1. The twisted trajectory of Bt cotton
Despite finding huge favour in India, the GM crop has only brought modest benefits
- Cotton has been woven and used in India for thousands of years. Cotton fabric from around 3,000 BCE has been excavated from the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, and archaeological findings in Mehrgarh, Pakistan, show that cotton was used in the subcontinent as far back as 5,000 BCE. Indian cotton fabrics dominated the world trade during the succeeding millennia and were exported to many places, including Greece, Rome, Persia, Egypt, Assyria and parts of Asia.
- Much of the cotton cultivated until the 20th century was of the indigenous ‘desi’ variety, Gossypium arboreum. From the 1990s, hybrid varieties of G. hirsutum were promoted. These hybrids cannot resist a variety of local pests and require more fertilizers and pesticides. Cotton suffers from plenty of infestation from moth pests (Lepidopteran) such as the Pink Bollworm (PBW) and sap-sucking (Hemipteran) pests such as aphids and mealy bugs. With increasing pressure to buy hybrid seeds, the indigenous varieties have lost out over the years. But recently, there has been some resurgence of interest.
- The increasing use of synthetic pyrethroids (group of man-made pesticides) to control pests and the rising acreage under the American long-duration cotton led to the emergence of resistant pests. Resistant Pink and even American Bollworm (ABW), a minor pest in the past, began increasing, leading to a growing use of a variety of pesticides. Rising debts and reducing yields, coupled with increasing insect resistance, worsened the plight of cotton farmers. It was in this setting that Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002.
- Genetically modified (GM) cotton, the plant containing the pesticide gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), has been grown in India for about twenty years. This pesticide, now produced in each Bt plant cell, ought to protect the plant from bollworm, thereby increasing yields and reducing insecticide spraying on the cotton plant. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, from 2005, adoption of Bt cotton rose to 81% in 2007, and up to 93% in 2011. Many short-duration studies examining Bt cotton, in the early years, pronounced that Bt was a panacea for dwindling yields and pesticide expenses. The two-decade mark now provides an opportunity to review GM cotton in India more comprehensively.
- In March this year, K.R. Kranthi and Glenn Davis Stone published a review in the scientific journal Nature Plants, analysing the entire picture of the use of Bt cotton in India. Earlier studies had attributed to Bt the tripling of cotton yield between 2002-2014 in India. However, one detail that sullied such a conclusion was that yield differences between farmers who were the early adopters of Bt cotton and those who were not suffered from selection bias.
- Controlling for such bias showed (in 2012) that the contribution of Bt cotton to yield increase was only about 4% each year; still, since yields vary annually by over 10%, the benefits claimed were dubious. Kranthi and Stone’s review examines data over 20 years, studying each State separately and correcting for illegal Bt cotton planting.
- There are discrepancies between yield and the deployment of Bt cotton. For instance, the Bt acreage was only 3.4% of the total cotton area in 2003, not sufficient to credit it for the 61% increase in yield in 2003-2004. Furthermore, with only 15.7% Bt cotton coverage by 2005, yield increases were over 90% over 2002 levels. While Bt cotton adoption corresponded to a drop in spraying for bollworms, the study states, “countrywide yields stagnated after 2007 even as more farmers began to grow Bt. By 2018, yields were lower than in the years of rapid Bt adoption.”
- Individual State data are more helpful in understanding subnational trends. In Maharashtra, yields climbed in the decade after 2000, with no change in the rate of increase when Bt cotton was introduced. In Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well, there is no correlation between the adoption of the variety and increase in yields. For instance, Gujarat’s surge in cotton yields was 138% in 2003, even as Bt cotton was used only for 5% of land under cotton. Similar findings are seen in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, where yield increase is incongruous with the spread of Bt cotton.
- The rise in cotton yields can be explained by improvements in irrigation, for instance in Gujarat, and a dramatic growth across the country in the use of fertilizers. Gross fertilizer use for cotton more than doubled from 2007-2013; the average rose from 98 kg/ha in 2003 to 224 kg/ha in 2013.
- There is a strong correlation between the rise in use of fertilizers in individual States and yields, and this bias increases when it is combined with improvements in irrigation.
- The total insecticide expenditure per hectare reduced in 2006, and Lepidopteran spraying expenditures continued to fall until 2011. While the ABW that feeds on different plants does not appear to have developed a resistance to Bt, the PBW developed a resistance by 2009 in India. In a few years, the situation was dreadful. Bollworm spraying began to climb again. Sap-sucking insects have surged for the hybrids, as the hirsutum Bt cotton hybrids are quite vulnerable. With rising acreage under Bt cotton cultivation, expenditures for spraying for sucking pests also went up. By 2018, farmers were spending an average of $23.58 per hectare on insecticide — 37% more than the pre-Bt levels.
- It is tough to isolate one particular aspect of a technology and evaluate it properly. A technology that works in the lab may fail in fields since real-world success hinges on multiple factors, such as different kinds of pests and local soil and irrigation conditions. The benefits of Bt cotton have been modest and short-lived. Changes to the agricultural systems correlate better with positive yields, and countrywide yields have not improved in thirteen years. India’s global rank for cotton production is 36 despite heavy fertilizer use, irrigation, chemicals and Bt cotton usage. This is below the national average of some resource-poor African countries that don’t have Bt, hybrids or good access to inputs.
- The cost of ignoring ‘desi’ varieties for decades has been high for India. These varieties resist many pests and don’t present the problems faced with hybrids. Research suggests that with pure-line cotton varieties, high density planting, and short season plants, cotton yields in India can be good and stand a better chance at withstanding the vagaries of climate change. But government backing for resources, infrastructure and seeds is essential to scale up ‘desi’ varieties. It is time to pay attention to science and acknowledge that Bt cotton has failed in India, and not enter into further misadventures with other Bt crops such as brinjal or herbicide resistance.
history of cotton production in India:
- Before the advent of British in India, different varieties of cotton, indigenously developed over a long period of time, were grown in different parts of the country, each being suited to the local soil, water and climate.
- However, labelling this variety of cotton as inferior, the British introduced Bourbon cotton in 1797, just to suit the needs of Lancashire mills. It resulted in neglect of the varieties of the cotton that were pest resistant, and resistant to the vagaries of weather, resulting in loss of traditional seed selection, manuring and cultivation practices of Indian cotton farming.
- The new varieties of cotton, though profitable, were not able to resist the vagaries of weather, pest resistance. This continued even after Independence. To overcome the problem of pests such as ballworm, a lot of pesticide and insecticide were being used and to control this problem, Govt introduced BT-cotton in 2002.
|A brief introduction of BT-COTTON|
Bt cotton is an insect-resistant transgenic crop designed to combat the bollworm.Bt cotton was created by genetically altering the cotton genome to express a microbial protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.In short, the transgene inserted into the plant’s genome produces toxin crystals that the plant would not normally produce which, when ingested by a certain population of organisms, dissolves the gut lining, leading to the organism’s death.
How Bt-cotton changed Indian cotton industry:
- A study conducted on 533 farm households between 2002 and 2008, who switched to BT-cotton has following findings:
- Yield of plots planted with Bt cotton increased by 24% compared with conventional cotton plots. This translated to a 50% increase in profits.
- During 2006–08, families who adopted Bt cotton spent 18% more money than conventional farming households, suggesting an increase in living standards. The benefits were due solely to reduced pest damage.
- There was an initial reduction in insecticide use with Bt technology.
- The introduction of Bt cotton led to a dramatic increase in production across the cotton producing states and soon Bt cotton took over most of the acreage under cotton cultivation. Cotton production rose from 14 million bales in the pre-Bt year of 2001-’02 to 39 million bales in 2014-’15, a rise of almost 180%. India’s cotton imports fell, export grew and in 2015-16 have overtaken China as the biggest cotton producer in the world.
- There was an expansion in crop area from 7.67 million hectares to 11.96 million hectares during this period.
Change at what cost?
- What should be noted is farmers and food activists have been protesting for the past decade on various ground, some of which are as follows:
- The seeds are more expensive than local, non-genetically modified varieties.
- Seeds cannot be reused and farmers need to buy new stock for every growing season. This, along with licensing agreements with local seed companies, has given Monsanto a near monopoly on cotton seeds in India that has been the biggest worry for activists.
- Diffusion of illegal Bt hybrids that hadn’t been cleared for bio safety standards, leading to fears of environmental toxicity.
An analysis of other cost involved:
- The introduction of hybrid Bt-cotton led to an initial reduction in insecticide use, but by 2012, insecticide use was at pre-2002 levels, and now targeted still newer induced secondary pests.
- Resistance to insecticides and to Bt toxins was developing in pink bollworm and American bollworm: two pest which were running havoc on Indian cotton industry. This resulted in double jeopardy of insecticide and biotechnology to Indian farmers.
Has Indian farmer benefitted at all ?
- Opinions are divided on this. Definitely big farmers and corporate sector have benefited from the introduction of Bt-cotton. But it is the middle and small farmers who have suffered a lot with Bt-cotton.
- According to Rajya Sabha 301st committee report, the use of insecticides increased steeply both in value and quantity.
- Farmers were forced to pay almost triple the price of regular seeds for Bt cotton seeds, increasing indebtedness and reliance on high yield.
- This increase in indebtedness led to an increase in farmer suicides, in light of failure of crop yield.
- Causes of indebtedness include:
- Changes in cropping patterns caused due to development of plant resistance to pesticides and hence increased spending on pesticides.
- A shift in the agrarian economy from low-cost food crops to high-cost cash crops along with a lack of access to institutional credit facilities.
|Why Bt-cotton is facing failure only in India?Even though Bollgard 2, or BG-2, Monsanto’s second generation insecticidal technology for cotton, was supposed to protect crops against the pink bollworm, the pest has grown resistant to the toxins produced by this trait only in India.The following reasons can be attributed for this:It is often argued by scientists that Bt-cotton seeds are not suitable under Monsoon conditions.Unlike other Cotton-growing countries where open-pollinated cotton varieties are grown, Indian cotton farmers only opt for hybrid varieties.|