AgBioForum, 12(1), 2009 | 17
Cotton Research in Nagpur—to see if the plants’ tissue actually contains the Cry protein. If not, the failure to control bollworms is not a Bt failure, but an informa- tional and institutional failure in unregulated seed mar- kets. Rural India has been awash in “duplicates” that claim to be Bt seeds but are not, as well as cloth-bag, farmer-generated, and F2 Bt seeds that do produce the Cry insecticidal protein but lack approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee in Delhi.
Worse than agro-economic failure are horror stories of biological externalities, from bizarre skin irritations to dead livestock. Sadeque (2008) noted that after graz- ing on Bt cotton leaves, “[i]n just four villages in And- hra Pradesh, 1800 sheep died horrible, agonizing deaths within 2-3 days from severe toxicity” (paragraph 13). Other disaster reports find leaf wilt, root rot, increased drought susceptibility, and a wide variety of ills. Sad- eque (2008) writes of “allergies not only among farm- workers but also itching and rashes in people wearing clothing made from Bt cotton” (paragraph 9). In the Bt- failure narrative, all evils of cotton production—from child labor to dead sheep and farmer suicides—are loaded onto a single Cry gene that produces one protein that kills some bollworms. Sadeque (2008) notes that
Other reports have emerged from India on the ill health effects of Bt cotton on both people and animals. It is being held responsible for causing “untimely deaths, decline in milk quality and quantity, and serious reproductive failures.” Many workers in cotton gin factories have to take antihistamines daily before they can start work. (paragraph 14)
Reports of sheep dying horrible deaths were fol- lowed by similar stories about cattle deaths. Both have proved impossible to verify; there is no biological mechanism to produce this outcome, and bio-safety test- ing by the Indian government explicitly tested the Cry1Ac protein for mammalian activity. The Bt plants have had, until recently, only one extra gene, coding for one protein, a crystalline pro-toxin that is cleaved in the gut of Lepidopterans to become an active insect toxin. Neither the acidity nor the receptors of gut cells in mam- malian guts can produce these results. There are many uncertainties in genetic engineering, but this result is well-tested and biologically well-understood. Many things can kill a sheep; Bt is not one of them (Rao, 2007a, 2007b).
How can this radical leap be made from a single trait to so Hydra-headed a catastrophe? There is no biologi-
cal reason for this loading, nor verifiable empirical evi- dence. The Genetic Engineering Committee in Delhi has tested the technology and confirmed the theory in multi- ple trials. Skepticism about the externality claims would be the first response from a position of even the most basic biological literacy or attention to scientific litera- ture. Willingness to believe biological horror stories depends on a prior narrative—not of gullible peasants but of unnatural acts. Sadeque (2008) folds the narrative of externalities into one of the unnatural nature of Bt
plants, the “GMO”:
including plants, make a compete departure from this safe, long and tested sustainable approach. In this case, man intervenes by altering the DNA structure of the plant by artificially introducing a gene cell from another organism, which may not necessarily be a plant. (paragraph 30)
The same website that posted Sadeque’s piece included another element of the global narrative: ‘Mon- santo—Genetically modified Bt cotton ‘terminator’ seeds being introduced in Pakistan.’ The terminator hoax in India joined a bio-cultural abomination—sui- cide seeds—to the tragic deaths of Indian farmers in one seamless narrative (Herring, 2006). The very coherence of this narrative creates a powerful cognitive conso- nance phenomenon: there is virtually nothing bad about any GMO that needs evidence or logic, as stories of extreme externalities resonate with—and reinforce—a schema of the great risks of unnatural acts.
Where the biological errors join the agronomic errors is in conceptualization of a single undifferentiated entity called Bt cotton. There are many cultivars with the Bt gene in India: official plus underground cultivars probably total close to two hundred, though the under- ground hybrids are losing popularity with the large price decreases of the officially-approved seeds from the major firms. Failures of particular cultivars within this very expansive range may have many causes; there is no biological reason for one gene to alter cultivar charac- teristics, such as susceptibility to drought or root-rot or production of human allergens. How the inserted gene affects the genome is the subject of much research, and uncertainties remain. Yet for all the risk assignment attached to transgenic techniques of plant breeding, it is not even clear that transgenesis as a means of modifying a plant’s genetic material is more disruptive than muta- genesis (Batista, Saibo, Lourenço, & Oliveira, 2008). There is no global mobilization around mutagenesis or
Herring — Persistent Narratives: Why is the "Failure of Bt Cotton in India" Story Still with Us?