China hype - the "miracle" that died (26/7/2006)


"In China they now call the Bt-cotton 'Miracle cotton'." -
Robert Frawley, Monsanto's executive vice president and chief technology officer

It's almost impossible to overstate the significance of the new study by researchers at Cornell looking at seven years of Bt cotton cultivation in China. The study shows farmers failed to reap a profit because secondary pests have emerged requiring lots of pesticides.

The supposedly miraculous success of Bt cotton in China - in terms of increased profits and reduced spraying - has been at the core of the claims made by GM proponents about the benefits of GM crops, particularly as regards the developing world.

The new study is the first to look at the longer-term economic impact of Bt cotton. It shows that, despite the much advertised cuts in pesticide use in the early years of Bt cotton use, by 2004 the Bt cotton farmers were having to spray pesticides just as much as conventional farmers.

Because Bt seed is so expensive - it costs 3 times as much as conventional seed - this has resulted in an 8% net average income loss for Bt farmers when compared to conventional cotton farmers. And this was not a localised effect. The study was based on farmers in five major cotton-producing provinces. It's also worth noting that the Cornell researchers are themselves keen proponents of GM. (Chinese Farmers of Genetically Modified Cotton Are Losing Money - new study)

The new study's findings directly contradict the heavy promotion of China over the last six years as *the* big GM success story. China's Bt cotton farmers are also the key element in the frequently repeated statistics claiming millions of resource-poor farmers are benefitting from GM crops.

And fear of missing out on the gains China has supposedly been making from Bt cotton has also been a key element in pressurising other Asian countries to adopt GM crops, as can be seen in this piece from The Times of India:

"China, our rival, has beaten us in this race as well. The new cottonseed, called Bt cotton, is especially popular... If our Andhra farmers had used it, their crop would have survived and we might have prevented suicides... Chinese farmers had begun to enjoy its fruits while Indian farmers were committing suicides. Our two largest cotton growing competitors, the US and China have, thus, taken a lead over us."
(Seeds of Godlike Power)

Bt cotton has also been used to push GM crop commercialisation within China itself - notably GM rice:

"As Chinese farmers proclaim biotech cotton a 'miracle crop' that has reduced costs by 28 percent, China is poised to commercialize biotech rice and is studying biotech wheat in hopes of bringing similar cost savings to farmers who grow these products."
(China Eyes GM Food Crops to Cut Costs-Academic, Reuters)


"Scott Rozelle, an agricultural economist with the University of California, Davis, said GM rice, if widely used, would have an even greater impact, compared with GM cotton, on China's agriculture sector... GM cotton has become a 'miracle crop' in China since it was commercialized in 1996."
(Chinese scientists push GM rice for commercialization, Business Daily Update via AgbioView)

Any attempts to raise questions about this supposed agricultural miracle have been vigorously rebutted, even though it now seems that the critics, who included Chinese scientists, with their warnings of increased secondary pests, additional spraying and incomes hit, were the ones who were correct.

The supposed benefits of Bt cotton in China have also been used to rebut wider concerns. Here's David Dennis, president and CEO of Performance Plants Inc., writing in Canada's National Post, as part of its 'Junk Science Week':

"We hear a great deal about the possible detrimental effects of GM crops. This is invariably based on inadequate research that has been hyped to hysterical levels. Slowly but surely, however, the health and environment benefits of these crops are becoming obvious.

..In 1998, insect resistant Bt cotton was introduced into Hebei Province [China] and by the year 2000, most of the crop was insect resistant. The impact has been dramatic.

As reported in the January 25th issue of the journal Science, the use of these insecticides on Bt cotton is reduced by more than 80%, greatly improving the health of these farm workers.

In addition to the improved health of workers, there are economic benefits. The cost of producing cotton was reduced by 30%, the number of applications of insecticide reduced from 20 per season to seven, and the quantity of insecticide from 61 to 12 kilograms per hectare with a reduction in costs of 80%. It is difficult to see how anyone could oppose this.

.. We stand on the threshold of major advances for agriculture based on science and knowledge, not prejudice. Whatever the rich nations decide, the developing world will welcome GM crops for they will ensure an equitable future for their people."

We now know that all those supposed health, environmental and economic benefits were entirely ephemeral and that the critics, rather than the GM hype-merchants, were the ones who were right.

Now that China's GM "miracle" has died, where will the industry's propagandists go from here? You might think they had nowhere to go - given the total failure of Bt cotton in Indonesia, where it was so unsuccessful it had to be withdrawn; the farmers deserting it in South Africa; and the huge controversy engulfing it in India, where the expensive seed is blamed for exacerbating rather than solving farmer suicides. But don't be suprised if you now see the problems denied and India and South Africa rewritten as beacons of biotech success! One way or another a new "miracle


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