Unconvincing arguments against Bt cotton

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A documentary on Indian cotton that was screened during BioFach 2012 at Nuremberg, Germany, is stirring up a controversy.

The film Behind the Label claims to reveal “the double face of Indian cotton”. The screening at a theatre in Nuremberg’s Hauptbahnhof or central station was watched by an impressive gathering of 3,000.

Per se, the objective of the documentary seems well-intentioned. But the problem lies in how it has gone about trying to achieve its objective.

The film’s producer and director appear to have got too many facts mixed up, and wrong too, thus making a worthwhile effort effectively head nowhere.

For those in Europe or abroad, the documentary may look like one that reflects reality. But had the producer, Barbara Ceschi, and director, Sebastiano Tecchio, taken some efforts to cross-check facts and figures, it may have been worth crossing the Himalayas to make the documentary.

Unfortunately, Ceschi and Tecchio seem to have given objectivity a miss, perhaps overawed by the views of experts and social activists.

OBJECTIVITY MISSED

For example, the documentary compares the price of traditional cotton seed at Rs 9 a kg in 1991 to the current price of Rs 4,000 for a kg of Bt cotton.

No doubt, the advent of Bt cotton has brought about a sea-change in the seed sector, particularly cotton. But are the comparisons in place?

How is that the film-makers closed their eyes to something that is being compared over a period of 21 long years? What was the cost of labour then and what is it now? What about fuel, electricity? And what about land costs and inflation?

If the film makers’ objective was to be fair, certain crucial details should not have been overlooked.

The documentary has a senior scientist exclaiming that cattle that ate leaves of Bt cotton died in Andhra Pradesh. There are two issues to this. One, studies have been conducted on this issue and there has been no conclusive proof that the death was caused by Bt cotton. Two, the issue cropped up five-six years ago and, after that, such reports or allegations have been put to rest.

One, why did the film-makers not consult an expert on the cotton sector in India? Two, the film makers have travelled to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Having been to Maharashtra, they could have spoken to experts at the Central Institute for Cotton Research, which has done yeoman service in the sector. Or, they could have consulted experts at the research body’s unit in Coimbatore.

The film makers, while inviting people to watch their documentary and at the press conference were pointing to the death of 2.5 lakh farmers in the last one-and-a-half decades. But the most important fact is that it has been only 10 years since Bt cotton took root commercially in India. Therefore, attributing the death of the farmers to Bt cotton does not wash, at least fully.

Had the film makers taken care to collect data from the National Crimes Record Bureau, that is widely referred to by opponents of Bt cotton, the picture would have been clearer.

Most importantly, for the first time since 1998, the number of farmer suicides has dropped below 16,000 in 2010. Also, it remains inconclusive as to how much of these suicides can be related to Bt cotton or even any other crop failure.

Another problem with the documentary is that it refers to a former Monsanto official, Mr Tiruvadi Jagadesan. However, it requires mention here that Mr Jagadesan was heading the pesticide unit and had nothing to do with the seed unit.

The film lacks balance as no Indian government official came on screen. It is also silent on whether it tried to reach out to any official. Why has no official from the textile industry figured in the documentary?

The film makers probably intended to highlight the anti-Monsanto stance in the documentary, but then, they should not have underscored that it was about the “double face” of Indian cotton.

THE POSITIVES

However, the documentary has its positives. One is the manner in which the film-makers have got the views of the Pollachi entrepreneur, Mr Mani Chinnaswamy, on how he is finding it difficult to get DCH-32 variety since most farmers have adopted Bt cotton.

There are parts in the documentary where allegations are being made about cotton varieties becoming sterile, before Bt cotton was introduced. This issue is worth pondering over, though textile industry experts will tell you how J-34 and F-414 had lost their potency over the years and how North India’s cotton production plunged.

The other welcome feature, which has actually got lost in the rest of the film, is the demand for preserving native germplasms. Though India has adopted Bt cotton, there is still need to keep the germplasms in tact so that they can be used in cases of exigency.

For example, since Brazil took to genetically-modified soyabean, it has lost 70 per cent of its germplasms.

No doubt, intentions of the film makers are well-founded but they have allowed their agenda to be hijacked.

Source: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/article2938904.ece

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