1998). If farmers should not be planting more than half their acreage with Bt cotton, why should they be planting it at all?

One of the most significant reasons contributing to the pesticide treadmill has been the death of beneficial insects, and the emergence of resistance. More than 500 species of insects have become resistant to conventional insecticides, and there is empirical evidence that they can also adapt to Bt toxins (Fred Gould and Bruce Tabashnik,  1998  Bt cotton Resistance Management in Mellon and Rissler “Now or Never”).

Bt is destroying ecosystem sustainability and biodiversity, by killing beneficial organisms. Engineering a toxin into a plant can have its own hazards. Plants engineered to manufacture their own pesticides can harm organisms other than their intended targets. Soil inhabiting organisms, that convert organic matter into nutrients for the plants, can be harmed by the toxin preventing the regeneration of soil nutrients.

The full impacts of Bt crops have not been looked at, though indications are emerging that genetically engineered Bt is harmful to beneficial insects such as bees and ladybirds. Research at the Scottish Crop Research showed that ladybirds fed on aphids that were fed transgenic potatoes – laid fewer eggs and lived half as long as ladybirds on a normal diet (Brich et al, 1996/97).

Research from Cornell, in 1999,  found  that the Monarch butterfly -Danaus plexippus -was killed by ingesting milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from Bt cotton  (Losey J.E.: Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature, Vol 399, 20 May 1999: 314)

Research done on impact of Bt cotton on soil micro organisms showed a 22 % decline of beneficial micro organisms within 4 years.

These impacts on non-target species falsify the claims that the Bt toxin in Bt cotton only effects the cotton bollworm.

The myth that GMO crops reduce pesticide use is also not true.

Two applications of genetic engineering account for most commercial planting, Bt crops and Ht crops. Herbicide tolerant crops account for 63 % of the cultivation of GM crops.

Bt crops have led to increase of pesticide use because of new pests , and pest resistance in the boll worm. As the directorate of plant protection shows, pesticide use has increased with increase of Bt cotton cultivation.

Herbicide tolerant crops are designed to make crops resistant to herbicide spraying to allow for increased herbicide sales and use.

Bt threatens Ayurveda and other Medical Practices.

Besides this, the Bt cotton will have a direct impact on the practitioners of the Indian system of medicines. The cotton seeds, roots, flowers, leaves, oil and cotton is used internally as well as externally in different ailments in the Indian system of medicines. The cotton seeds are used for increasing milk secretion; the use of Bt cotton seeds can cause serious health hazards to the mother and the child. Similarly, the roots are used during labour to enhance the uterine contraction. The ash of the cotton is taken to check bleeding from wound. The leaves are given as diurative. The introduction of Bt cotton in Indian varieties, safe from contamination until now, will have a dangerous effect on the traditional medical practices and the use of its seeds, leaves, roots, oil will be fatal for the patients.

India is the home of cotton diversity. We should use the biodiversity of cotton to our advantage to create ecological strategies of selecting pest resistance varieties, using integrated pest management and avoiding the risks of hazardous pesticides as well as the risks of genetically engineered crops. Instead, the ICAR is pushing for Bt in straight varieties of cotton which would contaminate all standing crops of non-Bt cotton, leaving farmers vulnerable to litigation and crop failure.

Scientific assessments tells us the GMO experiment with our seeds and crops must be stopped. Propaganda on behalf of the biotech seed industry, which in also the pesticide industry, will of course keep repeating that pesticides and Bt crops are a silver bullet. It is just that Monsanto gets the silver, Farmers get the bullet.