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Bt cotton: What's the fuss about?

By Suman Sahai

Bt cotton is unlikely to work for more than a few years in India because it is fundamentally at odds with the agricultural and climatic conditions here

Bt technology, which was developed around 10 years ago, is designed to confer disease resistance against pest attacks on crops. This essentially simple technology involves cutting out a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thurengiensis and transferring this gene into a plant. Bt cotton is a cotton plant that contains a bacterial toxin-producing gene. Hence, the Bt cotton plant produces its own pesticides. Cotton pests like the bollworm, which feed on the plant, are meant to die when they drink the poisonous sap of the plant.

India's entry into the GM (genetically modified) arena was marked by the approval given to three varieties of genetically engineered Bt cotton using Monsanto's Bt gene. Permission for commercial cultivation of Bt cotton was given to the six states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) laid down certain conditions for cultivation of these Bt varieties, which are supposed to protect against the pest bollworm. The most important condition is that Bt cotton must be grown with an 'insect refuge' of 20% non-Bt cotton. This is essential in order that the bollworm can feed partly on non-poisonous normal cotton and remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. Otherwise, just as mosquitoes have developed resistance to DDT, the bollworm will quickly become resistant to Bt toxin, and the crop will fail.

Bt cotton was developed for temperate countries like the US, where pests are limited, chiefly for the tobacco budworm against which the Bt toxin is effective. There, land holdings are large and subsidies so huge that farmers have better risk-taking capacity.

Bt cotton is unlikely to work for more than a few years in India because it is fundamentally at odds with the agricultural and climatic conditions here. First, the principal cotton pest here is the bollworm, against which Bt toxin is not as effective as it is against the budworm.

There are many kinds of cotton pests in India, apart from the bollworm. Pesticides will still have to be used to kill these other pests. It is unlikely that the Bt strategy alone will be effective in controlling intense pest attacks that are common in the tropics. So the promised savings from reduced pesticide spraying -- the main rationale behind the Bt strategy -- are unlikely to materialise. In India, with its small landholdings, the economics of Bt cotton does not work after 20% is set aside as an 'insect refuge'.

In addition to the above drawbacks, Bt cotton was found to require far more water than its non-Bt counterpart. And Bt cotton seeds are expensive, priced at approximately four times the cost of high-performance non-Bt cotton hybrids. This raises input costs for farmers, putting them in a difficult position if yields and pesticide savings are not substantial.

Currently, 62 varieties of Bt cotton have been approved for commercial cultivation. These are for the six original states as well as new northern states like Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan where cotton cultivation takes place on irrigated land.

As of today, Bt cotton varieties have been approved for all cotton-growing regions in India. Although the new Bt cotton varieties are from Indian seed companies, almost all incorporate the Cry 1Ac gene licensed from Monsanto. Only the company Nath Seed has incorporated a Bt gene developed by the Chinese. No public sector institution has brought a Bt cotton variety into the market as yet, although several have been conducting research for the last several years.

The Andhra Pradesh government banned the sale of MMB Bt cotton in the state following the company's refusal to pay compensation to those farmers who had suffered losses because their Bt cotton failed to perform as claimed. Subsequently, the state government asked MMB to reduce the exorbitant licence fees it was charging to something a little more reasonable so that the seed was more affordable to farmers.

The steep price of genetically modified cotton seed has been recognised by the government's investigative agencies as being a major reason why the economics of Bt cotton was not working for many farmers. When MMB refused to reduce the price of its seeds, the Andhra Pradesh government and two farmer organisations moved the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) against the company, in January 2006, for charging "exorbitant" royalty on Bt cotton.

Five years of cultivating Bt cotton have shown that it has not delivered. In rain-fed areas, in fact, it has been a disaster. Although it has performed better in irrigated areas, the success is sporadic and large-scale failures have been reported. Gene Campaign has been conducting a technology-adoption study in the Vidarbha cotton belt to assess the manner in which Bt cotton has been used there, the level of preparedness of farmers and the state machinery, and the role of industry promotion.

Initial conclusions from Gene Campaign's study in Vidarbha indicate that:

  • Bt cotton was imposed in areas where it should not have been.
  • The technology was not need-driven but supply-driven... it was there and heavily promoted.
  • Nobody prepared the farmers in the complex management of this technology, like the need to maintain 'insect refuges', time to spray, etc.
  • The government, which is still held as a credible source of advice, continued to promote Bt cotton despite evidence of its failure, causing farmers to keep returning to Bt cotton and incurring losses in the hope that the next crop would succeed.

(Suman Sahai has a PhD in genetics. She is the Director of Gene Campaign, a leading research and advocacy organisation working on farmer and community rights, bio-resources, IPR, indigenous knowledge and GE food and crops)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2007