Is Bt cotton a success or failure?

Participants attending conference to review Bt cotton call for extensive investigation into all aspects of cotton production before drawing conclusions

By Jyotika Sood
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

A conference held in Delhi to review whether Bt cotton has benefitted the country ended inconclusively. Non-profits, farmers’ groups, industry representatives and regulators agreed that the area under cotton cultivation and cotton production has increased in India in the past decade, but how much of this could be attributed to Bt technology was a question no one could answer satisfactorily. The two-day conference, ending June 12, was titled “Ten years of Bt Cotton in India: A review”, and was jointly organised by Centre for Social Development, an organization of social researchers, along with non-profits, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) and Centre for Environment Education (CEE).

The participants said there is a need for in-depth investigation into various aspects of cotton production to reach a conclusion. These include the reasons for large-scale shift to hybrid cotton cultivation in country, the extent of irrigated area that has gone under cotton cultivation, whether favourable climatic conditions are a reason for shift to Bt cotton with special reference to Gujarat and whether use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has risen or decreased. Non-profits and civil society groups said that different official sources of data are inconsistent with each other and that no real conclusion could be reached on the basis of these. While different micro-studies are questionable because of the methodologies or design adopted, macro-data from different sources are sometimes contradictory, the participants said.

Organisers divided

There were differences even between the organizations that hosted the conference. While CSA believes Bt cotton is not a success, CSD says it has helped improve the socio-economic status of farmers.

G V Ramajaneyulu of CSA said that data relating to consumption of pesticide and some micro-studies seem to indicate initial reduction in pesticide use in Bt cotton crops, which are resistant to bollworms.  But with increase in attacks from sucking pests and other pests, per acre (0.4 ha) pesticide usage has increased and a dangerous cocktail of pesticides are being used, he added. Official data on pesticide consumption in India, too, does not reflect any decline, except in Andhra Pradesh, where large-scale adoption of non-pesticide management of crops is being followed, he said.


“We cannot ignore the fact that farmers growing Bt cotton are committing suicide. From our field experiences and academic analyses, we have found that Bt cotton involves high risk,” said Ramajaneyulu. The yields have stagnated  and it’s only the 35 per cent farmers who have irrigation facilities who are writing the success story,” said Ramajaneyulu. He said the government should not be making any definitive statements on the success of Bt cotton with regard to the remaining 65 per cent farmers growing Bt cotton in rain-fed areas in India. He said there was a need for government to create a level-playing field for cotton seeds and promote ecological alternatives with the same supports being given for promotion of transgenic seeds.

CSD, on the other hand, says Bt cotton has helped improve farmers’lives. It had recently carried out a study for farmers’ organisation Bharat Krishak Samaj, which showed that Bt cotton is a success in India. CSD director T Haq said that their survey found that 84 per cent farmers say that quantity of seed usage per hectare is less in Bt Cotton than in non-Bt cotton and that average net returns from hybrid Bt cotton seeds increased by 375 per cent from pre-Bt cotton period.

However, during the conference, when CSD presented its study, the organisation’s methodology of recalling, under which participants are asked to recall their past experiences, adopted for the study was criticised by various participants, including planning commission member Abhijit Sen. Aruna Rodrigues, lead petitioner in a public interest case seeking moratorium on GM-testing in the country, also criticised the methodology. “This is one of the most unreliable method in market research and nobody accepts it.”

Kavitha Kurunganti, convener of NGO Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), said a serious correlation analysis has to be taken up because India has reported highest year-on-year increase in cotton yields; AICCIP (All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project) results were showing that bollworm incidence was low to moderate. When Bt cotton can result in higher productivity only under pest pressure by protecting the crop from pest damage, how can such yield increases then be related to Bt technology?

The review conference saw a number of presentations of micro-studies as well as macro-data on subjects including farm economics (yield, production, farmers’ incomes), pesticide usage, regulatory regime, policy framework for genetically modified crops, risks and farmers suicide cases associated with Bt cotton and emerging scientific evidence on Bt cotton.

Civil society groups at the conference demanded risk analysis to be incorporated into decision-making in technology assessment, especially in case of transgenics in India and said that there was total absence of policy directives on crops even under international conventions, such as the Cartagena protocol under which the countries can protect those crops for which they are a centre of origin and diversity and the crops hold trade security interests and have social implications.  For example, Mexico which is centre of origin of maize, has not allowed GM maize in its territory. There is a demand that India which is a big exporter of basmati rice should similarly not allow genetically modified rice in the country as it has trade security interests.

In his presentation, Ramajaneyulu highlighted concerns about public funds being wasted in several ways, including on transgenic research that gets bogged down in patent issues and “contamination” issues, in addition to lack of ability to take R&D products to farmers. Further, when crops fail, governments are paying compensation packages to farmers with public funds. He said that “the public research is being sidelined with private sector taking over the seed sector in the country, thus limiting seed choices for the farmers.”

Other participants at the conference included Anupam Barik, additional commissioner-crops with the agriculture ministry, M F Farooqui, chairperson of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), Ved Kambhoj, chairperson of Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation and PM Bhargava, Supreme Court observer in GEAC. Representatives from seed companies like Mahyco, Nuziveedu and Sriram Bioseed were also present.

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  • I know Jyotika Sood is

    I know Jyotika Sood is smarter than this. To question whether Bt cotton is a success or not in the very title of a report on the CSD meeting is no more than an effort to still linger on to anti-GM lobby theory against a mounting empirical evidence that Bt cotton is a success. Even the intellectually deceitful Jairam Ramesh openly conceded that Bt cotton has changed the rural India wherever it has been grown. The crowd that had gathered at the June 11 and 12 meet of CSD at IIC was determined to tar the image of Bt cotton and would not even allow CSD to present its report that is one of the most credible reports on the performance of Bt cotton among many by CESS and IFPRI, to name just a couple. Many reporters and mass media publications have developed an institutional bias against this MNC technology because of their undying political proclivities that does not allow them to admit that MNCs are the best able to deliver fruits of many of eh modern technologies in agriculture, energy, drugs and pharmaceuticals. This leftist/social bent of mind of many of such embedded reporters in the Indian print media is one of the ghosts that some of us supporters of modern science and technology have to battle constantly in addition to activists. Jyoika knows me well and if she gets annoyed or angry with my comment, I suggest she contact me at the above email ID and I will have fun chatting with her about this report.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dr Shantharam, decentralized

    Dr Shantharam, decentralized India achieved great success in the ancient past and the people are mostly of the same genetic stock. There is really no need to admit that MNCs are better at anything than Indians unless the administration continues to insist on tying the hands of the majority of the population by preventing the development of home grown fora to capture and capitalize on the creativity of so many talented people. One does not be the inventor to appreciate the developments, but should be cautious and cognizant about their benefits and limitations, in addition to being impressed. Each company has become very sophisticated in covering up weaknesses, exaggerating benefits, and will sell by clouding judgement of their true dangers and value. It is therefore truly important to deliberate on the benefits of radical new technologies that get imported with little understanding of their ramifications. However, a noisy forum may be a poor place for orderly debate. What is really needed is a decentralized assembly of professional scientists (Social, Basic, Agricultural, Medical, Veterinary and Entomologist), farmers, activists, yarn manufacturers, weavers and representatives of other affected industries such as poultry, honey and silk to systematically determine not area under cultivation and total output, but yield, quality, environmental effects and adverse effects on other industries. The data need to be systematically assembled and shared to aid further research and publicized to increase awareness and limit damage.

    My own (non-expert) thoughts are that the introduction of a toxin-expressing plant is letting the genie out of the bottle. Once seeded, it will be very hard to reverse an infestation by a toxic and successful plant, if it ends up being bad for the environment. The monoculture of BT-expressing strains will also mean that the plant one will dominate, killing variety. It may suddenly become susceptible to a new BT-resistant bug or organism that will be harder to handle as a genetic plant strain that needs to be restarted. If it is excessively successful, and adversely affects other crops or industries by killing pollinators, etc, one can simply stop spraying and switch to something else, if the toxin is manufactured and sprayed. However, one will be forced to spend a lot of time and effort in destroying the BT-expressing cotton, if one finds that it is adversely affecting poultry and silk farms or honey production. Cultivating a variety of cotton strains allows the creation of natural variants that may have useful traits for selection, which will be lost in a monoculture, hampering future development.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Just higher output of cotton

    Just higher output of cotton is not a sufficient test. Companies, particularly MNCs are very sophisticated at exaggerating value and hiding problems. However a forum of this type will not be appropriate for identifying problems. All affected parties must be involved in researching the outcomes of a radical technology like transgenic plants expressing an insect toxin. Cultivating such transgenic plants can seriously affect the economy due to unexpected secondary effects that may be mediated by the uncontrolled release of the toxin. If recombinant toxin was made and sprayed, one can control delivery and limit exposure based on need posed by infestation. However, if the yield of foods becomes reduced due to death of pollinators and soils being damaged by death of beneficial invertebrates, one would have to embark on a costly and unpredictable effort to eliminate the transgenic plants to save the environment. The effort should probably include a number of farmers and scientists who are clearly not just focussed on cotton output and/or yield. Moreover, the loss of biodiversity in the cotton crop due to replacement by one strain of transgenic plants will prevent future development of beneficial traits that can be discover in a complex environment.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sir, How can you

    Dear Sir,

    How can you overlook the fact that more than 100,000 farmers had to commit suicide because of the debts piled up due to failure of GM crops? GM crops have failed to deliver miserably in India as they require more water than the conventional crops. Also, the so called pest-resistant crops failed to live up to the expectations and were destroyed by bollworms. GM crops are unreliable and India is no laboratory to test these harbingers of doom. Even the cattle foraging on Bt Cotton crop in some parts of Maharasthtra died. This reinforces the fact that the long term effects of genetically modified crops on humans cannot be ascertained.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • India was doing organic

    India was doing organic agriculture up to 1950s. The farmers were under huge debt as most of the lands were pledged against loans of local money lenders. Food was either imported or gifted to us by the developed countries and Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastry Ji appealed to the nation to skip one meal a day and go for fasting once a week to meet the food shortage in the country. You are worried about so called threats to environment and I am not forgetting my past when we were at the mercy of others to feed us.

    Now the choice is obvious you may feed organic foods to a handful of rich and upper class people who can afford them or produce for all using the proven science-led practices of agriculture.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply