Two Indian states are suffering the first major pest infestation since the country adopted genetically modified cotton in 2002, raising concerns over the vulnerability of the lab-grown seeds that yield nearly all of the cotton in the world’s top producer. Damage from the whitefly attack on the Bt cotton variety in the states of Punjab and Haryana is likely to be extensive and has even been blamed for farmer suicides, according to local officials and experts.
Tthe pest attack is inflaming debate over the usage of GM crops. Bt cotton was tweaked by scientists at Monsanto to produce its own insecticide to kill pests like bollworms. But two years of drought have encouraged the spread of whitefly against which the strain has no resistance. The winged pest damages the leaves of the cotton plant by sucking out fluid.
The farmers’ union allied to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party is stepping up its opposition: It wants Bt cotton banned and is trying to block the introduction of crops like GM mustard – an oilseed – now in development.
“We have been telling the government to conduct tests on all GM seeds before they are sold in the market,” said Mohini Mohan Mishra, general secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, or Indian Farmers Union.
According to The Times of India – “Much like the bollworm, pesticides sprayed has not been able to eliminate the whitefly that attacks the leaves of cotton plants. In the early 2002, cotton farmers had used so much pesticide against the whitefly that the chemical is believed to have affected the soil and groundwater. Many believe this is the reason behind a large number of cancer cases being detected among people in the cotton belt.
In 2012 the state of Maharashtra banned the sale and distribution of Bt cotton to promote local Indian seeds, which demand less water, fertilizers and pesticide input.
A 2006 study done by Cornell researchers and the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy on Bt cotton farming in China found that after seven years these secondary pests that were normally controlled by pesticide had increased, necessitating the use of pesticides at similar levels to non-Bt cotton and causing less profit for farmers because of the extra expense of GM seeds.