Bt cotton fails to survive bollworm pest attack

Failure in Gujarat pockets may not be a national worry yet

 
On Friday, agri-biotech company Monsanto reported that its Bt cotton for the first time failed to offer protection to almost one-third of cotton plants from pink bollworm in four districts of Gujarat in 2009.

The four districts – Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot – saw an unusual survival rate of pink bollworm to the first-generation, single protein Bollgard cotton, which was monitored by a national network of scientists.

“In other season, typically four-to-five per cent of cotton plants fall prey to pink bollworm. But this time, 25-30 per cent plants were under attack,” K R Kranthi, director of Central Institute of Cotton Research in Nagpur who heads the monitoring network, told Deccan Herald.

The alarming development has been reported to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex regulator for genetically modified crops.

Monsanto scientists said pink bollworm developed resistance against the single gene Bt cotton, which is the most common Bt cotton hybrid cultivated in India. Kranthi, who played a central role in developing India’s first public sector Bt cotton (Bikaneri Nerma), however differs.

“More tests are required to establish if bollworm has developed resistance. Resistance cannot be declared like that. All I can say at the moment is the survival rate is unusually high,” he said, indicating that methodologies adopted for resistance testing might be incorrect.

The company, however, insists that the failure is due to resistance development, which is natural and expected in Bt cotton in any case.

The solution for the farmers, according to the company, is better farm management like maintaining a proper refugia of non-Bt crops around the field and shifting to better hybrids like Bollgard-II that has two genes from a soil microbe producing more toxins.

Kranthi counters, saying “Twenty five per cent seeds in any case will not have any Bt toxin. Moreover, there is no segregation between first and second generation seeds. Without knowing these, it can not be said that bollworm has developed resistance against Bt cotton.”

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