C Kameswara Rao

Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education Bangalore, India

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 Pradesh in India (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 township of 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

March 14, 2007