The truth about Bt cotton in India (11/2/2008)

NOTE: This superb article shows there's no factual basis behind the massive campaign of hype over Bt cotton that's been going on in India - a campaign aimed not just at promoting Bt cotton but at creating a climate conducive to the introduction of other GM crops.

The big lie that's being put about is that Bt cotton has massively increased cotton yields. As this article clearly shows, cotton yields in India are variable for a whole variety of reasons. Moreover, if you look at a state like Madhya Pradesh, you can see highly impressive yields in the years *before* the introduction of Bt cotton.

In 1997-98, for example, Madhya Pradesh's yields were 740 kilos per hectare. That's never been equalled since the introduction of Bt cotton. And that's not just the case in Madhya Pradesh itself but even in a state like Gujarat which is considered particularly productive.

Gujarat's own official report on cotton production identifies the real reasons for its increased productivity in recent years: 'Parameters like irrigation facility, good monsoon, use of drip, low pest pressure... [etc.]'. From 2002 onwards, ie when Bt cotton was introduced, the increase in the irrigated cotton area in Gujarat is around 33 per cent!

Although the article doesn't mention this, in the main cotton-growing belt of Maharashtra, where there's been the biggest uptake of Bt cotton by farmers anywhere in India - thanks to all the hype, cotton growers have fared very badly with Bt cotton, probably because most of this cotton growing area is rain-fed rather than irrigated. The result has been an alarming peak in farmer suicides due to crop failure since the introduction of Bt cotton.


Bt cotton cultivation in India: Some facts
By Kavitha Kuruganti Deccan Herald, February 11 2008

There are attempts to attribute everything good with cotton cultivation to GM cotton and on those grounds, bring in other GM crops.

Last year, an industry-sponsored study on Bt Cotton farming in India concluded that it is 'transforming lives, softly'. The study 'revealed' that children in Bt Cotton cultivating households have better levels of immunisation and children from such families have significantly higher enrollment in schools alongwith better maternal health indicators. It also concluded that perceptions on gender equality have improved due to cultivation of Bt Cotton! The report, including the photo of a farmer standing in the hot sun with a laptop, presents a picture that makes you think that the government and developmental agencies should promote Bt Cotton everywhere to reach their Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

This year too, we have various people ranging from a chief minister to Planning Commission members to agricultural scientists to economists and industry representatives praising Bt Cotton for all the wonderful things happening to Indian cotton scenario. They are assigning this casualty of increasing cotton production to Bt Cotton as though other factors don't exist. According to them, India needs only a Genetically Modified (GM) miracle whenever productivity has to be increased. If only that were true, we would not have lakhs of farmers committing suicides across the country. Incidentally, there are no crops created with GM technology anywhere which have been engineered for higher productivity.

It is time to look at some facts on this front and stop hyping up GM crops because that is exactly the kind of atmosphere the industry would like to build attribute everything good with cotton cultivation to GM cotton and on those grounds, bring in other GM crops.

Firstly, the GM proponents should explain the amazingly impressive yields of 614 kilos per hectare on an average, for five years between 1997-2001 (five years prior to introduction of Bt Cotton in the country) that Madhya Pradesh has posted. This data is from Cotton Corporation of India's own records and such impressive results were all of course without the help of GM technology. In 1997-98, Madhya Pradesh’s yields were 740 kilos per hectare! It has to be noted that in all these years of Bt Cotton cultivation, even a state like Gujarat which is posting impressive yield figures, did not reach such productivity levels. In fact, in Madhya Pradesh, even with each year of Bt Cotton area increasing, yields are down from the levels of pre-Bt Cotton days.

Gujarat's share in total cotton production in India has gone up from around 29 per cent at the time of introduction of Bt Cotton to 39 per cent this year. Including Gujarat's data may distort the entire picture about Bt Cotton and cotton in the country since other states are showing different and unsteady trends. In a letter dated 9th May 2005 (D O No IST/2003/Bt Cotton K-6 (PtII)), Secretary-Agriculture, government of Gujarat wrote to the Chairperson, GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee): 'Yes, the productivity which was 175 kg/Ha in 2002-03 is touching 460 kg/Ha in 2004-05. But this is not solely due to Bt Cotton hybrids as Gujarat recorded 450 in 1998-99 when there was no Bt Cotton. In our opinion, all these years were good years with low to medium bollworm activity, hence this increase'.

Through its own official monitoring and evaluation report of Bt Cotton, the state authorities have also revealed that 'the productivity of cotton crop also increased due to increase of irrigation facility by massive water harvesting programme. On other hand, rainfall is also very good during past 3 years. Parameters like irrigation facility, good monsoon, use of drip, low pest pressure, black soil and farmers' experience are contributing in the success of cotton crop in the state'.

Incidentally, from 2002 onwards, the increase in irrigated cotton area in Gujarat is around 33 per cent (from 714.6 thousand acres to 948.5 thousand acres as per data available) and this is where the biggest yield jumps have happened. If the state government officially has such a nuanced understanding of the situation, it is not clear how the Central government, the GM regulators, other planners and the biotech industry can make simplistic and opportunistic conclusions.

Going by the data presented by the central government in the Rajya Sabha (Response to Unstarred Question No. 1171, dated 30/11/2007), several cotton producing states are actually showing decline in production and yields this year compared to the previous years. These states include Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. AP, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh are four of the six states which have been allowed to grow Bt Cotton from 2002 onwards and unsteady trends of production and yield are the reality in these states.

The industry and the GM proponents should also explain why there are no reports of such dramatic increases from the US, Canada and other places. The studies in US, Canada, Argentina, Mexico etc., with regard to GM cotton show that there is great annual and geographic fluctuation in estimates of the actual yield performance difference between Bt Cotton and conventional cotton. Incidentally, in India, several crops like soyabean and sugarcane have been posting increased and impressive production and yields this year and, there was no GM version of these crops that contributed to those yields.

To conclude, Bt Cotton has not been created to have higher yields but for pest control, that too for a very small number of pests. The yields are highly dependent on the original germplasm or receptors of the genes inserted. High yields with normal cotton hybrids are not unheard of and in the 1990s, many farmers got onto the treadmill of cotton farming after seeing the performance of some non-GM hybrids. Farmers working with NPM (Non Pesticidal Management) or Sustainable Agriculture have also proven that high yields can be obtained with non-chemical and non-GM options, effective ecological agriculture practices.

(The writer is a consultant with Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad.)


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