Flat yields for five years and rising insecticide use are jeopardising the success of Bt cotton technology
Cotton saga unravels
Cotton has been the biggest success story in Indian agriculture since the Green Revolution. In a country struggling with stagnant yields in most crops, cotton has been the one bright spot. Production has soared from 13.6 million bales (each bale is 170 kg) in 2002-03 to 31.2 million bales in 2010-11—a figure that catapulted India into the big league, enabling it to account for as much as 23 per cent of global production last year. Poor quality cotton with high trash content has given way to the kind of lint that the world is ready to pay good money for, allowing the country to export between 600,000 tonnes and 1.5 million tonnes of raw cotton each year after 2005.
How did all this happen? The popular narrative is that the introduction of Bt cotton brought about this remarkable transformation. The genetically modified Bt cotton contains Cry genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (hence Bt) that is highly toxic to bollworm caterpillars, identified as the main cotton pest. The Bt technology, first developed by Monsanto Company in 1986, came to India in 2002 when the American seed giant entered into an agreement with its Indian partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company or Mahyco. The joint enterprise they set up to purvey this technology enjoyed rapid fire success with Indian seed companies jostling for Bt technology despite steep upfront charges and royalty fees. The result: the commercial release of several hundred Bt hybrids containing the same Cry genes that was approved by the then regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Most of these were snapped up by farmers keen to try out the new technology.
Within four years of its introduction, Bt cotton reduced insecticide use to half the previous level. And for farmers the returns were extraordinary. Some researchers estimate the net average gains from Bt cotton to be in the range of $76 (Rs 3,370 at current conversion rate) to $250 (Rs 11,086) per hectare.
One statistic in this triumphal march, however, has not kept pace: yields. While yields did go up from an average 302 kg per hectare in 2002-03 to 554 kg in 2007-08 (see table above), productivity has been stagnant for the past five years, according to the chief of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Keshav Kranthi. CICR is the country’s leading research institution for cotton and has been trying to develop its own transgenic varieties. “The main worry is the stagnation in productivity at an average of 500 kg lint per hectare for the past five years. The gains have been unaffected by the sharp increase in area of Bt cotton from 5.6 per cent in 2004 to 90 per cent in 2010,” he warns.
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