Biotechnology: Seeds Of Strife

When cotton farmer Venkataih Gajelli set off one evening last March to sleep in the fields, his wife and three children thought he was just taking pains to guard his crop. The next morning, neighbors found him dead. Only then did his family realize that Gajelli had gone into debt to the tune of $3,300, more than his 3.5-acre farm was worth. Loan sharks had threatened to drag the 50-year-old through the streets of his village in Andhra Pradesh. "He couldn't stand the shame," said his brother, Akalu Balarju, 60, also a farmer. "But we all face the same predicament."

The morbid irony of Gajelli's suicide is that he drank pesticides, the very chemicals he had borrowed so heavily to buy for his farm. Gajelli is one of more than 10,000 cotton farmers in India who have committed suicide in the past 15 years in anguish over their failing farms. Many of them were burdened by the high cost of pesticides, which account for 60 percent of the average small farmer's budget in India. In yet another irony, "transgenic" cotton seeds genetically modified to produce their own pesticides have been available in the United States for six years. Had Gajelli been able to buy them, he might not have needed to borrow so heavily.

The plight of India's cotton farmers is a cautionary tale in unintended consequences. For years Indian environmentalists have opposed the introduction of Bt cotton, which borrows a pesticide-producing gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Through demonstrations, lobbying and vandalism, they succeeded in slowing field tests of Bt cotton, performed over three years at 51 sites across the country. India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee finally gave the go-ahead last March for sales of Bt cotton seeds from Mahyco, a joint venture of Monsanto and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds.

This summer, as farmers across India began planting Bt cotton legally for the first time, yields are expected to rise and costs fall. Although Bt seeds cost four times more than conventional seeds, they require 70 percent less pesticides. "It's a very good thing," says P. K. Ghosh, adviser to the Indian government's Biotechnology Department. "It will cut pesticide use and once it's in the fields farmers will see the difference." Farmers' health should improve, too. In one district of Andhra Pradesh, 500 farmers died of pesticide exposure in the past year.

The new seeds are arriving none too soon for India's ailing cotton farms. The country's 9 million hectares of cotton fields are the world's largest, but they lag in productivity. India reaps just 321 kilograms from each hectare, compared to 769 kg in the United States and 963 kg in China. "India's small farmer is in a precarious position," says Chengal Reddy, president of Andhra Pradesh's Federation of Farmers Associations. "He's just surviving, but the patient's terribly--possibly terminally--ill. Bt cotton can provide a way out of the mess."

Environmentalists haven't given up their opposition to transgenic seeds. Although they're not likely to win a repeal of Bt cotton, they may slow India's testing of transgenic soybean, chili, potato, eggplant, rice and cabbage. "Unfortunately, the debate has very often ignored the farmers," says Calestouos Juma, a science-policy expert at Harvard. "But farmers do have good judgment. It would be foolish not to listen to their wishes."