Mus­lim Coun­tries Plan for Hot Bleak Fu­ture

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What hap­pened – which is de­scribed in sig­nif­i­cant de­tail in a re­port pre­sented re­cently at the Tex­tile Ex­change Sus­tain­abil­ity Con­fer­ence – is some­thing many anti-gmo forces had pre­dicted. The very prom­ise of GM crops for the farm­ers de­pends on the crops’ Gm-em­bed­ded pes­ti­cide al­ways hav­ing a strong kill rate for the pests. The prom­ise of GM crops for the seed man­u­fac­turer (in this case, Mon­santo) de­pends on a sin­gle strain of crops be­ing mass-pro­duced and planted in vol­ume.

The risk/re­ward equa­tion here is a messy and in­del­i­cate bal­ance. With a vir­tu­ally-mono­cul­ture crop strain ideal for man­u­fac­tur­ing and even pes­ti­cide de­vel­op­ment, un­for­tu­nately the farm­ers are au­to­mat­i­cally sac­ri­fic­ing the nat­u­ral food se­cu­rity of the nor­mally-highly-di­verse bio cul­ture of non-gm seeds. Some­times the risk plays out, but it is al­ready ap­par­ent in sev­eral sit­u­a­tions where GM crops have been planted that the pests them­selves are be­gin­ning to evolve faster to re­sist than ex­pected. When they be­come even par­tially re­sis­tant to the Gm-im­planted pes­ti­cides, the GM crops could rapidly be de­stroyed.

The first-gen­er­a­tion GM cot­ton, known as Boll­gard I, was de­signed around the pink boll­worm and had been planted for the first four years of Mon­santo’s In­dian GM Cot­ton in­va­sion. The Bt cot­ton plants, de­signed to con­tin­u­ously re­lease tox­ins to fight off the pests, did what they were de­signed to do for a few years, and yields looked promis­ing.

The prob­lem was that the pink boll­worm was mak­ing its own nat­u­ral ge­netic adap­ta­tion to the crop. This was fur­ther aided by con­tin­u­ous ex­po­sure to the Bt tox­ins, which pro­vided wide ex­po­sure to the ge­netic vari­ants of boll­worm that evolved nat­u­rally. In short or­der, four states in Western In­dia had large pop­u­la­tions of pink boll­worm that were re­sis­tant to the Bt tox­ins.

Mon­santo re­sponded by cre­at­ing Boll­gard II, a more­ex­pen­sive, sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Bt cot­ton with two dif­fer­ent pes­ti­cide tox­ins within the crop. The pink boll­worm rapidly evolved to de­feat that new vari­ant also. Faced with a po­ten­tial dis­as­ter on their hands, the farm­ers then re­sponded by ap­ply­ing other pes­ti­cides to their Bt-in­fused Boll­gard II crops, which cre­ated a “worst of both worlds” sit­u­a­tion. Adding pes­ti­cides man­u­ally de­feated the whole idea of us­ing Bt crops in the first place. And putting more pes­ti­cides on the crops meant much higher costs for the farm­ers and greater dam­age to hu­man health and the en­vi­ron­ment.

The sit­u­a­tion grew even worse when other pests, not orig­i­nally con­sid­ered by Mon­santo when de­sign­ing their crop, en­tered the equa­tion. In 2015, white­fly ap­peared in the cot­ton-grow­ing re­gions of Pun­jab and even­tu­ally wiped out two-thirds of the cot­ton crop. Be­sides the to­tal crop loss, es­ti­mated at $629 mil­lion U.S., farm­ers felt that all hope of get­ting their crops back on track was lost. They fell deeply in debt try­ing to fight all that had hap­pened and got more des­per­ate as the sit­u­a­tion grew bleaker. Ac­cord­ing to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion after the fact by the In­dian Par­lia­ment, there were an es­ti­mated 7,992 farmer sui­cides in the Vi­darbha re­gion of Ma­ha­rash­tra prov­ince be­tween 2006 and 2011 di­rectly re­sult­ing from of this. In­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tions es­ti­mate vastly more sui­cides.

The or­ganic farm­ers who did not use the GM cot­ton or pes­ti­cides not only sur­vived but con­tin­ued to thrive, even while the pink boll­worm evolved against the Mon­santo seed vari­ants and the white­fly emerged as an­other threat. Those groups be­gan to re­ceive more fund­ing from the gov­ern­ment of In­dia. In­dia it­self has now be­come known as the cen­ter for or­ganic cot­ton, with an es­ti­mated 70% of all or­ganic cot­ton now grown in the coun­try.

Brand­ing-wise, or­ganic farm­ing’s value as part of the prod­uct it­self is also be­ing pro­moted. With crop ro­ta­tion, less dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment and main­tain­ing bio­di­ver­sity in the seed cul­tures (and with­out the need for pes­ti­cides), or­ganic cot­ton from In­dia is now seen as a far more sus­tain­able crop. It is lit­er­ally tak­ing back ground from the ar­eas once dev­as­tated be­cause of the for­mer plant­ings of Mon­santo’s Bt cot­ton.

Pest re­sis­tance to the nat­u­ral Bt toxin was not an is­sue prior to the ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion of plants, and the re­sis­tance be­ing cre­ated by ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion could have far-reach­ing con­se­quences for the or­ganic grow­ers who pre­vi­ously used the Bt toxin as a nat­u­ral pes­ti­cide.

Plant re­sis­tance to the can­cer-caus­ing her­bi­cide glyphosate, which is part of Mon­santo’s seed-chem­i­cal pack­age for many crops, is also in­creas­ing.

For­tu­nately, some coun­tries are learn­ing their les­son about hack­ing nature and are aban­don­ing forced ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and em­brac­ing nat­u­ral meth­ods that work with nature in­stead of against it.

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