The government of Andhra Pradesh announced that for almost two-thirds of land under cultivation, the 2011 harvest was down by half on the previous year. In a departure, the government of Maharashtra state, and a court in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, have ordered the German seed company Bayer CropScience to pay more than $1.1m in compensation to more than 1,000 farmers for cotton hybrids that did not deliver the promised yields.
Bayer CropScience has denied any responsibility and blamed “inadequate crop management and adverse environmental conditions”. It is preparing an appeal.
Since the introduction of GM cotton in 2002, harvests in India have doubled and the country ranks as the world’s second-largest producer. But the “white revolution” prompts distrust. Opponents of GM crops claim the increased yields of the early 2000s were due to better irrigation and favourable weather. Over the past six years average yields per hectare have barely changed, despite a fourfold increase in the use of GM cotton.
In 2011, the head of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Keshav Raj Kranthi, issued a warning on hybrid cotton’s increased vulnerability to bacteria.
“Productivity in north India is likely to decline because of the declining potential of hybrids; the emerging problem of leaf curl virus on the new susceptible Bt-hybrids; a high level of susceptibility to sucking pests (straight varieties were resistant),” Kranthi explained in a paper published in June 2011. He also pointed out that GM varieties consume more water and nutrients, leading to soil depletion. This in turn means that fertilisers are needed to achieve optimal yields.
Fertilisers, insecticides and GM seed all come at a cost. Farmers must borrow money, often from local loan-sharks or the seed and fertiliser merchants themselves. Unfavourable weather conditions or a tiny drop in the world price of cotton can sometimes spell disaster. In 2006, in the Vidarbha area, some farmers unable to repay their debts committed suicide by swallowing pesticide.
GM cotton is a new technology that demands a certain know-how to yield good results. Each of the 780 varieties available on the Indian market corresponds to a particular type of soil and different fertiliser requirements. To prevent diseases or insects developing resistance to GM varieties, local seed must be planted in just the right proportions.
“Small farmers have no idea what they’re buying and even less idea how to grow these new varieties. Their traditional know-how is disappearing,” says Sridhar Radhakrishnan, of the Coalition for a GM-Free India.
If the crops fail the Indian government has made no legal provision for farmers to obtain compensation. The nine states using Bt seed should pass laws so that if “something goes wrong […] if farmers suffer, there has to be provision where the company pays compensation”, theagriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, told parliament in March.
Ten years after the introduction of GM cotton, local seed varieties have virtually disappeared. The GM-seed market, launched with a massive advertising campaign, is now worth an estimated $364m. The seed companies have promised to introduce new varieties, which offer even greater resistance, while consuming less water and fertiliser. Their opponents are calling for a moratorium on GM cotton in India.