Is Bt cotton a success in India?
As GEAC gives environmental clearance to GM Mustard, it’s time to look at how earlier approved Bt cotton had performed in India
With the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) allowing environmental clearance for GM Mustard, it is time to look at how the earlier approval for Bt cotton – the first GM crop to be introduced in India – had performed. There are lessons to be drawn, and no amount of white-washing by the scientific community can divert attention from the growing need for a tighter vigilance.
While the dominant clamour – and that includes the hype created by media, seed companies and the policy makers - has been to paint the entry of genetically-modified cotton as a silver bullet, the scientific opinion is clearly divided. The 'myth and reality' kind of scientific analysis has been completely missing, as the reality lies buried much deeper under the excessive hype that has been generated.
In a report, The Hindustan Times (Nov 2, 2022) quoted a study published in the globally-acclaimed scientific journal Nature in 2020, which should set the balance right. That Bt cotton was not a silver bullet as the scientific community made us to believe was always known. But when the scientific journal Nature acknowledged it, corporate media couldn't pass it as a reaction coming from luddites, which it often brands experts and activists questioning the imperfect technology. It is therefore important for the GEAC to reopen the can and have a public dialogue on the outcomes and lessons learnt. After all, this is what science-based research and analysis is all about.
This is what Nature writes: "The changes in inputs to Indian cotton production in the early 2000s are not only important because they largely explain the surge in yields that has been uncritically attributed to Bt seed ... it now appears that Bt cotton's primary impact on Indian agriculture will be its role in this rising capital-intensiveness rather than any enduring agronomic benefits." In other words, the introduction of half-tested Bt cotton seeds only resulted in "agrarian capitalism" that Aniket Aga, Associate Professor at Ashoka University and author of Genetically Modified Democracy: Transgenic Crops in Contemporary India had talked about.
Why I said half-tested is because when the GEAC had initially called for a public dialogue at the time of the proposed release of Bt cotton seed in 2001, I had questioned the faulty yield claims made by the promoter company. The company had claimed that while the seeds were grown two months late, the yield of the cotton crop was 50 per cent higher. I had stood up and challenged this, asking that if it is true why a similar advisory is not sent to farmers to plant the crop two months late. Farmers can also save time and effort if they have to sow the crop two month late and still get a higher yield as claimed.
The Monitoring Committee chairman said this is not possible. My question to him was then why has such an exception been allowed for the company, and what scientific basis such claims have. This is not what I as an agriculture student was taught at the university, and had therefore called for three years of more research trials. In its wisdom, the GEAC postponed the introduction of Bt cotton by just one year to enable the company to perform more tests.
Anyway, when all the drum beating by the powerful pro-GM scientific community began, singing virtues for the Bt cotton technology, Dr K S Kranti, the then Director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), the premier institute for cotton research in India, had acknowledged: "No significant yield advantage has been observed between 2004-2011 when area under Bt cotton increased from 5.4 to 96 per cent."Further, while the scientific claims were that Bt cotton would reduce the use of chemicals, the reality is just the opposite. The Pesticide Atlas 2022 now tells us that since the release of Bt cotton in 2002 the cost of pesticides for farmers had gone up by 37 per cent per hectare.
This acknowledgement in itself should have made the GEAC to withdraw the seeds from the market, asking the companies, which by then had proliferated, to stop selling the genetically-modified seeds of cotton. Why I say this is that the GEAC's role is not only to releases the varieties and then forget about how it performs. The environmental and health crisis that GM crops unleash should also be its responsibility. It is therefore important to expand the composition of the committee, to also include health and medical professionals, nutritionists, environmentalists and respected civil society representatives.
In a Fact Checker for India Spend (Mar 6, 2018), Rohit Parakh, a young researcher and activist, had drawn from available data to show how the cotton yield had stagnated over the years. He quotes the 301st report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment and Forests, which concluded: "The Government agencies have made attempts to portray a rosy picture with regard to the success of Bt cotton in the country which actually is not the case. The committee further learns that India's cotton yields increased by 69 per cent in the five years (2000 and 2005) when Bt cotton was less than 6 per cent of total cotton area, but by only 10 per cent in ten years from 2005 to 2015 when Bt cotton grew 94 per cent of total cotton area."
Several studies, including that by Dr Kranti, have pointed to increased use of fertilisers, pesticides, and expansion in area under irrigation, to be the factors responsible for the increase in cotton production. In addition, the first decade of Bt cotton release was also marked by a drought-free decade. Needless to say, the weather too was helpful.
Subsequently, the Bt cotton was rendered ineffective as the insects that it was supposed to control, developed resistance. Also, Bt cotton saw the emergence of secondary pests on cotton. In Punjab, white fly attack a few years back on Bt cotton variety (with desi cotton escaping the pest attack) proved to be disastrous with nearly 75 per cent of the standing crop affected, with many farmers re-ploughing the fields and a large number of farmers committing suicide. From a compensation of Rs 8,000 per acre for the crop loss, the previous Congress government had agreed to increase the compensation amount to Rs 17,000 per acre, besides 10 per cent relief to the farm labourers involved in picking cotton.
It is not understandable why the State governments have to use public money to compensate farmers for the losses they suffer resulting from seed failure. Why can't the polluter pays principle be applied in case of seeds of private seed companies failing to conform to the claims made? Secondly, while the media and policy makers always ascertain that technological introductions in agriculture should always be based on scientific principles, what I fail to understand is that why do scientists themselves refrain from science-based public debates?
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)