Biotechnology for poor farmers

It's a myth

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- five million farmers in China accepted Bt cotton since 1994. We have heard no end of how biotechnology can help small and marginal farmers earn better. International development agencies, such as the un Development Program, have put their multilateral weight behid biotechnologies. Agrobusiness giants and thier public relations agencies have lost no opportunity to dismiss protests against biotechnology in developing countries. They've all used the example of China, and how small and marginal farmers were benefitting from the use of biotechnology.

It must not be forgotten here that a lot of the protest against biotechnology is a result of ideological positions of social groups. They often condemn biotechnology summarily only because it is dominated by transnational corporations. The discussion over biotechnology has hence been highly polarised. Those without a clear position in this debate have had a very tough time. Very seldom is this debate informed with common sense. When that happens, it is worth getting up and taking notice.

A study released by Cornell University in the us -- otherwise known for its implicit support of biotechnology and large agrobusinesses -- shows that the Chinese version of the Bt cotton story may not be as sweet as it is commonly translated. It seems the Chinese Bt cotton farmers weren't earning significantly better than their non-Bt counterparts. Perhaps this fact was lost in translation. Perhaps this was a deliberate lie. The study is a result of a collaboration among the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy, and Cornell. It is no surprise that the Chinese authorities have distanced themselves from the study.

In India the area under Bt cotton, the only gm crop approved for commercial cultivation, has increased significantly in the past four years. Entomologists say it too early to pronounce Bt cotton's success. If the gm crop is grown over a large, contiguous area, the American bollworm is likely to develop resistance faster. Bt cotton's success depends on maintaining refuge crops, which help delay the development of resistance in the pest. In the small farms of the developing countries, farmers don't have enough land to maintain refuges. India's regulators must take note of the Chinese study, and advise the India farmer accordingly.

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