For the first time anywhere in the world, biotech agriculture giant Monsanto has admitted that insects have developed resistance to its Bt cotton crop. Field monitoring in parts of Gujarat has discovered that the Bt crop is no longer effective against the pink bollworm pest there.
The company is advocating that Indian farmers switch to its second-generation product to delay resistance further. Monsanto's critics say that this just proves the ineffectiveness of the Bt technology, which was recently sought to be introduced in India in Bt brinjal as well.
In November 2009, Monsanto's scientists detected unusual survival of the pink bollworm pest while monitoring the Bt cotton crop in Gujarat. In January and February, samples taken from the field were tested in Monsanto's laboratories. It has been confirmed that pink bollworm is now resistant to the pest-killing protein of Bt cotton in four districts — Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot.
Until now, Monsanto has held that “there have been no confirmed cases of poor field performance of Bt cotton or Bt corn attributable to insect resistance.” Although there have been cases of insects resisting the technology in the laboratory, Monsanto held that “field resistance is the criterion of relevance to agricultural producers.”
Now that the company itself has admitted that its product has been proved ineffective against some insects on the fields of Gujarat, its advice to farmers is to start using its second generation product instead. “Farmers have another choice. We have a two-gene product called Bollgard II which has greater ability to delay resistance,” says Monsanto India's director of scientific affairs Rashmi Nair. She also recommends that farmers conduct better monitoring and plant “refuges,” or areas of non-Bt crop which would attract insects.
Agricultural scientists and activists say Monsanto's advice is “ridiculous”. The Bollgard II product has no additional toxin to combat pink bollworm, says G.V. Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. It is simply that as a newer product, Bollgard II will take longer for the pest to develop resistance. Anyway, the Bt toxin is only active for 90 days, while pink bollworm is a late season pest, he adds.
“All the hype about the effectiveness of Bt against pests is bogus …This proves that you can't stay ahead of the pest with … this shortsighted approach,” says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Kheti Virasat Mission. Indian farmers with small holdings cannot be expected to give up large parts of their land for non- productive “refuges,” added Dr. Ramanjaneyulu.
Monsanto's Dr. Nair says the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) was informed about the resistance “about eight to ten days ago.” The CICR, which has been collaborating in the field monitoring of Bt cotton since 2003, has reported this to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), she said. However, the Ministry of Environment and Forests seems to have been unaware of the test results until Monsanto issued a statement on Friday.
Over the last month, the GEAC and the Ministry have been at the centre of a storm regarding the government's moratorium on Bt brinjal's commercial release. Critics are now pointing to the ineffectiveness of Bt cotton in Gujarat to strengthen their case against Bt brinjal as well.