New studies highlight the failures of GM cotton - podcast and transcript (18/8/2006)

Here are excerpts from the transcript of the latest GM WATCH PODCAST (8).

This podcast looks at the new evidence on how GM cotton is failing to live up to its promises, particularly for farmers in the developing world.

You can listen to the podcast on your computer (eg with QuickTime) via indymedia:

or on your computer or MP3 player via iTunes

The whole transcript - complete with references for the research - is available on the GM Watch website

The excerpts below relate particularly to two brand new studies yet to be published plus a disturbing report about what's happening this year in Arkansas.


Bt cotton has been hyped as *the* big GM success story, leading to big increases in yields and in profits for farmers. Big reductions in the use of agrochemicals and major benefits for biodiversity have also been claimed. It has also been hyped as the saviour of poor cotton farmers in the developing world.

In this podcast we look at a whole series of recent studies that demolish each of these claims. These new studies have come out of China, South Africa and the USA.

Podcast producer Peter Brown takes GM Watch director Jonathan Matthews through the new evidence.

This new evidence shows 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 eroded 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.


Peter: So the (first) study showed that what was actually happening was the exact opposite of what was claimed.

Jonathan: Yes, absolutely. As we said, Bt cotton has been called "a miracle crop" in China, but this study suggested it would actually be a miracle if the farmers there went on using it, because it's hitting them in their pockets...

Peter: So that's what the research tells us about what's happening in China. What about the other studies you referred to? What do they tell us and which countries were they done in?

Jonathan: One of the other major studies was done in North America - in Arizona, where farmers have also been growing GM cotton for many years, almost a decade now. So this is another part of the world where GM cotton is well established. And this was the first large-scale study that simultaneously looked at Bt cotton in terms of yield - what it was doing in terms of actual production, pesticide use, but also they looked at biodiversity - you know, the amount of wildlife where GM cotton was being used.

And the results have again - like with the Chinese study - the results have been very damaging to the claims made for GM cotton...

Peter: So the study showed no benefits for biodiversity, no yield increases, no reductions in herbicide use, and although there was some pesticide reduction there were increasing problems with secondary pests.

Jonathan: Yes.

Peter: What were the other studies you referred to?

Jonathan: There are a couple of new studies looking at Bt cotton economics and environmental effects and pesticide use that are coming out soon. This is the way that scientific publication is going now. These papers aren't going to appear in print until September or October but they're already available online even though they are not available yet in print. They're both brand new papers - one's from South Africa and the other's from the United States.

Peter: From the information available what do these two new studies tell us?

Jonathan: The first study, which is going to be published soon in the journal Crop Protection, looks at insecticide use in fields cropped with conventional... or Bt cotton varieties in a smallholder farming area of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. This area is known as Makhathini Flats.

And after China, Makhathini has probably been the biggest source of hype for the biotech industry and its lobbyists. It's been another area where there have been extravagant claims about big reductions in pesticide use and savings in terms of labour, and these savings helping to increase farmer incomes for these small farmers by large amounts.

So there's been a lot of hype about Makhathini. A lot of the claims have been contested and this study certainly throws cold water on the hype. If I can quote from the abstract for this paper, it says, "cropping Bt cotton in Makhathini Flats did not generate sufficient income to expect a tangible and sustainable socioeconomic improvement due to the way the crop is currently managed..." Now, in other words, what that's saying is that it's not really increasing profitability - certainly not in any way that looks like it could sustainably improve the economic position of those farmers.

And then it goes on to say something else that's particularly significant. It says, "Adoption of an innovation like Bt cotton seems to pay only in an agro-system with a sufficient level of intensification."

That's significant because we're talking about poor smallholder farmers. These are people who are not going to have intensified agricultural systems. That's the one thing that isn't going to be easy for them to have.

And so this completely demolishes the promotion of GM cotton as a technology that's particularly suited to the needs of poor farmers. There've been these claims, which we've talked about before in these podcasts, of saying that with something like GM cotton "the technology is in the seed" and the implication is that for the farmer his other resources don't matter. You just give him this magical seed and it will do the rest. Well, what's clear from this study is that doesn't work. You need certain conditions in order to get a return on this cotton and small fa


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