Is Bt cotton a success or failure?
Jyotika Sood
Down to Earth, June 14 2012

*Participants attending conference to review Bt cotton call for extensive investigation into all aspects of cotton production before drawing conclusions

A conference held in Delhi to review whether Bt cotton has benefitted the country ended inconclusively. Non-profits, farmers' groups, industry representatives and regulators agreed that the area under cotton cultivation and cotton production has increased in India in the past decade, but how much of this could be attributed to Bt technology was a question no one could answer satisfactorily. The two-day conference, ending June 12, was titled "Ten years of Bt Cotton in India: A review", and was jointly organised by Centre for Social Development, an organization of social researchers, along with non-profits, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) and Centre for Environment Education (CEE).

The participants said there is a need for in-depth investigation into various aspects of cotton production to reach a conclusion. These include the reasons for large-scale shift to hybrid cotton cultivation in country, the extent of irrigated area that has gone under cotton cultivation, whether favourable climatic conditions are a reason for shift to Bt cotton with special reference to Gujarat and whether use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has risen or decreased. Non-profits and civil society groups said that different official sources of data are inconsistent with each other and that no real conclusion could be reached on the basis of these. While different micro-studies are questionable because of the methodologies or design adopted, macro-data from different sources are sometimes contradictory, the participants said.

Organisers divided

There were differences even between the organizations that hosted the conference. While CSA believes Bt cotton is not a success, CSD says it has helped improve the socio-economic status of farmers.

G V Ramajaneyulu of CSA said that data relating to consumption of pesticide and some micro-studies seem to indicate initial reduction in pesticide use in Bt cotton crops, which are resistant to bollworms.  But with increase in attacks from sucking pests and other pests, per acre (0.4 ha) pesticide usage has increased and a dangerous cocktail of pesticides are being used, he added. Official data on pesticide consumption in India, too, does not reflect any decline, except in Andhra Pradesh, where large-scale adoption of non-pesticide management of crops is being followed, he said.

"We cannot ignore the fact that farmers growing Bt cotton are committing suicide. From our field experiences and academic analyses, we have found that Bt cotton involves high risk. The yields have stagnated    and it's only the 35 per cent farmers who have irrigation facilities who are writing the success story," said Ramajaneyulu. He said the government should not be making any definitive statements on the success of Bt cotton with regard to the remaining 65 per cent of farmers growing Bt cotton in rain-fed areas in India. He said there was a need for government to create a level-playing field for cotton seeds and promote ecological alternatives with the same supports being given for promotion of transgenic seeds.

CSD, on the other hand, says Bt cotton has helped improve farmers' lives. It had recently carried out a study for farmers' organisation Bharat Krishak Samaj, which showed that Bt cotton is a success in India. CSD director T Haq said that their survey found that 84 per cent farmers say that quantity of seed usage per hectare is less in Bt Cotton than in non-Bt cotton and that average net returns from hybrid Bt cotton seeds increased by 375 per cent from pre-Bt cotton period.

However, during the conference, when CSD presented its study, the organisation's methodology of recalling, under which participants are asked to recall their past experiences, adopted for the study was criticised by various participants, including planning commission member Abhijit Sen. Aruna Rodrigues, lead petitioner in a public interest case seeking moratorium on GM-testing in the country, also criticised the methodology. "This is one of the most unreliable method in market research and nobody accepts it."

Kavitha Kurunganti, convener of NGO Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), said a serious correlation analysis has to be taken up because India has reported highest year-on-year increase in cotton yields; AICCIP (All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project) results were showing that bollworm incidence was low to moderate. When Bt cotton can result in higher productivity only under pest pressure by protecting the crop from pest damage, how can such yield increases then be related to Bt technology?

The review conference saw a number of presentations of micro-studies as well as macro-data on subjects including farm economics (yield, production, farmers’ incomes), pesticide usage, regulatory regime, policy framework for genetically modified crops, risks and farmers suicide cases associated with Bt cotton and emerging scientific evidence on Bt cotton.

Civil society groups at the conference demanded risk analysis to be incorporated into decision-making in technology assessment, especially in case of transgenics in India and said that there was total absence of policy directives on crops even under international conventions, such as the Cartagena protocol under which the countries can protect those crops for which they are a centre of origin and diversity and the crops hold trade security interests and have social implications.  For example, Mexico which is centre of origin of maize, has not allowed GM maize in its territory. There is a demand that India which is a big exporter of basmati rice should similarly not allow genetically modified rice in the country as it has trade security interests.

In his presentation, Ramajaneyulu highlighted concerns about public funds being wasted in several ways, including on transgenic research that gets bogged down in patent issues and "contamination” issues, in addition to lack of ability to take R&D products to farmers. Further, when crops fail, governments are paying compensation packages to farmers with public funds. He said that "the public research is being sidelined with private sector taking over the seed sector in the country, thus limiting seed choices for the farmers."

Other participants at the conference included Anupam Barik, additional commissioner-crops with the agriculture ministry, M F Farooqui, chairperson of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), Ved Kambhoj, chairperson of Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation and PM Bhargava, Supreme Court observer in GEAC. Representatives from seed companies like Mahyco, Nuziveedu and Sriram Bioseed were also present.