Most interesting research of 2006 (2/1/2007)

GM Watch's vote for the most interesting piece of research to be published in 2006 goes to:

Shenghui Wang et al, Tarnishing Silver Bullets: Bt Technology Adoption, Bounded Rationality and the Outbreak of Secondary Pest Infestations in China, July 2006 http://www.grain.org/research/btcotton.cfm?links

This research looks at Bt cotton growing in China. Bt cotton has been hyped as biotech's big success story and the saviour of poor cotton farmers in the developing world.

Below is the transcript of a GM Watch podcast which looked not only at the findings of the research on what was happening in China but at a whole series of recent studies.

This new research evidence suggests Bt Cotton provides no benefits for biodiversity, no yield increases, no reductions in herbicide use, and that any initial reductions in pesticide use are now being undermined by growing problems with secondary pests. The evidence from these studies also shows that GM cotton is particularly unsuited to the needs of small famers in the developing world.

If you wish, you can listen to the podcast on your computer (with QuickTime) via indymedia:

or on your computer or MP3 player via iTunes http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=158600210


Peter Brown: [In this GM Watch] podcast we're returning to the subject of GM cotton - something we looked at in detail in the second of our podcasts and something we've returned to since then. So, Jonathan, why are we looking at GM cotton again?

Jonathan Matthews: Well, there's 2 reasons for this. One is that GM cotton is particularly important in the whole GM debate because it's always been promoted as an outstandingly good example of what genetic engineering supposedly can do to help farmers but also to help the environment. But the other reason is that since we last spoke about this a whole series of studies have come out that show that GM cotton is not doing what is claimed for it - that's on both fronts, in relation to farmers and in relation to the environment. And the research shows that it's failing and that it is particularly suspect in the context of the developing world

Peter: Perhaps we could just clarify what's supposed to be so special about GM cotton. How, for instance, is it supposed to help the environment?

Jonathan: Well, GM cotton's been grown for about a decade now and from the start it's been claimed that because Bt cotton - a genetically engineered cotton where a soil bacterium has been engineered into the cotton to act as a kind of pesticide within the plant - because it's got it's own built in pesticide in this way, that its use will lead to major reductions in the amount of pesticides farmers use and that this will consequently be very good for biodiversity, for wildlife. That it will lead to an increase in insect life and then in the small mammals and birds that feed on the insects, and so on. So there've been some quite extravagant claims about the impact of GM cotton along these lines.

Peter: And what about the farmers? How is GM cotton supposed to help them?

Jonathan: There's two issues there. One is if farmers aren't spraying so many pesticides then that's good for farmers' health, and agricultural workers, and it's also been claimed that GM cotton can significantly increase cotton yields. So if you can get this increase in productivity and you can make savings on pesticides, then hard pressed farmers can make better profits out of GM cotton. That's the claim. So it's been pushed as a fantastic crop for cotton farmers, particularly in the developing world, and Monsanto and other pro-GM lobbyists and supporters have made a lot of big claims about there being huge increases in yields and profits for poor farmers in these countries, and so on.

Peter: So those are the claims. What can you tell us about this new research you've mentioned?

Jonathan: Well, the most important of the new studies has come out of China.[1] And China was one of the first countries in the world to adopt Bt cotton. And it's worth mentioning that GM cotton in China has been hyped almost more than anything else in the GM debate. It's repeatedly been claimed that GM cotton has been - quotes - "a miracle crop". I mean, that's been said repeatedly - "a miracle" for Chinese farmers. And that idea of "a miracle crop" has been used to promote GM crops in China itself, to encourage China to grow more GM crops, and it's been used to egg on China's neighbours in Asia who've been told that China's forging ahead thanks to GM cotton and they'd better jump on the GM bandwagon or they're going to get left behind. And China's also been used as a sort of GM showcase to say to the rest of the world, "Look, in China there are millions of small farmers who've adopted GM cotton in a not very developed agricultural system and they're really benefiting and this shows why it's so important not to stand in the way of GMOs."

Peter: And what does the new research tell us about what's actually been happening in China?

Jonathan: OK. Well, this was the first study to look at the longer-term economic impact of Bt cotton. And the researchers from Cornell in the States working with Chinese agricultural scientists looked at data from nearly 500 farmers, and that's across five major cotton producing provinces in China, so they got a very broad picture of farmers who'd been involved in growing (Bt) cotton over a period of seven years.

And they found that in the early years these farmers were reducing their use of pesticides and were saving money because of the resistance that Bt cotton gave them to bollworms, which are a major pest. So that seemed to bear out the type of story that had been coming out of China. But what the researchers found was that longer term that pattern didn't hold up, and by 2004 the gains had disappeared and this was because secondary pests had emerged - pests other than the bollworms - and this was forcing the farmers to use lots of pesticides. In fact, they found that by 2004 they were spraying more or less as much pesticide as the farmers who weren't growing Bt cotton. So the whole supposed advantage in terms of pesticide reduction seemed to have disappeared.

But the problem - the economic problem - is that Bt farmers pay an awful lot more for Bt cotton seeds. In fact, the Bt seeds cost about 3 times as much as the con

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive