Of all the GMO controversies around the world, the saga of Bt cotton in India continues to be one of the most interesting and important. In the latest chapter, reported by the Business Standard, cotton yields have dropped to a 5-year low, setting off a fascinating round of finger pointing.
India approved Bt cotton in 2002 and within a few years yields were up dramatically. There are different sets of data out there, but let’s use the India Ministry of Textiles data since it’s this weeks news story. This chart shows the national trends in cotton yield (kg per hectare).
If you follow GMO debates you will have heard several years of kennel barking about how these figures show a “remarkable success.” But as I have pointed out (in my blogand in EPW), most of the rise in productivity had nothing to do with Bt cotton; in fact it happened before Bt cotton became popular.
Check it out: the biggest rises were from 2002/3 to 2004/5, when yields rose 56% from 302 to 470 kg. But by 2004/5, only 5.6% of India’s cotton farmers had adopted Bt. Do the math: if those 5.6% of planters were really responsible for a 56% rise in yields, then they must have been harvesting 3,288 kg/ha.
Data from the India Ministry of Textiles.
So Bt didn’t explain the big rise in yields, and since Bt has taken over, yields have been steadily worsening. What are we to make of this? Well, two things, according to the Business Standard and the Monsanto spokesperson who was their main informant. One has to do with what has gone wrong, the other with what we need to get out of this mess.
1. What Went Wrong? (the farmers screwed up?)
It seems the bollworms — the voracious pests that that Bt cotton is designed to kill — are developing resistance. But resistance, according to Monsanto, is “natural and expected.”
Whoa — that’s not what the farmers were told to expect. I was there when Bt cotton was being rolled out and they were told repeatedly and confidently that they wouldn’t have to spray any more. In fact we were all being told that “genetic farming is the easiest way to cultivate crops. All that farmers have to do is to plant the seeds and water them regularly. The genetically modified seeds are insect resistant, so there is no need to use huge amounts of pesticides.”
All the farmer has to do is plant and water the seeds… and then wait around for resistance, which is natural and expected. But wait there’s more: when it does appear, it’s the Indian farmers’ fault. Monsanto’s spokesman explains:
Among the factors that may have contributed to pink bollworm resistance to the Cry1Ac protein in Gujarat are limited refuge planting and early use of unapproved Bt cotton seed, planted prior to GEAC approval of Cry1Ac cotton, which may have had lower Bt protein expression levels, he added.
A “refuge” is a strip of non-Bt seeds farmers are asked to plant around their Bt fields, basically to raise bollworms that aren’t resistant to Bt, so they can hopefully breed with any resistant bollworms. Very few Indian farmers actually do this, because it’s a lot of extra work for no return. Here’s an insight from 30 years of research on farming: if you’re pushing a technology that is only sustainable if farmers follow practices that require extra work for no return, you are pushing an unsustainable technology.
The other Monsanto suggestion is that the farmers are to blame for planting unapproved seeds. Sorry, that dog don’t hunt. Those unapproved seeds were Navbharat-151 and they have been muchwritten about; they were better than the approved seeds, and their Bt levels were apparently sky high. Gujarat, where they were planted, has had India’s biggest rises in yields.
But while we’re blaming Indian farmers, why stop there? Monsanto also explains that
farmers have been constantly educated to adopt measures such as need-based application of insecticide sprays during the crop season and adoption of cultural practices like keeping the field clean of cotton stubble and crop-leftovers, ploughing of land after harvest so that the resting stages of the insects in the soil could be destroyed.
I have yet to bump into the educators who are giving farmers constant remediation on spraying, plowing, and field clearing. But I do bump into a lot of biotechnology people who pontificate on the wisdom of the Indian farmer. The farmer has long been seen as backward, tradition-bound, and inept. “We need to teach proper tillage,” a Monsanto executive explained to me years ago. But farmers are obstinate, and in fact this was one of the arguments for GM seeds:
for years people have tried to change cultural practices of these farmers, and it just hasn’t worked. It has been a complete failure, because you have to modify infrastructure, you have to re-educate them as to how to modify their farming practices themselves. But with biotech, the technology is in a seed. All you have to do is give them the seed. (-biotechnologist Martina McGloughlin)
But as soon as Indian farmers adopted GM seeds, we were told that “we should leave the choice of selecting modern agricultural technologies to the wisdom of Indian farmers” and that “farmers are excellent businessmen who aren’t persuaded by anything or anybody that doesn’t make their job easier or more profitable.” 
So don’t question the wisdom of the farmer! He is a genius — at least when he is buying GM seeds. But otherwise, he has to be told how to plant, spray, plow, and clear fields!
2. Now What? (More innovation?)
So despite all the GM seeds, India’s cotton yields keep on dropping. (In some states, they are now lower than they were before Bt seeds became popular.) So what’s the way forward?
To me this is a very hard question, but not to the Business Standard, which simply reports the news that
continuous R&D and innovation to develop new value-added technologies is imperative to stay ahead of insect resistance. To support such innovation, Monsanto demanded government policies’ support to encourage investment in R&D which will result in Indian farmers having a wider choice of better and advanced technologies translating thereby, higher yield.
No kidding — innovation from Monsanto is going to keep us ahead of the insects and guarantee higher yields. But lets take a look at the facts, at least as reported by the industry-friendly ISAAA. Yields started dropping after 2007/8. But that was just after new genetic constructs started appearing: a new 2-gene technology in 2006/7, and by 2009, six different constructs were approved. And these rapidly proliferating technologies were appearing in dizzying numbers of seed products. After 2006/7, the number of Bt hybrid seeds being offered to farmers jumped from 62 to 131 to 274; by 2009/10 there were 522.
There you have it: Indian cotton farmers today are being pelted with a hailstorm of new gene technologies and seed products, their yields steadily dropping, and the way forward is clear to the Business Standard: invest in Monsanto innovation.
Glenn Davis Stone is Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Over the past 30 years he has studied and written about food, farming, and biotechnology. He has conducted extensive research in West Africa, India, and the U.S., with additional fieldwork in So. Africa, Viet Nam, Thailand, and England, and laboratory work at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. He is president of the Anthropology & Environment Societyof the American Anthropological Assn.
 Further explanation: A field full of Bt plants puts selective pressure on bollworm populations favoring worms with natural resistance to Bt. The resistant bollworms would thrive and spread the resistance trait, while the Bt-vulnerable bollworms die off. The plants in the refuge are non-Bt, so Bt-sensitive worms are supposed to thrive there; they are supposed to mate with the Bt-resistant worms and water down the resistance trait.
 Pinstrup-Andersen, P., and E. Schioler 2000 Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press; Fumento, M. 2003 BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World. San Francisco: Encounter Books.
DNA | Feb 13, 2013, 05:47AM IST
Ahmedabad: The debate over genetically-modified (GM) crops has taken a nasty turn across the globe because a veteran anti-GM activist, Mark Lynas, has switched sides and is now campaigning in favour of the technology.
Indian consumers do not directly consume GM food as the government has not allowed such crops after Bt Brinjal debacle. But as Bt Cotton is present in the country, consumers are passively eating GM food through milk of an animal fed cottonseed meals and food cooked in cottonseed oil. Bt Cotton is not totally pesticide or insecticide-free. All mammals are indirectly vulnerable due to the pesticides used in cotton farming, say scientists.
The debate has gone public in the European Union as the European Commission’s Agriculture and Rural Development is conducting a survey. Noting that genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are considered incompatible with organic farming, the survey asks participants whether they specifically buy organic products because they are “GMO-free”. It also asks whether consumers would put up with higher prices if it meant the accidental, low-level presence of GMOs in organic products was clearly labelled.
It should also be noted that though the direct use of Bt food is not allowed in the country, consumers are already exposed to their ill-effects indirectly because of the use of Bt cottonseed as edible oil. Of the total cottonseed production, 90% goes into expeller for production of cottonseed edible oil. What is left after the expeller process — the residue — goes as cottonseed meal which is a widely used as feed for animals.
“There is no doubt that use of pesticide has gone down after the use of transgenic variety but it is not completely free from pesticides. The number of sprays used to grow cotton has come down but it has not stopped attacks by sucking pests,” says Dr KR Kranthi of Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR).
Before the introduction of Bt Cotton, the fibre crop was susceptible to 162 varieties of pests and insects. In 1995, 54% of the total consumption of pesticide in the country was in cotton farming. The ratio had come down to 44% in 2001. After the introduction of two varieties of Bt Cotton seeds, the use of pesticide has further come down to 21%.
“Bt cotton does not need pesticides to protect the plant from bollworms pests. Bollworms were the key pests damaging 80% of the cotton losses in the country. Bt variety has an inbuilt mechanism to protect the plant from these pests. However, the problem of sucking pests is still there,” says agriculture scientist, Dr TL Dholaria.
According to various research studies, the total number of pesticide spray required for cotton has declined from 15 to 9 per crop season earlier.
“The number of spray needed has declined. It has also resulted in lowering the cost of farming. However, no one can claim that cotton farming has become completely pesticide free as farmers must continue to spray pesticide to control sucking pests,” said Dr Kranthi.
If one looks at the value chain of cotton farming, cotton seed is used for production of edible oil as well as cattle feed. Cottonseed is most widely used in cattle feed. These animals produce milk meant for human consumption. Consumption of cottonseed edible oil has also increased in the country.
“We all use milk and edible oil which may have some pesticides in it. As of now, we do not know the effects of this indirect consumption. However, we are also exposed to the consumption of hazardous chemicals used in manufacture of pesticides,” said Dr Dholaria.
“Insecticide costs as a proportion of total costs declined perceptibly in the post-Bt Cotton period, from 8.30% in 1996 to about 5.86% in 2008,” a study by Bhartiya Krishak Samaj and Council for Social Development concludes.
NEW DELHI, FEB 11:
Stagnating acreage is prompting Bt cotton seed makers to diversify into food crops such as hybrid rice, corn and vegetables, where they see a big market potential.
Companies such as Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd and Rasi Seeds (Pvt) Ltd, which currently earn a major share of their revenues from Bt cotton seeds, are aggressively charting plans to scale up exposure to food crops.
“We are diversifying into hybrid rice, corn and vegetables in a big way,” said Arvind Kapur, Chief Executive Officer, Vegetables Seed Division, Rasi Seeds.
The Rs 500-crore firm, which currently has a small exposure to hybrid rice and corn, plans to scale up its breeding programme to introduce more hybrids. Rasi Seeds has partnered with Israeli firm, Evogene Ltd, to develop yield-enhancing and drought-tolerant rice varieties.
Besides, Rasi has started breeding programmes in some 21 different vegetables to launch hybrids.
“We have enrolled 22 breeders to give a major push to our vegetables seeds business,” Kapur said. Similarly, the over Rs 1,000-crore Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd (NSL) is planning to scale up its presence in food crops such as corn, rice and vegetables.
Cotton currently accounts for around 80 per cent of NSL’s revenues. “In five years from now, we expect cotton seeds to contribute 60-65 per cent of our business,” said Ramesh Viswanathan, Chief Operating Officer, NSL.
Revenues from Bt cotton seeds have shrunk for NSL by about five per cent and the company attributed it to the decline in commodity prices.
“Vegetables seed is the future growth engine,” said M. Prabhakar Rao, Chairman, NSL.
The company has doubled its corn seed business from 5 to 10 per cent of its revenues in the past two years.
The hybrid rice currently accounts for six per cent of its revenues and vegetables about three per cent.
Hybrid rice is also attracting the interest of both large multinationals such as Syngenta and smaller players such as the Bangalore-based Indo American Hybrid Seeds (India) Pvt Ltd. Currently, hybrid rice is planted in only about five per cent of the total rice acreage of 44 million ha, presenting a huge potential for the seed makers.
Indo American, which has a couple of hybrid rice varieties, is looking to introduce some three to four more, said Arthur Santosh Attavar, Managing Director. The company also expects to launch a Bt cotton variety in the kharif 2013 season.
Syngenta India is also evaluating about three to four more rice hybrids, said the company’s Vice-President Rajesh Jain.
The company currently has about four hybrid varieties in the Indian market, introduced some five years earlier.
The recent acquisition of Devgen could further boost Syngenta’s portfolio in the Indian market.
The Andhra Pradesh Government will probe the reported attack of sucking pests on Bt cotton in some parts of the State.
The Agriculture Minister Kanna Lakshminarayana has directed the officials to initiate a probe by the scientists of Acharya N.G. Ranga Agriculture University (ANGRAU) on the reported damage of Bt cotton crop due to the nagging sucking pests.
Reviewing the arrangements for the upcoming rabi season here on Friday evening, he said about 2.75 lakh quintals of groundnut seed would be distributed for the season.
The Agriculture Minister will hold a meeting with the Major Irrigation Minister P. Sudarshan Reddy on October 26 on the issue of releasing water for the standing kharif crops in the K C Canal and Krishna Delta areas. The farmers in these areas are demanding immediate release of water to rescue the crop in the absence of rains.
The Government would hold a 13-day campaign through out the State to popularise the Centrally-sponsored schemes and mechanisation in agriculture.
At the review meeting, the Minister had expressed his unhappiness over the poor mechanisation and on the slow progress in implementation of certain Central schemes.
Government of India
Ministry of Science & Technology
Scientific and technological breakthroughs of a transformational nature relevant to economic and social development happen only once in a while. The emergence of such technologies evokes responses according to a pattern: initial excitement, followed by strong expression of concern and then emergence of a balanced perspective. Transformational technologies in the past, such as steam engine, electricity and other sources of energy, vaccines & immunization and internet have all followed this trend. Molecular biology and biotechnologies developed through major investments in science and technology globally have a transformational potential for benefitting agriculture and health and it is time now to evolve a balanced perspective.
The members of the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) to the Prime Minister deliberated on the important issue of application of biotechnology for social and economic advancement of the country particularly in the area of agriculture. There are uncertainties in some segments of society that need to be objectively and fairly addressed. The members of the SAC are concerned that a science informed, evidence based approach is lacking in the current debate on biotechnologies for agriculture. There are some key aspects that merit consideration.
Do we need new technologies for agriculture? Indian agriculture productivity is seen by the less discerning to be adequate for today’s needs but what is ignored is that vast numbers of our countrymen are unable to consume the required food and nutrients because of difficult access. As our current efforts to address the issue of access bear fruit, the need for food and quality nutrients’ will grow rapidly. Land availability and quality, water, low productivity, drought and salinity, biotic stresses, post harvest losses are all serious concerns that will endanger our food and nutrition security with potentially serious additional affects as a result of climate change. Accordingly, strategies for agriculture in future must be based on higher yields, concomitant with reduction in resource inputs. This will require a judicious blend of traditional breeding and new technologies, non-transgenic & transgenic. This situation in developed countries such as in Europe; quite in contrast, as there is no dearth of food and a small proportion of people engage in agriculture.
The assessment of safety and efficacy of biotechnology products has to be evaluated through an appropriate regulatory system on a case by case basis, as for drugs and vaccines. In general, endorsement or opposition to a generic technology is scientifically not rational and safety and efficacy must be judged on product basis. The need for an appropriate regulatory mechanism in the country has been rightly emphasized in the Swaminathan Committee Report. The existing system based on RCGM and GEAC have given us large experience and its operational guidelines are generally sound and as per the best international norms such as guidelines by OECD. The effort now should be on effective implementation. Regulatory systems evolve with experience and review based redesign. Little is served by focusing on the flaws only.
The proposed Bill for establishment of a national Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), 2012 is with the Parliament, it deserves to be examined on a priority basis. The key characteristics of effective regulatory system hardly need reiteration; sound scientific expertise within the organization and through independent panels, access to scientific tools for assessment of safety and efficacy and processes that ensure transparency, freedom from conflict and competence. This can only be delivered by a robust and independent system. The focus of the regulatory authority has to be on assessment of safety and efficacy. Commercialization and deployment of agriculture biotechnology products requires expertise in social and economic evaluation and post-deployment surveillance. This requires effective inputs of central and state agriculture ministries.
The experience with the deployment of Genetically Modified (GM) crops worldwide is growing at a steady pace and should be taken into consideration. GM crops of maize, soya, potato, sugar beet, canola, cotton and alfalfa and grown across the globe covering 160 million hectares by 2011. While each concern must be addressed through scientific approach, we believe the performance of GM crops released through oversight by regulators has been very positive. This view has been endorsed by major scientific bodies of the world. This is clearly true of our own experience with introduction of Bt Cotton in India wherein the benefits have been major. It is our view that biotechnology research and development should target important national needs, products should be developed under careful regulatory oversight and deployed in a way that access and affordability to entire farming community, particularly small and marginal farmers, is ensured.
There are other relevant issues that merit attention. Some of the opposition to GM crops in the country results from fear of domination by multinational companies. One way to address this concern is to invigorate and further strengthen the relevant scientific capacities of our institutions in public sector, universities and Indian companies. The current debate, unfortunately, is demoralizing and isolating our Scientists in the sector whose skills have been built with painstaking effort and large investment. The policy confusion will also keep the brightest away from this field of research. Our Scientists are fully aware of the social realities in this country and have widely endorsed the judicious adoption of traditional breeding with biotechnologies, non-transgenic and transgenic, as appropriate. There is concern about the costs at which seed is available to our farmers, particularly the poor farmers. This requires an appropriate public policy and action. The industry must shoulder responsibility by ensuring this through constructive dialogue with the government. Market mechanisms alone will not be sufficient.
The precautionary approach is inherently sound but it must be applied through a science based safety assessment and social and economic analysis for deployment. We make the following recommendation for kind consideration:-
1) The current regulatory system for recombinant products administered under Rules (1989) of EPA Act, 1986 should be reformed till BRAI is in place.
(i) RCGM and GEAC should be the sole authority for biosafety and bio-efficacy assessment of all recombinant products. Decision on commercial use of biotechnology produced crops should be taken by the Agriculture Ministries/Department of Central and State Governments as per existing policies and regulations on crops. For medical products Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India would approve commercialization as of now.
(ii) High Level dialogue with State governments to streamline clearances for conduct of multi-location “Confined field trials” – a scientific pre-requite in all countries for meaningful decision making on approvals or otherwise.
(iii) A Biotechnology Regulatory Secretariat with high level of scientific and technical trained manpower should be established to support RCGM and GEAC.
(iv) GEAC and RCGM should have full time Chairpersons. The Chairman of GEAC, may be of Special Secretary Status for 3 year period and RCGM one level lower. Chairman of RCGM be the Co-Chair in GEAC and not the expert nominee of Department of Biotechnology. For greater synergy at least three members should be common between RCGM and GEAC.
(v) The public needs to be informed of every decision.
2) The Bill pending with Parliament, i.e. BRAI 2012, should be debated with open mind. It would be appropriate if administrative organization could be Cabinet Secretariat because of the involvement of multiple ministries. The Bill when examined by appropriate parliament committee would be opened up for wider debate and discussions for shaping the draft legislation into a model regulatory framework.
3) The capacity for regulatory testing of new technologies in agriculture in public sector laboratories should be strengthened, supplemented with a system of notification and accreditation. This can be initiated even while the BRAI becomes a reality.
4) Research and infrastructure of state agriculture universities and colleges be strengthened for addressing the locations- specific needs of the states and regions and generate expertise.
5) Priority should be given to strengthen State Government departments and laboratories dealing with agriculture inputs, including GM or non GM seeds, extension and education of farmers through major programmes and investments for capacity building tailor made to the needs of the region.
This one’s not to argue, but debate (which is significantly different a notion than argument) Mr Milind Murugkar’s observations in his piecepublished in the Economic Times of September 27, 2012.
First, the two villages Mr Murugkar quotes in his piece – Bhambraja and Antargaon (in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha) – are torn between the Bt cotton-seed producing companies and a section of Bt-cotton critics; more due to the former lobby’s insistence that GM cotton has helped farmers reap a harvest of gold!
They have been the showcase villages for Monsanto in a sense that some journalists and writers have been taken by the company in the past to visit them as a successful project. For local journalists (including me) covering Vidarbha for over a decade, it’s a matter of great astonishment of how these companies successfully manage to co-opt a section of influential writers. The two villages are used as models to make out a more generalized case in favour of Bt, or genetically modified, cotton, never mind though that the facts fly in the face of those claims.
Mr Murugkar is the latest to join the party! He argues that the “critics’ concern about monopolies is understandable, but this should not prevent recognition of the popularity of Bt cotton varieties.” But much through his piece he doesn’t furnish any data to push his claims, barring quoting a few recent studies that have not been peer-reviewed. The piece seems like one to defend those PR stories in the newspaper than even defending Bt-cotton.
That he travels to the same two villages that have been at the epicenter of a paid-news controversy is intriguing. Economic Times in which the piece appears is a paper from the same stable that found itself embroiled in the controversy. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture has earlier this year mentioned how it found in the very two villages a different story, contrary to what the ToI full-page Monsanto-sponsored feature on the success of Bt stated. Mr Murugkar’s piece now contrasts Standing Committee’s findings in the two villages (I had attended meetings in both the villages). The debate therefore is again wide open.
Nevertheless, as a reporter who’s covered Vidarbha for a decade, I offer a few points, which to me are crucial to the debate. I shall come to the technology later; the central point is that the rain-fed marginal ‘cotton’ farmer of Vidarbha (perhaps that of the entire country) is in crisis, an acknowledgement to which lies in a 2003-04 door-to-door study of the state government. That study pointed out that over 13 lakh of the 18 lakh cotton farming households in this western Vidarbha region are in crisis, nearly a third in acute crisis. It identified a multiple reasons for the crisis: declining farm incomes, growing indebtedness (70 per cent of Vidarbha farmers are out of formal credit network, according to the Planning Commission’s Adarsh Mishra-fact finding committee report), and increasing living expenditure in a highly inflationary economy in which the government takes out money from rural India but subsidizes the urban living. Successive studies vindicated that study more or less. The crisis goes beyond suicides and Bt cotton.
Mr Srijit Misra of the IGIDR led one such study commissioned by the then Vilasrao Deshmukh-government in Maharashtra. His findings have underlined the faultlines and were in line with that of many other studies, including that of TISS.
Suicides to me are but one symptom; migration and shift away from agriculture (not as an option or choice but desperation) are far more serious problems than farm suicides per se.
Antargaon and Bhambraja – quoted by Mr Murugkar to clinch his point – have both, suicides and migrations. Last year, vast stretches of land in the two villages were kept fallow. So much for the success of Bt. It meant less losses.
Where had the farmers gone? To work in sugar mills in Satara! They still do. Why? Working there is financially more rewarding than growing cotton (Bt or otherwise) in a volatile economy even if it meant keeping the land fallow. In both villages, farmers don’t cultivate cotton alone. Nearly half of them sow soybeans, despite an overwhelming presence of Bt cotton.
Vidarbha farmers depend solely on one crop (as in one crop season, no winter crop), with no allied agriculture income to add to the family finances. It was against the backdrop of a raging crisis, drop in incomes, increase in the production costs and generally a bad agriculture scenario that the government allowed introduction of the Bt cotton technology. That was in 2002. What were the other coinciding policy steps taken? The following season, 2003 that is, Maharashtra suspended its monopoly cotton procurement scheme (and with the advance bonus system) and allowed private buyers to buy cotton.
Those were the NDA years in the Centre. Between 1998 and 2004 we imported around 8 million bales of cheap and subsidized cotton from global markets flooding Indian cotton markets resulting in a glut and subsequent crash in prices. Check for data, those were the best years for Indian textile mills: cheap and subsidized cotton at their command, they made a killing.
The NDA also, in order to keep inflation in tact, devalued the rupee, handed over liquidity to government employees through fifth pay scale and opened up IT revolution.
From then until 2004, the NDA successively withdrew money from rural economy (several economists have pointed that out) and put that into the urban and service sectors.
In 2001, Indian cotton acreage stood around 8.5 million hectares (nearly 70 per cent of it was hybrid cotton). Bt cotton was introduced the following year. That year the Vidarbha acreage was close to 1.8 million hectares. The following two years: 2003 and 2004, the acreage of cotton countrywide actually dropped below the long term average of 8 million hectares; in Vidarbha soybean came in. This, when the much-hyped pest-resistant Bt cotton that promises high productivity and income, entered the fray. Farm suicides picked up in the region after 2003. Not just because of Bt, fair enough. There were larger policies at play. But the Bt gets introduced as a soothing panacea. I have witnessed their campaign every single year with astonishment. Some years the Bt cotton propaganda has even dwarfed poll campaigns.
What was the promise? In one advertisement in which Nana Patekar arguably posed as a model (only to withdraw a year later when he realized “his mistake” of “misleading the farmers”): Sow this and you get double your yields and incomes. The state government pushed Bt through its own systems too. Between 2002 and 2008, Bt cotton hybrids had well-ensconced itself in Vidarbha, nay across the country, from some 7 per cent first year to over 85 % of the total seeds. In those very years, India lost its straight line varieties and companies stopped producing non-Bt Hybrids. Shops did not display those even if farmers went begging for non-Bt hybrids. In any case, since companies did not insist on keeping buffer, who will sow non-Bt if your neighbourers are all Bt? It’s a technical issue, but experts have explained to us over the years, that neither the state agriculture department nor companies ever educated farmers to keep a buffer between Bt cotton crops. That was not ignorance. That was deliberate. Now for a farmer to make a fair choice, he needs Bt, non-Bt hybrids, and straight line varieties. And cotton varieties of all staple lengths. Where was the choice? And who decides what farmers will grow: short staple or long ones?
Anyway, the first three years, yields shot up, and then, as a region-wide data (available with three agencies, agriculture department, Maharashtra state cooperative cotton growers’ marketing federation, and the seed producing companies) show, declined steeply. Not only that, the BG-I hybrids became pest tolerant. That’s when the companies prepared for the introduction of BG-II.
Between 2006 and 09, they sell both I and II, and now it’s predominantly II; we understand BG-III is on the anvil and round-up ready weedicide is already in the market.
Between 2001 and 2010, how much has been the increase in cotton acreage and coinciding yield?
If one is to believe Murugkar’s ‘poor’ farmer (Pankaj Shinde), his yields doubled. He’s indeed a rare exception. Because Vidarbha-wide data shows that it hovers between 250 and 300 kg of lint per hectare – that’s about 5-7 quintals per hectare or 2-3 quintals per acre, on the higher side. In 2001, it was between 140 and 200 kg/ha (depending upon soil and water conditions; Vidarbha has mostly shallow medium soils). What’s the country-wide data (available on Cotton Corporation of India website and collated from various papers of the CICR scientists)?
In 2001, from 80.95 lakh hectares, India produced 152 lakh bales (309 Kg lint/ha); In 2007, it peaked with 567 kg lint/ha (introduction of Bg-II which consumes 56 per cent of the Bt acreage) and produced 315 lakh bales from 95 lakh acres.
In Vidarbha, cotton acreage stood around 12-13 lakh hectares, much below the long –term average. 2011, the national cotton productivity stood at 496 kg/ha while the cotton acreage hit an all-time high of 120 lakh hectares and India produced 356 lakh bales.
This was when Bt cotton consumed 92 per cent of total cotton acreage. It could not get any better from here. In Vidarbha the current productivity, according to Mr Sharad Pawar’s reply to a parliamentary question last year, stands around 300 What was the productivity in 2004? It stood 463 kg/ha, and Bt cotton acreage then was roughly six per cent. In Haryana, Punjab, and large swathes of Gujarat’s newly watered areas, Bt was yet to reign.
So, from 2004 the country’s cotton productivity went up and down sharply – as if it were a green revolution squeezed in five-year-period – and the companies begin to switch to BG-II.
Productivity has meanwhile plateaued causing enough worries for the establishment, a reason why even agriculture minister Mr Sharad Pawar agreed for a three-member committee to travel to Brazil earlier this year to find out what they had done to take their productivity ahead of China and all other countries.
India, with all its BT success stories, stands abysmally low in productivity than 15 other countries that don’t plant Bt hybrids, including Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso. Mind you, Brazil did not allow Bt cotton, or for that matter any other GM crop. It has cautiously looked at field trials to see the results before saying that their systems were probably better than the GM crop technology. Brazil grows cotton in high density planting system (HDPS). Agreed, it has different agro-climatic features than that of India, but still…
If researchers were to spend little more time in Vidarbha and interact with old farmers, they will know that they grew cotton in high density planting system till mid-70s. Vidarbha farmers grew cotton plants that had less leaves, less bolls. (What prompted for cropping pattern changes is a matter of another article). Brazil’s HDPS is better and so the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) has insisted upon Pawar (and to its surprise has even got a favorable response) that it’s time to look for alternatives beyond Bt cotton.
If we have to move forward and bail farmers out of this crisis, HDPS might be a better option, the CICR has said. Field trials have begun across the country. Scientists are eagerly awaiting the results.
For a fair choice, farmers don’t just need a variety of good quality seeds – hybrids, straight-line, Bt or even non-Bt hybrids – but they need a choice for technology as well: a range from organic to natural to chemical. Give him a fair choice, a farmer will take a call on what suits best to him. Policies and markets have ensured you get the same burger in different brand-stores.
Murugkar says, and I quote: “The recent issue of Nature, a prestigious international weekly journal on science, has reported significant benefits of Bt cotton to Indian farmers. Citing a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it says that data collected from 533 farm households during 2002-08 shows that Bt cotton raised the yield by 24 per cent. This translated to a 50 per cent increase in profits, and during 2006-08, families that adopted Bt cotton spent 18 per cent more money than conventional farming households, suggesting an increase in living standards.”
Indeed preceding June, there was a flush of new reports arguing that the Bt yields have resulted in big income gains for farmers. That an important bill was before the Parliament – one that would open GM trials in other crops without much regulation – was just a coincidence!
Let’s take the time span though: 2002-2008, the first two-three years were not entirely Bt cotton years. Yet if one believes that yields were up by 24% cumulatively it’s not entirely due to the magic of Bt. See a comprehensive study done by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US corn. It’s on their website. The notion that Bt cotton has led to huge rises in productivity doesn’t not match up. Indeed, while there is a significant increase in productivity in the pre-Bt hybrid era, there is actually a decline in the latter half of the Bt period, a decline which continues. Let us not take a one-off single year for the data. Let us take two equivalent five-year-periods: i.e. 2001-2005 and 2006 to 2010 (the whole of the last decade) for which final official figures are available.
It is only from 2006 that Bt cotton begins to account for significant acreage of cotton under cultivation. Even as late as 2005, it accounts for less than 12 per cent. For the five year-period from 2001-2005, it accounts on average for 3.73 per cent of cotton acreage under cultivation. Or, at best 4.67 per cent if we exclude 2001 when Bt did not exist at all.
Yet, in this period cotton productivity rose from 309 kg per hectare in 2001 to 467 kg/hectare in 2005. That is an increase of 51.13 per cent.
In the period 2006-2010, when Bt accounts for over 72 per cent of cotton acreage, the per hectare yield drops from 519 kg to 495 kg, That is a decline of 4.62 per cent. Also note that the yield in 2006 (519 kg) and in 2007 (567 kg / Ha) – when Bt still accounts for just 42 % and 67 per cent of acreage, is much higher than that of 2009 (486 Kg/Ha) and 2010 (495 kg/Ha) when Bt accounts for 82% and 91 % of cotton acreage respectively! As Bt acreage goes, up, productivity in fact slides. The trend is also one of decline: there is an initial burst which sees yields of 519 and 567 kg and then it is a decline.
Indeed, the 2010 and 2011 (provisional figures) bring it back to pre-Bt hybrid yield figures – and the decline has only begun. Secondly, to bring us to the same level or range of yield after five years, input costs have doubled and trebled. Third, the 2001-05 figure is a steady climb. The 2006-2010 are a volatile roller coaster that now seems unable to hit a high again. Fourth: there are reasons beyond seed that also affect productivity in any period. Including monsoons, irrigation, pest etc., Note that in Vidarbha, for instance, irrigation from 2006 went up to around 8-10 per cent from the earlier 3 %. The Agriculture Commissioner of the period clearly stated that 97 per cent of Vidarbha’s cotton cultivation is rain-fed. Which means the benefit of expanded irrigation came in the Bt-dominance period and some of the initial productivity would have to be credited to that plus two or three good monsoons.
The data are damning. The pre-Bt hybrids were raising productivity at a fraction of the cost. Bt’s five year period has seen no comparable increase. A pre-Bt hybrid packet of seed (450gms) cost Rs. 350 to 425, as against Bt’s cost of Rs. 925 for a packet of the same size, a price abut to be raised again.
The point is, if there were gains, how come some of the major relief packages and loan waivers to farmers had to be given during this very period. It was also a period when farm suicide rate went up steeply in cotton producing regions where Bt cotton had been introduced as a panacea to crisis.
Farmers are spending more money, some studies point out, but on what? And what is the source of income? These two questions need a deeper inquiry. The NSSO data shows the money is being spent more on health now than even on food. And indebtedness is limping back on farmers since the 2008-9 waiver; as the public sector banks said earlier this year.
In Wardha, where a comprehensive study by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation is available, over 17 per cent land is now kept fallow by the farmers; indeed fallowisation process is deepening and it needs an immediate attention of the public-policy makers.
Ultimately, who are we growing cotton for? Where’s the end-user? Over the past thirty years, Vidarbha has lost its textile mills to other regions. So what farmers grow here is of little use. They lose the money to be made in its high-end value-chain.
Another moot question is: Does Bt improve yields? It doesn’t. The technology is geared to take care of boll-worm, not productivity. Two, it doesn’t take care of sucking pests, which is now a bigger pest-management problem in the region.
Lastly, the more significant issue is the question of price. Cotton prices, both the market price and the minimum support price, went up in 2008, just before the 2009 Parliamentary elections. That’s when you see a shift of farmers even in non-cotton areas (ex: northern Maharashtra) towards cotton. That the steep rise in production could be offset with that rise in prices is well-established. If you note the rise and fall in the prices, you see the rise and fall in the cotton acreage. This year cotton acreage has stayed stagnant. That was because prices held on to their levels toward the end of the last season after declining sharply in the first half.
If the prices remain robust this year, as the indications and predictions are they will, expect the acreage to go up next year.
If the choice is soybean or cotton, what will a farmer grow? Even in Antargaon or Bhambraja, it depends on relative prices of the two crops and a farmer’s judgment about them in the context of resources, money and labourers, available to him, Bt or non-Bt. Since non-Bt is not to be seen anywhere on the shelves, the obvious choice is for a Bt-hybrid: We have over 3000 hybrids of them now: from Bt-Mallika to Bt-Bipasha!
Reducing the issue of a skewed choice to the issue of popularity presents a wrong picture of a more complex market dynamic. If it were indeed a paying option, Vidarbha farmers would be enjoying cotton yields, not killing themselves on its hay or giving up farming, as they do, at an alarming rate.
Traveling beyond Antargaon and Bhambraja tells us that.
(Correction: I stand corrected on Brazil. That country has about a million hectare land under GM crops, but it has adopted a cautious approach since and has restricted the spread of GM crops following its experiences so far. Meanwhile, Russia has banned use and import of Monsanto GM corn following a recent French study.)
A decade after Bt cotton was approved, it remains mired in controversy
First Published: Tue, Oct 02 2012. 10 06 PM IST
Changed preferences: Farmers in Khamba used to cultivate groundnuts, but switched to cotton in mid-1990s. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Charles M Benbrook
- Correspondence: Charles M Benbrook email@example.com
Environmental Sciences Europe 2012, 24:24 doi:10.1186/2190-4715-
Published: 28 September 2012
Genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant and insect-resistant crops have been remarkable commercial successes in the United States. Few independent studies have calculated their impacts on pesticide use per hectare or overall pesticide use, or taken into account the impact of rapidly spreading glyphosate-resistant weeds. A model was developed to quantify by crop and year the impacts of six major transgenic pest-management traits on pesticide use in the U.S. over the 16-year period, 1996–2011: herbicide-resistant corn, soybeans, and cotton; Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn targeting the European corn borer; Bt corn for corn rootworms; and Bt cotton for Lepidopteron insects.
Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011, while Bt crops have reduced insecticide applications by 56 million kilograms (123 million pounds). Overall, pesticide use increased by an estimated 183 million kgs (404 million pounds), or about 7%.
Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied. If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%. The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The complete article is available as a provisional PDF. The fully formatted PDF and HTML versions are in production.
While yields, profits increased initially, rise in input costs, non-remunerative prices have reduced earnings
In Maharashtra, the second largest cotton growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether agricultural technologies such as Bt are suitable in rain-fed or non-irrigated regions such as Vidarbha. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint