WHY DO CATTLE DIE EATING BT COTTON
PLANTS ONLY IN THE TELENGANA REGION OF ANDHRA PRADESH IN
C Kameswara Rao
for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
For a month now, reports of dead
cattle have occupied the centre stage in the
Warangal, Khammam and Adilabad Districts of the Telengana area of Andhra
(Deccan Herald, February
7, 2007, The Hindu, March 2, 2007, GM Watch, March 4, 2007). None of the reports showed that Bt protein in the Bt cotton plants was the real culprit, but
the purveyors of these reports would like the world to believe that there is
something wrong with Bt cotton plants that cause these alleged animal deaths
and so Bt transgenics should be banned.
With more than 90 per
cent of cotton grown in the Telengana region being Bt cotton, the cattle graze on Bt cotton stubble. Since Bt protein is
established beyond any reasonable doubt that it is non-toxic to mammals on
account of its mode of chemical action, the
investigation should concentrate on what other chemicals the dead/dying cotton
plants contain affecting the cattle. The reported symptoms such as convulsions, nasal discharge, vomiting,
respiratory problems and diarrhea can be caused by a variety of factors, and
cannot be attributed exclusively to the chemical contents of Bt plants, as non-Bt cotton plants too contain the same chemical compounds except
for the Bt protein.
A veterinary doctor
reportedly said that the treatment is symptomatic since the 'culprit toxic
substance is not identified’. ‘It needs
more than a laboratory analysis to curb the occurrence of animal deaths due to
suspected poisoning’ another veterinarian observed. The State Legislative Assembly seems to have
been informed that no deaths of cattle attributable to the consumption of Bt cotton plants were reported. Yet the NGOs claim that the Government
Veterinary Department ascribed the deaths to grazing Bt cotton plants.
I was in the Warangal District in the middle of December 2006, along
with Professor Ronald Herring (Cornell University) and Dr S Shantharam (Biologistics International, US) and discussed sheep
deaths with different groups of people and no one said that the sheep died only
because they consumed Bt cotton plants.
The representatives of
the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CAS, Secunderabad),
the most vocal face of anti-agricultural biotechnology and sheep death movement
said that basing on the data provided by the Andhra Pradesh Shepherds Union,
about 120 sheep died on
eating Bt cotton leaves in 11 Mandals of Warangal and Khammam districts, last year. According to
them there were many other reports of death of a large number of sheep in the
region. CSA admitted that Bt protein is not toxic to mammals, but this wisdom
evaporates when they go to the press. They also seem to consider that sheep deaths are due to ‘nitrate
toxicity’. But the nitrate content was
not estimated either in the plants or the sheep body fluids and tissues. Drought and water stress results in the
accumulation of a large number of chemical compounds in the drying plants, such
as resins, polyphenols such as gossypol and several
others, which can be toxic when consumed in large quantities. The leaves of such plants are no longer
green; they acquire hues of red to deep purple. However, nitrates or other toxic compounds cannot be exclusive to Bt cotton plants
The Officers of the Department of
Agriculture of the Warangal District we met said that
sheep death cannot be attributed to Bt cotton and that
residual pesticides are probably the cause, and sheep died even before Bt
cotton was cultivated in the area.
An agriculture reporter of a local
vernacular daily also does not believe that there is any connection between
sheep deaths and Bt cotton.
We met several cotton seed and
pesticide dealers who do not see any connection between Bt cotton and sheep deaths. They said that
‘Chituku rogam’, a fatal
bacterial disease of sheep, appears in the District now and then and that what
else the cattle have eaten along with cotton plants is also important.
Most of the large number of farmers
we met in the District heard about sheep deaths but have no first hand
knowledge of the issue. They have
indicated that most reports of sheep deaths come from the
Oorugunda where an NGO
operates and also from the village area of Veladi.
None of the activists speak about
sheep deaths that occurred before Bt cotton
cultivation came into practice in this region. The big question is why cattle only in a few Districts of the Telengana region die? If cattle are reported to be dying on eating Bt cotton plants only in the Telengana region of Andhra
Pradesh, the causes are probably elsewhere, other than in the Bt stubble.
Next wave of reporting would be
about people who fell sick on drinking milk from the cows and buffalos that ate Bt cotton plants. The remedies are simple—provide the cattle with proper feed and prevent
them from grazing on drying cotton plants, no matter Bt or non-Bt.
As per the records of the District
Department of Agriculture, a compensation of Rs. 3.27 crore was paid to the farmers in the Telengana District on account of alleged failure of Bt cotton crop during the last couple of years. From this precedence, it looks that the
Government of Andhra Pradesh and producers of Bt cotton seed should now get ready to dish out compensation for cattle deaths in Telengana.