As pests and high input costs plague GM Bt cotton, organic and sustainable cotton production should be favoured, a new report says. Report: Claire Robinson
Anyone who dips into the research on the performance of genetically modified (GM) cotton will quickly come across studies by scientists like Matin Qaim and David Zilberman, who hyped the performance of GM Bt insecticidal cotton in India in the early days of its release. One of Qaim and Zilberman's studies from 2003 claimed a massive 80% yield increase from GM Bt cotton. The study, which based its claims on field trials run by Monsanto, came in for heavy criticism – not least from the former Syngenta man Dr Shantu Shantharam, who called it a "shoddy publication based on meagre and questionable field data".
Since then, however, a growing body of research has pointed to problems with GM Bt cotton. A study based in India cites attacks by Bt-resistant and secondary pests, resulting in an increased need for chemical pesticide sprays. Another study highlights a correlation between Bt cotton adoption and farmer suicides.
But despite the known problems with GM Bt cotton, many African countries are considering adopting it, based on the promise of financial benefits. It's against this background that the Textile Exchange Pan-Africa Sourcing Working Group has published a report, "Cotton in Africa: Sustainability at a Crossroads".
The report, which is heavily referenced, brings together a vast amount of research on conventional and GM cotton production versus organic and "preferred cotton" production methods, which ban the use of GM seeds. "Preferred cotton" production is defined as that which results in "improved environmental and/or social sustainability outcomes and impacts in comparison to conventional production".
The report gives a vivid impression of the widespread failure of GM cotton, which has been plagued by pest attacks, rising chemical pesticide and other input requirements, and farmer indebtedness, leading in some cases to suicides. It addresses concerns over the expansion of GM cotton production in Africa and makes a case for organic and "preferred cotton" production methods, which can boost farmer income and revitalize rural economies.
In the report, the Working Group outlines the status of GM cotton – including recent adoption – and organic cotton production in Africa. Seven African countries have chosen to allow GM cotton so far, while four have opted out.
Findings of the report include:
* With GM cotton, results vary, and economic benefits have yet to be proven over the longer term, especially for resource-poor smallholder farmers.
* Uncertainty about the financial benefits of GM adoption is one of the most significant risks to farmers, who also experience ever-rising production costs (inputs, labour, and equipment) and cotton price fluctuations on the world cotton market.
* Adoption of GM crops can be a particularly costly risk to cash-poor farmers when financial loss occurs as a result of crop failure, which could limit their ability to purchase GM seed and associated inputs for the following season. This input- and capital-intensive cotton farming production system poses a significant risk of debt, bankruptcy, and even farmer suicides if returns do not pay off, especially for smallholder farmers in countries that do not provide economic safety nets.
* A study in India highlighted the rising input dependence of conventional cotton farming. It showed that in the decade following 2005, when Bt seed began its rapid spread across Indian cotton farms, per hectare costs for seed rose by 78%, insecticide by 158%, and fertilizer by 245%, with the overall production cost of seed cotton increasing by 143%. The researchers found that changes in other inputs, including irrigation, insecticides, and particularly fertilizer use, correspond to better yields, and noted that Bt cotton’s primary impact on Indian agriculture was its role in the rising capital-intensiveness rather than any enduring agronomic benefits.
* With the increasing use of GM cotton comes concerns over insect and weed resistance to Bt toxins and pesticides. The ubiquitous use of Bt in GM cotton agriculture has already created resistance among bollworms, and the emergence of secondary pests, such as whitefly, has been observed in India’s cotton production. Secondary pest attacks can result in additional pesticide applications being needed, which comes with additional costs for producers.
* Studies have found that adoption of GM herbicide-tolerant crops initially reduced the use of herbicides, but that resistant weeds later evolved, and resistance to the herbicide glyphosate has led to increased use of the herbicides dicamba and 2,4-D. GM herbicide-tolerant cotton is spreading illegally in India.
* The growing resistance of bollworms to Bt also creates concern over food security as the pests inevitably also attack food crops (e.g., okra, pigeon pea, and chickpea).
* In Benin, conversion to organic production resulted in an increase in net income of almost 50 percent per hectare of cotton, while yields were maintained or increased, and production costs were 185 and 307% lower than conventional producers in 2017/18 and 2018/19, respectively.
* Another study in Benin showed that organic cotton is more profitable than conventional cotton despite somewhat lower yields. Organic cotton farmers make use of locally available inputs, which are cheaper than the chemical inputs employed by conventional farmers. Moreover, organic cotton farmers benefit from a price differential, which, combined with the low costs of production, compensates for any yield gap.
* A 2012-14 study in Burkina Faso that analyzed the financial profitability of organic, GM and conventional cotton systems found that despite a significant difference in yield between the transgenic and conventional systems and the organic system, there was no significant difference between the profit margins generated by these different modes of cotton production given the cost of synthetic inputs shouldered by producers of conventional or GM producers. Indeed, the relative weakness of the yield of the organic system is compensated for by the relatively low production costs and the selling price, which is approximately 30% higher.
* In Ethiopia, organic farmers had similar or higher yields than their conventional counterparts and often earned considerably higher incomes.
GM push is cause for alarm
The report concludes by urging policymakers and the textile industry to "take a path toward resilient and healthy rural communities and capitalize on the growing demand for organic and preferred cotton" in response to consumer and industry market demand.
The authors write, "The recent push to expand GM cotton production on the continent without robust research into the long-term effects on farmer livelihoods and the environment is cause for alarm. Evidence from India and other GM cotton-growing countries points to higher economic, social, and financial risks as well as the potential for increased use of pesticides, brought about by resistance to commonly used pesticides, and outbreaks of secondary pests. Past experiences in these and other countries with the introduction of GM crops also pose concerns over seed sovereignty, biodiversity, and uncontrolled contamination of non-GM crops. On top of this are ethical concerns, with some perceiving genetic modification of seed as incompatible with the principles of sustainability and violating the intrinsic integrity of life."
If countries decide to pursue GM cultivation, the Working Group advises governments to adopt the precautionary principle and develop stringent biosafety regulations addressing the research and use of GM crops, including strict liability provisions for seed patent holders and clear rules to support coexistence with GM-free preferred cotton supply chains, starting with seed development, production, and supply systems. The Working Group says it will continue to track the use of GM cotton in Africa and advocate for cotton production and processing standards that avoid the use of the technology.