Volatility

March 2, 2017

The Scourge of Bt Cotton

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Humanity’s struggle against corporate agriculture, especially in the form of GMOs, becomes increasingly fierce around the world. One of the most critical and infamous battlegrounds is India. Here, Bt cotton is the locus of the struggle over commodification, the agronomic performance and socioeconomic character of GMOs, and this false crop’s role in history’s greatest suicide epidemic. It failed immediately for the small farmers of India and Africa. More recently it failed for the better-equipped farmers of the South. It soon will fail completely for all cotton farmers everywhere. India’s ongoing sea change against Bt cotton and against commodity cotton in general is only the tip of the iceberg. The consensus is changing. This most typical of GMOs is nearing the end of its time as a marketable product and useful propaganda item.
 
Bt cotton is one of the most notorious examples of how GMOs and the propaganda campaigns that tout them comprise a massive hoax and fraud on farmers and society. India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture found in its 2012 report that “After the euphoria of a few initial years, Bt cotton cultivation has only added to the miseries of small and marginal farmers”. In 2014 this committee followed up with the finding that government claims of rising cotton farm income are false. Only debt and risks have risen, giving “ample proof to show that the miseries of farmers have compounded since the time they started cultivating Bt cotton”.
 
GMOs are a rich man’s technology. This is true of the corporations which control and distribute them, tightening their control of agriculture and food. It’s true for the farmers themselves. The only way GMOs may work temporarily as advertised is in the context of high-input industrial agriculture. GMOs require lavish external inputs and best case scenarios. They need to be supplemented heavily with irrigation, synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and mechanization. GMO seed sellers are also sellers of agricultural poisons such as herbicides and insecticides. The corporate goal always is to maximize both seed revenue and poison sales. That’s what GMOs are designed to do. They’re very costly to grow and require either huge cash reserves or that farmers go into debt. Only rich growers who can afford these expensive inputs can have any hope of getting GM crops to perform in the field as advertised so they can turn a profit on these very expensive crops. That’s why GMOs are an abject failure everywhere they’re not propped up with massive government subsidies.
 
In spite of these facts, corporations and governments consistently have targeted small farmers for GMO marketing. These farmers, who comprise the great majority of food producers worldwide, lack the resources to get the crop to grow as advertised or to render it economically viable. Across the global South the pattern has always been the same. Corporations and government launch a propaganda blitz targeting small farmers, promising high returns and threatening with economic extinction those who are slow to adopt the technology. The marketing campaigns promise lower pesticide costs, more effective pesticide coverage, and higher yields and revenues. Governments promise subsidies and generous credit. Lacking independent sources of information, often following local leaders in the pay of the cartel, small farmers buy the GM seeds. The GMO corporations use every tactic, from buying seed companies to imposing contracts on seed growers and sellers to having governments offer temporary subsidies to having “unapproved” seeds outlawed, in order to drive non-GM alternatives out of the market.
 
The farmer pays far more for this seed with its added “technology tax”. He quickly finds he must increase fertilizer application. Pesticide savings never materialize. He must go into debt to procure the expensive inputs he now needs. His farming dependent on rainfall, he learns too late that the Bt crop needs artificial irrigation to get enough water. Pests and diseases ravage the GMO crop in a way they hadn’t with conventional crops. The harvest is poor. Meanwhile the same corporate system is dumping globalized commodity crops on the market. The harvest price plummets. The farmer is wiped out. He’s driven off his land and into a shantytown. In India, he may kill himself by drinking his own pesticide. This individual tragedy is multiplied over hundreds of thousands, millions of small farmers. These millions are economically destroyed, forcibly subject to a mass expulsion from the land, one-way tickets to the terminal slums thrust into their worn hands. These slums have sprawled out from the fringes of the Southern cities in proportion to the intensifying death grip of corporate agriculture, their inmates the cast-off human destruction of this corporate assault.
 
This pattern has been unbroken wherever corporate agriculture has gone. Wherever commodity cropping has prevailed its primary effect has been to destroy community farmers and drive the people off their land. GMOs reinforce and intensify every pathology of corporate industrial agriculture and especially are evil in how they aggravate this social carnage. Today the goal of corporations and governments in pushing GMOs upon small farmers is to squeeze them for every cent possible, then drive them out. For small farmers and for society as a whole, GMOs are history’s most monumental socioeconomic fraud. That’s why the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) rejected GMOs as unable to play any constructive role in the future of farming and food.
 
Bt cotton is the best-documented example of this pattern of fraud, failure, and human destruction. In India a human drama unequaled in history has been playing out, with millions of small farmers under economic assault by globalized agriculture. They’ve been viciously duped by Monsanto and the Indian government. They’ve been subject to a “ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops”. The story begins in the mid 1990s. Under economic pressure and in thrall to commodification propaganda, small cotton farmers began switching from their traditional diversified polycultural practices, which included intercropping with food and other crops for personal use and local sale, to monoculture based on hybrid varieties and destined for global markets. This first put them on the treadmill of rising input costs, pesticide use, and debt. According to government data, 75% of rural debt in India is from the need to purchase farming inputs. The seed dealers themselves double as moneylenders at usurious rates, thus repeating the 19th century American tragedy of impoverished sharecroppers and “the man”. The suicide epidemic is caused by this vicious circle. In Maharashtra state, ground zero of the epidemic, 2.8 million of 3.6 million farmers were in debt in 2006.
 
Hybrid varieties are highly vulnerable to insect pests. Each year farmers had to invest more borrowed money, time, sweat, and anguish into applying an ever more prodigious and complex mix of poisons. As if their situation wasn’t parlous enough, in 2001 the US radically stepped up the dumping of its own heavily subsidized cotton on the Indian market, causing the price to collapse. For all its cotton production, third in the world, India became a cotton importer on account of the low global price. India’s small cotton farmers were desperate.
 
This was the context for the commercialization of Bt cotton. It was first grown illegally in the Gujarat province starting in the late 1990s, then launched legally across the whole cotton belt in 2002. The first legal varieties were a joint project of Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary Mahyco. Farmers, trapped on the treadmill paying ever more for pesticides that worked ever more poorly, were desperate for a solution. It’s no surprise that they ardently listened when the massive Mahyco advertising blitz, bolstered with bullish government and media testimonials, promised them a Bt panacea. Bt cotton came from “magic seeds” which would solve all their problems and give them a prolific, profitable crop. It would rout pests once and for all, cost less to grow, yield better, and gross more at harvest time. Bollywood stars toured the countryside exhorting farmers to get on board. The government promised support and lenient credit.
 
Small farmers faced this marketing offensive with few independent sources of information. “There are no independent expert agencies in this country”, according to a 2014 panel report to the Ministry of Environment and Forests. There’s practically no one but industry and its government flunkeys to advise farmers. Because of this, the adoption of Bt cotton has had little to do with knowledge and experimentation but was mostly a social response. In a time of agricultural deskilling and economic uncertainty, farmers fell back on following a leader or following their neighbors. This environment was rich to be manipulated by Monsanto/Mahyco’s propaganda blitz.
 
Most Indian cotton farmers heard about Bt cotton through word of mouth, from neighbors who had been tapped by Mahyco to serve as proselytizers, or from advertising coordinated by seed dealers. In Maharashtra 79% of farmers said they’d heard of it from seed dealers. These Mahyco-licensed dealers are often also peddlers of the expensive inputs needed as accessories to Bt crops and loansharks offering the credit needed to buy this expensive apparatus.
 
This information problem is aggravated by the fact that Bt seeds have been highly unreliable in germination, Bt expression, and yield. This again is a function of how lavishly expensive external inputs are applied, but is also inherent to the shoddy GMO seed itself. If small farmers who are unable financially to deploy the whole input apparatus follow the lead of a local bigshot who can afford it, or believe the lies of government and industry, this is a recipe for economic self-destruction.
 
Throughout its history the private seed business has been about nothing but marketing, trivial “product differentiation” which even the National Academy of Sciences derided as “pseudo-varieties” representing no kind of actual improvement, destroying farmer choice through enforcing monopoly, and fiercely resisting attempts to enforce transparency and quality control. Jack Kloppenburg’s First the Seed gives an excellent historical account. Just from this historical record it was easily predictable that GMO seeds would comprise a shoddy, fraudulent product. This prediction has been borne out. Bt cotton may be the best case study of how high maintenance GM crops are, how they require a vast, exorbitantly expensive apparatus of inputs and optimal conditions in order to work as advertised, and therefore how inappropriate they are for small farmers. GMO agriculture and smallholder agriculture are antithetical and cannot “co-exist”, to use the GM cartel’s favored propaganda term. Any assertion or advertisement to the contrary is perpetrating a hoax and a fraud. It’s a Nuremburg level crime. As is Monsanto’s aggressive campaign to impose a near-monopoly on cotton seed in India.
 
The lies were aggressive and virulent from the start and remain so to this day. “Bollgard protects you! Less spraying, more profit! Bollgard cotton seed: the power to conquer insects!”, blared an early poster. “Our products provide constant and significant benefits to both large- and small-holder growers. In many cases farmers are able to grow higher quality and better-yielding crops.” That’s from Monsanto’s “Pledge Report” for 2006, which was the exact time it was rolling out Bollgard II with two Bt toxins. This was in response to the collapse of the original Bollgard on account of bollworm resistance to its single toxin. Clearly the only “constants” are the ever-escalating pesticide treadmill, the ever-rising Tower of Babel as GMOs have to incorporate more and more stacked poisons, and Monsanto’s revenue from this business model of captive markets and planned obsolescence. The other constants are the vicious circles of farmer struggles, debt, misery, exodus from the land and into slums, and suicide. And the lies march on, as the Advertising Standards Council found when it recently flagged Monsanto-Mahyco’s campaign for falsely claiming “Bollgard boosts Indian cotton farmers’ income by over Rs.31,500 crores” (over 315 billion rupees, which is around $4.725 billion as I’m writing this but was much more at the time).
 
Taking advantage of Indian cotton farmers’ parlous economic circumstance and their lack of information, the propaganda campaigns worked. In spite of the unprecedented high price of the seeds, farmers began planting Bt cotton. By the time they realized the debt and monopoly trap they were in, it was too late. The result has been a disaster.
 
We’ll survey in detail the real world performance of Bt cotton in India. This is in contrast to the “studies” of Monsanto flacks like Matin Qaim, much touted in the corporate media. Qaim, who barely set foot outside the Mahyco greenhouses and field test sites during his few visits to India (he’s based in Germany), simply propagates corporate-asserted numbers based on secret data from the corporate trials. There’s no reason to trust these numbers in the first place, and even if they were true they’d be valid only for the ivory tower conditions of the trial sites. Either way these figures have zero validity for real world agriculture of any sort, let alone that practiced by small farmers. Yet this person is the main “scientific” source for the corporate media and pro-GMO activists everywhere. Since we can assume Monsanto provides the best flackery it can, in dismissing Qaim we can dismiss the entire pro-Bt “side of the story” as fraudulent and invalid. Now let’s move on to what reality testifies.
 
*In reality Bt cotton never improved yields. Data compiled by government and trade groups tells a stark story: The great bulk of the yield increase (measured by nationwide average kilograms per hectare) of the commodity cotton era in India occurred from the 2000-01 to the 2004-05 seasons, at which point only 5.6% of cotton acreage was planted to Bt varieties. During the Bt acreage surge from 2005-06 (18% of cotton acreage) to 2008-09 (84%) yield increased only a slight amount, then stagnated and declined. In the ensuing years as Bt acreage crept up above 90%, yields have declined. Overall, yield increased 70% from 2000-01 to 2004-05 when Bt acreage was negligible, and increased only 2% from 2005-06 to 2011-12, with a decline since the 2007-08 peak.
 
This proves that the entire increase was from other causes and had nothing to do with the GMO. The real cotton yield surge came from the switch from traditional polyculture-based cotton farming to hybrid monoculture deploying massive, expensive inputs – irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides. This is only monocultural yield, not food for people or farmer income. “Yield” by itself is a crackpot measure with no inherent meaning. It can have meaning only within some socioeconomic, political, or environmental context.
 
In fact almost the entire yield increase came from improvements in conventional hybrids and expanded irrigation. As for pesticides, Keshav Kranthi of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) scoffs at the notion that Bt crops can hold their own. On the contrary, he attributes the viability of any kind of hybrid cotton, Bt or conventional, versus a wide range of what from the Bt point of view are secondary pests (Bt cotton’s target pest is the bollworm; secondary pests include whiteflies, jassids/leafhoppers, mealy bugs, mirid bugs, thrips, stink bugs, and many others), to the standard seed treatment with the neonicotinoid imidacloprid. This too is a deadly poison we need to abolish, and jassids increasingly are resistant to it. Therefore, to the extent poisons contribute to yield at all, this non-GM poison is far more important than genetically engineered Bt. The great increase in the years of low Bt acreage and stagnation of the years of Bt domination prove that this GMO offers no yield benefit whatsoever and is actually inferior to conventional cotton hybrids.
 
These numbers, damning as they are, actually exaggerate GMO performance since they’re skewed by the relatively better results from Gujarat state. Gujarat is an outlier in that its agriculture is dominated by fewer, bigger, richer farmers than is typical in other states. Gujarat is far better served by irrigation projects and fertilizer subsidies. Its more capital-rich farmers can better afford the expensive inputs Bt cotton requires. The better Bt cotton production in this state therefore confirms the thesis that GMOs work only for rich growers who can afford lavish outlays for irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides. Take Gujarat out of the equation and Bt’s performance for small farmers across the cotton belt has been dismal and worsening.
 
Besides its overall poor yield, Bt cotton (and Bt crops in general, everywhere on earth) has performed in an extremely variable way. There have been several regional crop failures, most recently in Karnataka in 2014. In general the national and state averages obscure extreme local variability. As a rule, how the GM crop will perform is a crapshoot and will vary from farmer to farmer. Seed quality is often poor and Bt expression in the crop is highly variable. Is this caused by the chaotically modified genetics, by agronomic factors like watering levels or soil quality, by environmental factors like temperature? Who knows? No government or corporation has ever studied this in Bt cotton. Not Monsanto, not the US government, not the Indian government, no one. An independent study of Bt expression in GM maize, however, found great variation depending on climatic conditions. We see how climate chaos driven by the corporate system is intended to maximize the chaos of all aspects of agriculture, right down to the performance of the corporate flagship product.
 
At the farm level, Bt cotton intrinsically yields less than conventional hybrids. Given high inputs it may have better operational yield for the first few years until the bollworms develop resistance. Given the low inputs which comprise the limit for indebted small farmers, Bt always yields much less, along with many acute failures. Yields have always been far less, often by more than half, than what Monsanto’s advertising promised. Poor yields continue to this day. The meager overall numbers conceal a vast number of individual tragedies.
 
For the individual farmer, growing Bt cotton is like “playing Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty”, as Nassim Taleb put it regarding civilization and GMOs as a whole.
 
*Here’s a good place to add a critical point. While the individual small farmer crushed by commodity agriculture is often impoverished, the opposite is true of agriculture as a whole. Here we’re talking about cotton, which isn’t directly a food although the seeds are pressed into oil which is used in processed foods. Nevertheless in any discussion of GMO yields we must always stress the fact that industrial agriculture produces far more than enough food for everyone on earth today, and more than enough even for the highest future population projections. The fact is that there’s zero problem with the quantity of food produced, today or at any time in the future for as long as industrial agriculture persists. (It won’t for much longer. Humanity must transform to agroecology and food sovereignty if we want to continue eating.) Therefore there’s zero need to increase yields in order to “feed the world”. Feed the World is a classical Big Lie. The world currently produces enough food for 10 billion people, yet of the 7 billion here, one billion go hungry (and another 2 billion suffer from dietary diseases such as malnutrition or obesity, often both at the same time). This is caused purely by pathological economic and political systems for maldistributing the cornucopia we have. For example, India has vast food stocks, indeed it allows vast amounts of stockpiled food to rot, yet 250 million go hungry. The problem, today and tomorrow, is 100% from corporate maldistribution, 0% from insufficient production. It’ll be a great leap forward for civilization when we can completely purge the “Feed the World” notion from rational and moral discussion as the criminal Big Lie it is.
 
*Perhaps the core lie Monsanto-Mahyco and the Indian government told cotton farmers is that Bt cotton is suitable for rainfed cultivation. In reality Bt cotton is dependent upon artificial irrigation. In fact Bt cotton requires as much as twice the water needed by conventional hybrids and cannot be effectively grown without expensive artificial irrigation. The vast majority (70%) of India’s farmers depend completely upon rainfall. In Karnataka state where yields collapsed in 2014, most cotton cultivation is rainfed. Gujarat is the exception again, reversing the proportions of irrigated (65%) and rainfed (35%) farms. Here the irrigated area has accounted for 84% of the state’s cotton production, 689 lint kg/ha, while the rainfed area produces only 247 kg/ha. That’s a typical yield difference between Bt cotton grown with irrigation vs. rainfall.
 
To try to sell Bt cotton, or any GMO, to a rain-dependent farmer is criminal fraud. Investigative journalist PJ Sainath went further – “promoting [Bt cotton] in a dry and unirrigated area like Vidarbha [ground zero for the cotton farmer suicide epidemic] was murderous. It was stupid. It was killing.”
 
*Another core lie is that the Bt technology can be a permanent panacea against insect pests. On the contrary, Monsanto knew from the start that pests would develop resistance to any Bt toxin just as they do with any other pesticide. This is elementary knowledge of how evolution works. Monsanto built the planned obsolescence of each GMO variety and its being superceded by ever more complex and expensive “stacked” varieties into its business strategy. They called this marketing plan “expanded trait penetration”. But in the early 2000s Monsanto was promising the opposite, that single trait Bt cotton would maintain its potency versus the bollworm indefinitely.
 
Farmers who believed the lies were quickly disabused. Overall there was never a real decline in pesticide use in Indian cotton farming. Indeed, nationally pesticide use went up 10% during the peak years of Bt expansion. This was despite the increased use of lower-volume, higher-toxicity poisons during these years. In some regions Bt may have used less pesticide than conventional hybrids for the first few years, with a difference range from minuscule to significant. It’s a function of how much water and fertilizer the crop gets. (As always, every possible agronomic benefit of a GMO is dependent upon lavish and expensive artificial inputs. To spend less on pesticides you need to spend more on water and fertilizer.) Any temporary relief also depends upon high-quality trait expression. But many varieties are inconsistent, shoddy, or just fraudulent. There’s never a lasting decline. After four years at most the pesticide use and cost equals out. A few more years and Bt cotton needs more applied pesticides than non-GM conventional cotton. In terms of aggregate poison use and environmental and health hazards all the numbers comprise a false accounting because they don’t account for the Bt endotoxins themselves. But these too are pesticides and must be counted as such.
 
Meanwhile all commodity cotton, even Bt cotton, always needs sprayed and seed-treated pesticide since cotton is attacked by the widest array of insect types. In the case of anti-bollworm Bt cotton, secondary pests quickly move in to fill any temporary void left where the Bt toxin has temporarily killed the target pest. As I mentioned above, according to the CICR’s Kranthi without neonic seed treatments Bt cotton would be routed by whiteflies, jassids, mirids, aphids, thrips, and many others. As Monsanto’s own propaganda often emphasized, Bt adoption has to be put in the context of the failure of earlier pesticides. Since the same companies propagate both kinds of poisons, applied and GMO endemic, it’s obvious that the poison treadmill culminating in stacked Bt poisons is planned obsolescence, a form of disaster capitalism.
 
In some cases the Bt cotton never worked against the target bollworms at all. In every case bollworms developed resistance within a few years. In 2006 Monsanto introduced Bollgard II containing two Bt toxins, the original Cry1AC plus Cry2AB, thus admitting that the original Bollgard no longer worked. Bollworms have since developed resistance to Cry2AB. This is standard for the GMO pesticide treadmill.
 
The result of all this has been that farmers found any reduced-pesticide dividend to be minimal and temporary at best. While pesticide use and cost may have declined by a small amount at first, within a few years these were back to pre-Bt levels. Today Bt cotton farmers have to spend more on pesticides than farmers growing non-GM conventional hybrids. And to correct the false accounting again, the great expense of Bt seeds has to be entered as a pesticide cost, since farmers are purchasing the Bt endotoxins the crops allegedly will produce.
 
This ongoing pesticide disaster of insurgent secondary pests, resistant target pests, and soaring pesticide use and costs has reached new levels of infamy since 2015, as Bollgard II is collapsing in the face of resistant bollworms even as secondary whiteflies decimate the crop in many states. There’s a rising consensus among Indian farmers, agronomists, and even officials that the Bt cotton experiment has been a disaster India needs to purge.
 
*As Monsanto flooded the market with its seeds it pressured seed growers and sellers to stop producing and offering non-GM seeds. Monsanto calls this tactic “seed replacement”. Once enough farmers had adopted Bt cotton and GM seeds had attained a dominant market position Monsanto jacked up the price to astronomical levels. Here too there has been great variation over time and across regions, but distilling from many sources tells us that seed prices soared to 2-10 times as much as the price of non-GM hybrids. Prices have run from 700-2000 rupees per packet. For contrast, the original Desi varieties cost 5-10 rupees a packet. The bulk of this price explosion is Monsanto’s technology tax. By one estimate, by spring 2014 Monsanto had extracted 5000 crore in taxes (50 billion rupees; c. $810 million in contemporary dollars) from Indian cotton farmers. Imagine what this wealth could have accomplished if Indian society had invested in agroecological food production instead of throwing it down a corporate commodification rathole.
 
This extremely high priced seed input and accompanying tax is unique to the GMO varieties and therefore piles a new burden on the backs of already beleaguered farmers.
 
Various Indian state governments and some central government officials have made half-hearted attempts to relieve the crisis. In 2005 the government of Andhra Pradesh banned three Monsanto-Mahyco varieties for poor performance and sought in vain to force Mahyco to compensate farmers. In 2006 the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) issued an anti-monopoly pricing order against Monsanto-Mahyco, which Mahyco has done all it can to flout. The central government in 2008 as well as the state governments of Maharashtra in 2008, Maharashtra again in 2011 and 2012, and Karnataka in 2014 undertook regional farmer bailouts in response to atrocious Bt performance and crop failures. At various times Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have banned Mahyco seeds for bad performance and fraudulent sales practices. But these ad hoc, piecemeal measures have been utterly insufficient. In 2016, even as Karnataka geared up for its second farmer bailout, the Indian central government ordered price caps on cotton seed and the tax Monsanto imposes on the seeds. The government also threatened to revoke the Monsanto’s Bollgard II patent on the grounds that the product is a failure and a fraud.
 
The result of these escalating input costs has been that Bt cotton is considerably more expensive to grow than non-GM hybrids. At the same time cotton prices forcibly have been depressed and kept low by US dumping of heavily subsidized cotton. The result is that even for the best-equipped farms, Bt cotton’s profit margin is razor-thin, worse than for non-GM conventional. For small farmers, it’s a wipeout. It’s near impossible for them to do anything but lose even more and sink deeper into debt each year.
 
As all this has been going on India’s conventional agricultural credit structure, based on nationalized banks and lenient payment terms (obviously the right way for society to handle its food producers if it’s to force them to incur debt at all, which of course it should not), has been gutted by the same globalization process which has driven first monoculture hybrid commodification and then Bt commercialization. As a result farmers have been forced to turn to usurious “microlenders” and the seed and poison dealers themselves who often double as loansharks. This sinks them even deeper in the quicksand.
 
Around the world this pattern has held everywhere, from the richest countries like the US and Australia (both suffered yield declines and subsequent reduced Bt plantings during the drought of 2013) to Asia to Latin America. In Argentina the same pattern of partial but fleeting success for wealthy growers, failure and bankruptcy for small farmers, prevailed. The Colombian government fined Monsanto for the awful performance of its Bt cotton seeds. It was the same story: for small farmers Bt cotton didn’t perform well against pests, didn’t reduce pesticide use or costs, yielded poorly.
 
Returning to Asia, Chinese production, long afflicted by the secondary mirid bug, is suffering from surging bollworm resistance. Chinese problems with Bt cotton aren’t new. A 2006 Chinese/Cornell study already documented the standard pattern: Seven years of Chinese Bt cotton cultivation had seen a temporary decline in pesticide use and rise in income, then the surge of secondary pests drove farmers back to spraying as much as 20 times a year. Soon they were paying more for pesticides and making less money than non-GM conventional farmers. In Pakistan pesticide use and costs are rising steeply on account of the rampant fraud and the generally dismal performance of the seeds against pests. In Africa’s Burkino Faso farmer success or failure with Bt cotton has been a function of farmer access to credit on rational terms and the ability of farmers to pay for expensive inputs.
 
African cotton farmers, like the small farmers of India, are especially devastated by US dumping of its heavily subsidized cotton. The same US government which touts GMOs around the world as a great bet for small farmers is ruthlessly dumping its corporate welfare crops on the heads of those same farmers like hot coals. China and the EU also subsidize cotton.
 
Second to the Indian debacle, the most infamous Bt cotton rollout was the abortive deployment in the Makhathini Flats region of South Africa from the latter 1990s to 2005. In Makhathini, the neoliberal government deployed the same kind of propaganda campaign, promised loans and subsidies, told the same high-flying lies. This propaganda was directed at the international community and world media at least as much as at Makhathini’s farmers. (The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization bit. Its 2004 State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report swallowed the lies whole and has been a favorite citation of corporate and media flacks to this day.) The seed cartel enlisted local leaders to attest to the alleged benefits of Bt cotton. Economically beleaguered small farmers responded by adopting the Bt technology with the same result as in India – increased costs, crop failure, the poison treadmill, the debt trap, ending in their being driven off the land. Some were able to stick around as laborers on land they’d once stewarded. Most survivors abandoned cotton completely. By the late 1990s over 90% of Makhathini cotton farmers had adopted Bt varieties. By 2004 drought (lack of irrigation), pesticide costs (secondary pests and then target resistance), depressed cotton prices (US dumping), and impossible debt had caused most farmers to abandon cotton completely.
 
The worldwide evidence record of the agronomic and environmental performance of Bt cotton has been the same everywhere. It has always led to failure and disaster for small farmers. The fact that Monsanto, governments, academia, and the media continue to hype Bt cotton as appropriate for small farmers constitutes one of history’s ultimate frauds. It “works” for no one but the destructive, parasitic elites who profit off it and use it to exert ever greater control over agriculture. By Nuremburg standards it’s a crime against humanity.
 
From this history we see how Bt cotton has aggravated the poison/debt agronomic treadmill and economic trap which enclose small farmers in hopelessness and misery, to the point that in the end their only avenues of escape are suicide or to flee the land for the terminal shantytown slums. Bt cotton has turned an agricultural crisis into a catastrophe.
 
This result was no accident, nor was it unforeseen. On the contrary, it’s simply an escalation of standard “green revolution” phenomena: The replacement of food-based (or in this case textile-based) agriculture with a poison and commodity basis; the enclosure and concentration of agricultural power and profitability on an elitist basis; the forced mass expulsion of the people from the land. The fact that government, corporate, academic, and media elites touted Bt cotton to small farmers knowing it could lead only to their destruction comprises a great crime against humanity. The same is true of all GMO deployment.
 
It’s clear that Bt cotton is a product which, where it works at all, works only for a brief period and only where supplemented by an expensive, cumbersome apparatus of artificial inputs. Like all other GMOs, it’s an extremely high maintenance hothouse flower. Industrial agriculture as such is highly destructive, wasteful, and unsustainable. GMOs represent an escalation of all the worst aspects of corporate industrial agriculture while conferring no benefits. As a whole GMOs are the extreme manifestation of a backward, economically cramping, agronomically destructive, retrograde technology and mindset. Collectively GMOs are a hoax and a fraud, and most of all where touted for small farmers. The goal of marketing GMOs to small farmers is to destroy them economically and drive them off the land so that large-scale corporate industrial plantations can more “efficiently” enclose and monopolize agriculture. In First the Seed Jack Kloppenburg discusses how the corporations faced barriers to the full commodification of farming itself (as opposed to the system of agricultural inputs and processing). Here we see the answer: One of the basic purposes of GMOs is to drive up the costs of farming to the point that it becomes economically impossible for small independent farmers to exist. Bt cotton provides one of the best case studies.
 
In fact, the failure of Bt cotton and the great fraud it incarnates are typical of the insecticidal and herbicide tolerant GMOs in general. These essentially are the only two types of GMOs. Both are literally poison plants. They’re engineered to produce their own endemic Bt insecticide and/or to tolerate copious slatherings of herbicide, usually Monsanto’s Roundup. The herbicide is taken into the crop itself and suffuses all its cells. Therefore GMOs add two completely new, massive, indelible presences of extreme poison in our food.
 
In both cases the poison treadmill and the business strategy of planned obsolescence are fully operational. Except for a few trivial exceptions like the small and declining acreage of MON810 cultivation in Spain, no single-trait Bt maize variety has been effective for years. They’ve been replaced by stacked varieties which produce as many as six Bt toxins. Varieties which produce even more are in the pipeline, as pest resistance escalates and accelerates. Meanwhile the Roundup Ready GMO regime no longer works, as over a dozen glyphosate resistant superweeds rampage across North America, Brazil, and elsewhere. The only solution the system offers is to stack herbicide tolerances. Monsanto originally touted Roundup Ready GMOs as rendering even more toxic poisons like 2,4-D and dicamba obsolete while glyphosate (the main ingredient of Roundup though not the only actively toxic ingredient) would never suffer weed resistance.
 
Today Roundup Ready is in ruins, and the cartel and governments are pushing GMOs tolerant of the exact same ultra-toxic 2,4-D and dicamba which those same corporations and governments promised us would be a thing of the past if we just believed them about Roundup Ready. The results with each of these shall be exactly the same total failure, but with even worse socioeconomic, agronomic, environmental, and health destruction wrought along the way. This is why the Technical Expert Committee appointed by India’s supreme court to advise it on GMOs recommended, among several other important restrictions, that herbicide tolerant GMOs never be commercialized because of how badly they would aggravate the ongoing socioeconomic carnage by wiping out vast numbers of agricultural laborers. Economically, herbicide tolerant crops are meant to be standard “labor-saving”, job-destroying devices. They’re also designed to save time so the farmer can expand his acreage, thus feeding the classical vicious circle of agricultural overproduction and trying to “make it up on volume”. This of course also adds to the Get Big or Get Out pressure.
 
We can see how both the insecticidal and herbicide tolerance genres as a whole are massive frauds of the exact same character as Bt cotton. Bt cotton just provides the most clear example of how GMOs as such comprise a monumental fraud and crime.
 
GMOs are worthless, wasteful, counterproductive, and destructive. They impose a severe constraint and bottleneck on all attempts to innovate and advance in agriculture, farming, and food. They are designed and intended to drive out all small and independent producers and, through attaining total corporate control of agriculture and food, impose such a strangulation grip on the throat of humanity that we’ll never break free.
 
GMOs must be completely abolished.
 
 
 
 
If you agree with the ideas in these posts, propagate them.
 

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May 18, 2016

Three Notes on Communication in the Poison War

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1. Monsanto’s liars keep fighting the bad fight trying to spin their failure in Burkina Faso.
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As a connoisseur of corporate media bias, I found it refreshing that this Bloomberg piece actually was written according to what’s supposed to be journalistic method. As it should be, the reporter doesn’t claim to be able to read anyone’s mind, but only reports what someone said. For example:
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“Steenkamp said Monsanto still believes its technology will bring a benefit to farmers. The company said in the statement that the introduction in Burkina Faso of its Bollgard II cotton in 2009 in local varieties increased yields and export volumes while reducing pesticide use.”
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This bucks the New York Times standard which is followed by most of the mainstream media, which decrees that where an official or flack from an establishment entity like the US government or a big corporation says something, the scribbler should stenograph it. Thus the NYT would’ve written something like this:
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“Monsanto still believes its technology will bring a benefit to farmer. The company’s Bollgard II cotton was introduced in Burkina Faso in 2009 in local varieties in order to increase yields and export volumes while reducing pesticide use.”
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Of course the responsibility of a true journalist goes further than just proper attribution and not claiming to have a crystal ball. A real reporter would also fact-check Monsanto’s claims about yield and pesticide use and debunk those as the proven lies they are.
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2. The emphasis on commercial glyphosate formulations and the illegitimacy of the concept of “inert ingredients” is good for describing the fraudulence of corporate safety trials and regulatory assessments. But outside this context, it’s a distraction from the clear direct fact that glyphosate itself causes cancer and must be banned completely. So a general piece condemning the poison shouldn’t go off on tangents from the main line of attack. It must be glyphosate first, glyphosate last, glyphosate in the middle. For general purposes “Roundup” and “glyphosate” should be considered synonyms.
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This isn’t an academic point. As we speak the pro-glyphosate forces in the EU are expressing willingness to sacrifice POEA as long as they can separate the concept of it from the concept of glyphosate and make it the scapegoat, all toward the goal of rehabilitating glyphosate’s reputation and getting it re-licensed. That’s what happens when points which are good within a specific context are allowed to sprawl out indiscriminately into general communication, because of lack of conceptual and messaging discipline.
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3. We’ve long known that one of the main reasons most pro-GMO activists support the technology is because GMOs increase pesticide use. These activists want to maximize pesticide use but are often too cowardly openly to admit this. In particular, they’ve usually denied being Monsanto flunkeys who are really trying to boost Roundup sales. This lie has become completely transparent since the 2015 WHO cancer declaration forced the pro-GMO activists into overt Roundup shilling.
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Well, it was just a matter of time before they tried to turn this around. Here’s the first example I’ve seen of an implied claim that people are campaigning against glyphosate as some kind of stealth attack on GMOs.
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“Verger said: Every year we evaluate 10-30 compounds, and I can tell you that a lot of them are more dangerous and potent than glyphosate. We are a bit uncomfortable that there is so much interest in this assessment, [just] because this particular pesticide is used for GM crops.”
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This lie is as pathetic as all the rest. The people are rising against glyphosate because it causes cancer and has no constructive use. Contrary to the hack’s lie, to whatever extent there’s cause and effect in our oppositions it’s the other way around: One of the main reasons we oppose GMOs is precisely because GMOs are nothing but poison plants designed and intended to maximize the use of poisons like glyphosate.
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So it looks like we may be seeing this lie more often, but destroying it is easy.
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February 11, 2015

The Bt Cotton Fraud Part Three: The Global Record, and What It All Means

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From the history we explored in Parts One and Two we see how Bt cotton has aggravated the poison/debt agronomic treadmill and economic trap which enclose small farmers in hopelessness and misery, to the point that in the end their only avenues of escape are suicide or to flee the land for the terminal shantytown slums. Bt cotton has turned an agricultural crisis into a catastrophe.
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This result was no accident, nor was it unforeseen. On the contrary, it’s simply an escalation of standard “green revolution” phenomena: The replacement of food-based (or in this case textile-based) agriculture with poison- and commodity-based; the enclosure and concentration of agricultural power and profitability on an elitist basis; the forced mass expulsion of the people from the land. The fact that government, corporate, academic, and media elites touted Bt cotton to small farmers knowing it could lead only to their destruction comprises a great crime against humanity.
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Various Indian state governments and some central government officials have made half-hearted attempts to ameliorate the situation. In 2005 the government of Andhra Pradesh state banned three Monsanto-Mahyco varieties for poor performance and sought in vain to force Mahyco to compensate farmers. In 2006 the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) issued an anti-monopoly pricing order against Monsanto-Mahyco, which Mahyco has done all it can to flout. The central government in 2008 as well as the state governments of Maharashtra in 2008, Maharashtra again in 2011 and 2012, and Karnataka in 2014 undertook regional farmer bailouts in response to atrocious Bt performance and crop failures. At various times Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have banned Mahyco seeds for bad performance and fraudulent sales practices. But these ad hoc, piecemeal measures are utterly insufficient.
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Meanwhile, Monsanto’s lie machine has made lame attempts to suppress the facts. Regional crop failures, as in Karnataka in 2014, are attributed to allegedly unforeseen plagues of secondary pests. The farmers themselves are always a popular scapegoat. It’s especially perverse the way Monsanto and the Indian government encourage cash-poor small farmers to to buy the GMO product, lying all the way about the expensive inputs necessary to grow it, and then blame the farmer for not being able to provide these inputs, for example the added pesticides necessary to battle those newly insurgent secondary pests which always follow in Bt’s train. As always with technocrats and elitists in general, if the people lack the resources to get a technology to perform, that doesn’t mean the technology was wrongly deployed by the supplier, but that the people failed the technology.
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Most absurdly, the Monsanto publicists attribute the economic plight of small farmers and the suicide epidemic to “debt”. In the first place, this is tautological, since farmer debt is practically synonymous with their economic crisis. More important, this is just an attempted semantic misdirection which is substantively identical to saying: The cause of the farmer economic crisis and suicide epidemic is the commodification and poison treadmill, exacerbated by Bt cotton. This has driven them into a terminal debt crisis. In other words, the hacks themselves confess that their GMO is a main driver of the crisis, and that the is 100% the result of their commodification of Indian agriculture.
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There’s a summary of the horrific record of the Bt cotton experiment in India. This same record is borne out everywhere around the world Bt cotton has been deployed: It requires far more water, therefore farmers can never depend upon rainfall but need artificial irrigation; it uses more pesticides; it needs more synthetic fertilizer; it costs more to grow. Given the full outlay of expensive inputs, it may temporarily yield well and require less pesticide. This difference lasts only a few years. Small farmers lacking the resources to provide the accessory inputs never enjoy any benefit.
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This pattern has held everywhere, from the richest countries like the US and Australia (both suffered yield declines and subsequent reduced Bt plantings during the drought of 2013) to Latin America. Bt cotton in Argentina has a starkly differing performance record between rich plantation farmers and hardscrabble small farmers.
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The abstract of the study I just linked does such a good job of encapsulating the basic fact that I’ll quote it here.
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Drawing on a socio-technical systems perspective we compare the ways in which novel genetically modified (GM) crop artefacts, related devices and techniques, actors, practices, and institutions have been linked together, or configured, across two distinctive cotton production systems in north east Argentina, one based around large-scale farming and the other based around small-scale family farming. In the former system, new GM seeds, actors, complementary artefacts, agricultural techniques, and technical support, and modified supply markets and regulatory rules have been linked together in ways that mean agricultural biotechnologies perform well. In the latter system, the new GM artefacts were unavailable, whilst conventional seeds disappeared from input markets. Instead, linkages were formed between informal seed multipliers and dealers, copied GM seeds, of unreliable identify and poor quality, unmodified production practices, declining technical support, uncontrolled pest problems, and an absence of regulatory oversight, resulting in a poorly performing technology. In effect, working agricultural biotechnologies are different in the two farming systems; they have different characteristics and capabilities and perform in different ways.

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The Colombian government fined Monsanto for the awful performance of its Bt cotton seeds. It was the same story: for small farmers Bt cotton didn’t perform well against pests, didn’t reduce pesticide use or costs, yielded poorly. Elsewhere in Asia, Chinese production, long afflicted by the secondary mirid bug, is suffering from surging bollworm resistance. Chinese problems with Bt cotton aren’t new. A 2006 Chinese/Cornell study already documented the standard pattern: Seven years of Chinese Bt cotton cultivation had seen a temporary decline in pesticide use and rise in income, then the surge of secondary pests drove farmers back to spraying as much as 20 times a year. Soon they were paying more for pesticides and making less money than non-GM conventional farmers. In Pakistan pesticide use and costs are rising steeply on account of the rampant fraud and the generally dismal performance of the seeds against pests. In Africa’s Burkino Faso, farmer success or failure with Bt cotton has been a function of farmer access to credit on rational terms and the ability of farmers to pay for expensive inputs.
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African cotton farmers, like the small farmers of India, are especially devastated by US dumping of its heavily subsidized cotton. Never forget that the same US government which touts GMOs around the world as a great bet for small farmers is ruthlessly dumping its corporate welfare crops on the heads of those same farmers like hot coals. China and the EU also subsidize cotton.
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Second to the Indian saga, the most famous Bt cotton rollout was the abortive deployment in the Makhathini Flats region of South Africa from the latter 1990s to 2005. In Makhathini, the neoliberal government undertook the same kind of propaganda campaign, promised loans and subsidies, told the same high-flying lies, though these seem to have been directed at the international community and world media at least as much as at Makhathini’s farmers. (Sure enough, the UN’s FAO bit; its 2004 State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report, which swallowed the lies whole, is a favorite citation of corporate and media hacks to this day.) Local leaders were enlisted to attest to the benefits of Bt cotton. Economically beleaguered small farmers responded by adopting the Bt technology, with the same result as in India – increased costs, crop failure, the poison treadmill, the debt trap, ending in being driven off the land. (Some were able to stick around as laborers on land they’d once stewarded.) Most survivors abandoned cotton completely. By the late 1990s over 90% of Makhathini cotton farmers had adopted Bt. By 2004 drought (lack of irrigation), pesticide costs (secondary pests and then target resistance), depressed cotton prices (US dumping), and impossible debt had caused most farmers to abandon cotton completely.
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The worldwide evidence record of the agronomic and environmental performance of Bt cotton has been the same everywhere. It has always led to failure and disaster for small farmers. That Monsanto, governments, academia, and the media continue to hype Bt cotton as appropriate for small farmers must qualify by now as history’s ultimate fraud and hoax. It “works” for no one but the destructive, parasitic elites who profit off it and use it to exert ever greater control over agriculture.
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The Makhathini Flats episode most clearly highlights the basic PR hoax aspect of Bt cotton. Bt cotton was debuted in Makhathini with such fanfare, followed by a few years of hype while performance plummeted and farmers abandoned in droves not only Bt cotton but cotton itself, so that the whole thing had fizzled out by 2005, leaving nothing behind but an ongoing lie. (The uninformed who listen only to government and the corporate media probably think Bt cotton is to this day an ongoing success in South Africa. In fact there’s practically no Bt cotton being grown, and little cotton in general.) Part of Bt’s promise as a hoax product is that it can serve as a Trojan horse for GMOs in general. Often, as in India, GM cotton is the first GMO deployed in a country. Since cotton is perceived as a non-food (but cottonseed oil is widely used in processed foods), Bt cotton tends not to be as inflammatory an issue as GMOs such as corn or soy bound to be incorporated into food, let alone direct Frankenfoods like a GM potato or salmon. GMO-leery farmers and populations have been more readily induced to accept it. So the less controversial GMO is supposed to serve as the camel’s nose in the tent. Once its commercial presence politically normalizes GMOs as such, it’ll be easier to commercialize crops indirectly and directly bound to be food. That’s the Monsanto plan. In India the plan was to commercialize Bt cotton, then use that as the precedent to deploy Bt brinjal (eggplant), GM maize and rice, and other crops. So far this plan has stalled out, in large part because Bt cotton has been such a disaster. In general this strategy hasn’t worked well for the cartel. Even in countries where GM cotton is established, the people remain suspicious of GMOs. “Golden rice” is supposed to serve the same Trojan horse purpose if the bozos trying to develop it can ever get it to work. In the meantime it remains a seemingly permanent propaganda fixture even though it doesn’t really exist in any deployable form. It’s the most pure GMO media hoax.
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In fact, the failure of Bt cotton and the great fraud it incarnates are typical of the Bt and herbicide tolerance (HT) GMOs in general. These are the only two effective types of GMOs. Both are literally poison plants. They’re engineered to produce their own endemic Bt insecticide and/or to tolerate copious slatherings of herbicide, usually Monsanto’s Roundup. The herbicide is taken into the crop itself and suffuses all its cells. Therefore GMOs add two completely new, massive, indelible presences of extreme poison in our food.
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In both cases the poison treadmill and the business strategy of planned obsolescence are fully operational. Except for a few trivial exceptions like the small and declining acreage of MON810 cultivation in Spain, no single-trait Bt maize variety has been effective for years. They’ve been replaced by stacked varieties which produce as many as six Bt toxins. Varieties which produce even more are in the pipeline, as pest resistance escalates and accelerates. Meanwhile the Roundup Ready GMO regime no longer works, as over a dozen RR superweeds rampage across North America, Brazil, and elsewhere. The only solution the system offers is to stack herbicide tolerances. Monsanto originally touted RR GMOs as rendering even more toxic poisons like 2,4-D and dicamba obsolete, while glyphosate (the main ingredient of Roundup, though not the only actively toxic ingredient) would never suffer weed resistance.
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Today Roundup Ready is in ruins, and the cartel and governments are pushing GMOs tolerant of the exact same ultra-toxic 2,4-D and dicamba which those same corporations and governments promised us would be a thing of the past if we just believed them about Roundup Ready. The results with each of these shall, of course, be exactly the same total failure, but with even worse socioeconomic, agronomic, environmental, and health destruction wrought along the way. This is why the Technical Expert Committee appointed by India’s supreme court to advise it on GMOs recommended, among several other important restrictions, that HT GMOs never be commercialized because of how badly they would aggravate the ongoing socioeconomic carnage by wiping out vast numbers of agricultural laborers. (Economically, HT crops are meant to be standard “labor-saving”, job-destroying devices. They’re also designed to save time so the farmer can expand his acreage, thus feeding the classical vicious circle of agricultural overproduction and trying to “make it up on volume”. This of course also adds to the Get Big or Get Out pressure.)
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We can see how both the Bt and the HT genres as such are in the aggregate massive frauds of the exact same character as Bt cotton. Bt cotton just provides the most clear example of how GMOs as such comprise a monumental fraud and crime.
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GMOs are worthless, wasteful, counterproductive, and destructive. They impose a severe constraint and bottleneck on all attempts to innovate and advance in agriculture, farming, and food. They are in fact intended to drive out all small and independent producers and, through attaining total corporate control of agriculture and food, impose such a strangling grip on the throat of humanity that we’ll never break free.
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GMOs must be completely abolished.

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February 9, 2015

The Bt Cotton Fraud Part Two: Its Performance in the Field

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Part One.
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In Part 2 we’ll survey the real world performance of Bt cotton in India. This is in contrast to the “studies” of Monsanto flacks like Matin Qaim, much touted in the corporate media. Qaim, who barely set foot outside the Mahyco greenhouses and field test sites during his few visits to India (he’s based in Germany), simply propagates corporate-asserted numbers based on secret data from the corporate trials. There’s no reason to trust these numbers in the first place, and even if they were true they’d be valid only for the ivory tower conditions of the trial sites. Either way these figures have zero validity for real world agriculture of any sort, let alone that practiced by small farmers. Yet this person is the go-to guy for the corporate media and Monsanto hacks everywhere. Since we can assume Monsanto provides the best flackery it can, in dismissing Qaim we can dismiss the entire pro-Bt “side of the story” as fraudulent and invalid. Now let’s move on to what reality testifies.
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1. Bt cotton never improved yields. Data compiled by government and trade groups tells a stark story: The great bulk of the yield increase (measured by nationwide average kilograms per hectare) of the commodity cotton era in India occurred from the 2000-01 to the 2004-05 seasons, at which point only 5.6% of cotton acreage was planted to Bt varieties. During the Bt acreage surge from 2005-06 (18% of cotton acreage) to 2008-09 (84%) yield increased only a slight amount, then stagnated and declined. In the ensuing years as Bt acreage crept up above 90%, yields have declined. Overall, yield increased 70% from 00-01 to 04-05 when Bt acreage was negligible, and increased only 2% from 05-06 to 2011-12, with a decline since the 2007-08 peak.
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This proves that the entire increase was from other causes and had nothing to do with the GMO. The real yield surge came from the switch from polyculture Desi-based cotton growing to hybrid monoculture deploying massive, expensive inputs – irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides. (That’s only monocultural yield, not food for people or farmer income. As a rule “yield” by itself is a crackpot measure with no meaning except within some socioeconomic, political, or environmental context.) Almost all the yield increase in fact came from improvements in conventional hybrids and expanded irrigation. As for pesticides, Kehsav Kranthi of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) scoffs at the notion that Bt crops can hold their own. On the contrary, he attributes the viability of any kind of hybrid cotton, Bt or conventional, vs. a wide range of what from the Bt point of view are secondary pests (Bt cotton’s target pest is the bollworm; secondary pests include jassids/leafhoppers, mealy bugs, mirid bugs, thrips, stink bugs, and many others), to the standard seed treatment with the neonicotinoid imidacloprid. Of course this too is a deadly poison we need to abolish (and jassids are increasingly resistant to it), but the point is that to the extent poisons contribute to yield at all, this non-GM poison is far more important than genetically engineered Bt. The great increase in the years of low Bt acreage and stagnation of the years of Bt domination prove that this GMO offers no yield benefit whatsoever and is actually inferior to conventional cotton hybrids.
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These numbers, damning as they are, actually exaggerate GMO performance, as they’re skewed by the relatively better results from Gujarat state. Gujarat is an outlier in that its agriculture is dominated by fewer, bigger, richer farmers than is typical in other states. Gujarat is far better served by irrigation projects and fertilizer subsidies. Its more capital-rich farmers can better afford the expensive inputs Bt cotton requires. The better Bt cotton production in this state therefore confirms the thesis that GMOs work only for rich growers who can afford lavish outlays for irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides. Take Gujarat out of the equation and Bt’s performance for small farmers across the cotton belt has been dismal and worsening.
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Besides its poor overall yield, Bt cotton (and Bt crops in general, everywhere on earth) has performed in an extremely variable way. There have been several regional crop failures, most recently in Karnataka in 2014. In general the national and state averages obscure extreme local/regional variability. As a rule, how the GM crop will perform is a crapshoot and will vary from farmer to farmer. Whether on account of the poor quality of seed or variable Bt expression in the crop (caused by the chaotically modified genetics, by agronomic factors like watering levels or soil quality, by environmental factors like temperature? Who knows? No one has ever studied this. Not Monsanto, not the US government, not the Indian government, no one), whatever the cause, at any given time the meager overall numbers conceal a vast number of individual tragedies.
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At the farm level, Bt intrinsically yields less than conventional hybrids. Given high inputs it may have better operational yield for the first few years until the bollworms develop resistance. Given the low inputs which comprise the limit for indebted small farmers, Bt always yields much less, along with many acute failures. Yields have always been far less, often by more than half, than what Monsanto’s advertising promised.
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For the individual farmer, growing Bt cotton is like “playing Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty”, as Nassim Taleb recently put it regarding civilization and GMOs as a whole.
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[There’s a good place to add a critical point. While the individual small farmer crushed by commodity agriculture is often impoverished, the opposite is true of agriculture as a whole. Here we’re talking about cotton, which isn’t directly a food although the seeds are pressed into oil which is used in processed foods. Nevertheless in any discussion of GMO yields we must always stress the fact that industrial agriculture produces far more than enough food for everyone on earth today, and more than enough even for the highest future population projections. The fact is that there’s zero problem with the quantity of food produced, today or at any time in the future for as long as industrial ag persists. (It won’t for much longer, and humanity must transform to decentralized agroecology and food sovereignty if we want to continue eating, but that’s a different matter for another day.) Therefore there’s zero need to increase yields in order to “feed the world”. Feed the World is a classical Big Lie. The world currently produces enough food for 10 billion people, yet of the 7 billion here, one billion go hungry (and another 2 billion suffer from dietary diseases such as malnutrition or obesity, often both at the same time). This is 100% caused by pathological economic and political systems for distributing the cornucopia we have. For example, India has vast food stocks, indeed it allows vast amounts of stockpiled food to rot, yet 250 million go hungry. The problem, today and tomorrow, is 100% from corporate maldistribution, 0% from insufficient production. It’ll be a great leap forward for civilization when we can completely purge the “Feed the World” notion from rational and moral discussion as the criminal Big Lie it is.]
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2. Probably the core lie Monsanto-Mahyco and the Indian government told cotton farmers is that Bt cotton is suitable for rainfed cultivation. In fact Bt cotton requires as much as twice the water needed by conventional hybrids and cannot be effectively grown without expensive artificial irrigation. The vast majority (70%) of India’s farmers depend completely upon rainfall. In Karnataka state where yields collapsed in 2014, most cotton cultivation is rainfed. Gujarat is the exception again, reversing the proportions of irrigated (65%) and rainfed (35%) farms. Here the irrigated area has accounted for 84% of the state’s cotton production, 689 lint kg/ha, while the rainfed area produces only 247 kg/ha. That’s a typical yield difference between Bt cotton grown with irrigation vs. rainfall.
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To try to sell Bt cotton, or any GMO, to a rain-dependent farmer is criminal fraud plain and simple. Investigative journalist PJ Sainath went further – “promoting [Bt cotton] in a dry and unirrigated area like Vidarbha [ground zero for the mass farmer suicide epidemic] was murderous. It was stupid. It was killing.”
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3. Another core lie is that the Bt technology can be a permanent panacea vs. insect pests. In fact Monsanto knew from the start the obvious fact from Evolution 101 that pests would develop resistance to any Bt toxin just as they do with any other pesticide. Monsanto built the planned obsolescence of each GMO variety, and its supercession by stacked and then more stacked varieties (they called it “expanded trait penetration”, referring to market penetration), into its business strategy. But in the early 00s Monsanto was promising the opposite, that single trait Bt cotton would maintain its potency vs. the bollworm indefinitely.
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Farmers who believed the lies were quickly disabused. The official data is garbled and contradictory, but the basic outlines are clear. Overall, there was never a real decline in pesticide use in Indian cotton farming. Indeed, nationally pesticide use went up 10% during the peak years of Bt expansion. This was despite the increased use of lower-volume, higher-toxicity poisons during these years. In some regions Bt may have used less pesticide than conventional hybrids for the first few years, with a difference range from miniscule to significant. It’s a function of how much water and fertilizer the crop gets. (As always, every possible agronomic benefit of a GMO is dependent upon lavish and expensive artificial inputs. To spend less on pesticides you need to spend more on water and fertilizer, for example.) Any temporary relief also depends upon high-quality trait expression. But many varieties are inconsistent, shoddy, or just fraudulent. There’s never a lasting decline. After four years at most the pesticide use and cost equals out. A few more years and Bt needs more applied pesticides than non-GM conventional. Also, in terms of aggregate poison use and environmental and health hazards all the numbers comprise a false accounting because they don’t accoiunt for the Bt endotoxins themselves. But these too are pesticides and must be counted as such in all relevant ways.
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Meanwhile all commodity cotton, even Bt cotton, always needs sprayed and/or seed-treated pesticide since cotton is attacked by the widest array of insect types. In the case of anti-bollworm Bt cotton, secondary pests quickly move in to fill any temporary void left where the Bt toxin has temporarily killed the target pest. As I mentioned above, according the the CICR’s Kranthi without neonic seed treatments Bt cotton would be routed by jassids, mirids, aphids, thrips, and many others. As Monsanto’s own propaganda often emphasized, Bt adoption has to be put in the context of the failure of earlier pesticides. Since the same companies propagate both kinds of poisons, applied and GMO endemic, it’s obviously likely that the poison treadmill culminating in stacked Bt poisons is planned obsolescence, disaster capitalism.
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In some cases the Bt cotton never worked against the target bollworms at all. In every case, bollworms developed resistance within a few years. In 2006 Monsanto introduced Bollgard II containing two Bt toxins, the original Cry1AC plus Cry2AB, thus admitting that the original Bollgard no longer worked. Bollworms have since developed resistance to Cry2AB. This is standard for the GMO pesticide treadmill. The result of all this has been that farmers found any reduced-pesticide dividend to be minimal and temporary at best. While pesticide use and cost may have declined by a small amount at first, within a few years they were back to pre-Bt levels. Today Bt cotton farmers have to spend more on pesticides than farmers growing non-GM conventional hybrids. And to correct the false accounting again, the great expense of Bt seeds has to be entered as a pesticide cost, since farmers are purchasing the Bt endotoxins the crops will allegedly produce.
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As is standard in these superbug cases, Monsanto, government, and the corporate media try to scapegoat the farmers by claiming they didn’t plant sufficient non-Bt “refuges” where non-resistant insects could survive and mate with resistant ones. The refuge concept is a propaganda scam, not a serious policy. Here’s not the place to dissect it, but I wrote more about it here. For the purposes of this post, which emphasizes how Bt cotton is a fraud on small farmers, I’ll point out that the refuge policy, if seriously meant, could be deployed only on large plantations, not on thousands of farms of a few acres each. So there’s another example of how even in principle GMOs could “work” only on vast industrial farms but can never work for small farmers.
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4. Small farmers didn’t count on the fact that GMO cotton requires considerably more synthetic fertilizer than non-GM conventional cotton. Pro-GMO activist CD Mayee (an ISAAA board member and former co-chair of the aptly named Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC)) admits that a doubling of the small amount of Indian acreage planted to GMOs (Bt cotton is the only GMO currently being grown commercially in India and makes up c. 5% of overall agricultural acreage) would double the whole country’s fertilizer use. That’s how ravenous Bt cotton is. A university study found that Bt cotton requires 15% more fertilizer than conventional. Bt cotton’s inherent gluttony for synthetic fertilization is aggravated by the way it denudes the soil and destroys soil microbial communities. This soil destruction in turn requires even greater fertilizer application as well as more irrigation, as the soil becomes unable to hold water. Needless to say this combination generates an awful nitrate runoff problem.
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5. As Monsanto flooded the market with its seeds, it pressured seed growers and sellers to stop producing and offering non-GM seeds. Monsanto calls this tactic “seed replacement”. Once enough farmers had adopted Bt cotton and GM seeds had attained a dominant market position, Monsanto jacked up the price to astronomical levels. Here too there has been great variation over time and across regions, but distilling from many sources tells us that seed prices soared to 2-10 times as much as the price of non-GM hybrids. Prices have run from 700-2000 rupees per packet. For the greatest contrast, the original Desi varieties would cost 5-10 rupees a packet. The bulk of this price explosion is Monsanto’s technology tax. By one estimate, by spring 2014 Monsanto had extracted 5000 crore in taxes (50 billion rupees; c. $810 million) from Indian cotton farmers. Imagine what this wealth could have accomplished if Indian society had invested it in polyculture food production instead of letting it drain down a corporate commodification rathole.
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This extremely high priced seed input and accompanying tax is unique to the GMO varieties, and is therefore a new burden on already beleaguered farmers.
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6. The result of all these escalating input costs has been that Bt cotton is considerably more expensive to grow than non-GM hybrids. At the same time cotton prices have been forcibly depressed and kept low by US dumping of heavily subsidized cotton. The result is that even for the best-equipped farms, Bt’s profit margin is razor-thin, certainly worse than for non-GM conventional. For small farmers, it’s a wipeout. It’s near impossible for them to do anything but lose even more and sink deeper into debt each year.
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7. As all this has been going on, India’s conventional agricultural credit structure, based on nationalized banks and lenient payment terms (obviously the right way for society to handle its food producers, if it’s to force them to incur debt at all, which of course it should not), has been gutted by the same neoliberal process which has driven first monoculture hybrid commodification and then Bt commercialization. As a result farmers have increasingly been forced to turn to usurious “microlenders” and the seed and poison dealers themselves who often double as loansharks. This sinks them even deeper in the quicksand.
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It’s clear that Bt cotton is a product which, where it works at all, works only for a brief period and only where supplemented by an expensive, cumbersome apparatus of artificial inputs. Like all other GMOs, it’s an extremely high maintenance hothouse flower. Industrial agriculture as such is highly destructive, wasteful, and unsustainable. GMOs represent an escalation of all the worst aspects of industrial ag while conferring no benefits. As a whole GMOs are the extreme manifestation of a backward, economically cramping, agronomically destructive, retrograde technology and mindset. They’re collectively a hoax and a fraud, and most of all where touted for small farmers. The goal of marketing GMOs to small farmers is in fact to economically destroy them and drive them off the land so that large-scale corporate industrial plantations can more “efficiently” enclose and monopolize agriculture. In First the Seed Jack Kloppenburg discusses how the corporations faced barriers to the full commodification of farming itself (as opposed to the system of agricultural inputs and processing). Here we see the answer: One of the basic purposes of GMOs is to drive up the costs of farming to the point that it becomes economically impossible for small independent farmers to exist. Bt cotton provides one of the best case studies.
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In Part Three we’ll survey Bt cotton around the world and confirm that the Indian experience, while extreme, is typical.

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