‘Stop false narrative of Bt cotton success, promote desi varieties’

Farmers and activists have written to the Government of India to stop spreading fake news about biotechnology cotton, point to correlations between its cultivation and farmer suicides in India

BT cotton field (Photo courtesy: Twitter)
BT cotton field (Photo courtesy: Twitter)

Rosamma Thomas

Bt cotton, or biotechnology cotton, the first genetically modified crop legally allowed in India since 2002, was seen as a big cause of the spike in farmer suicides.

Farmers and activists have now written to the Government of India to stop spreading fake news about Bt cotton and accept failure. “Recently, in an international webinar organized by Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and Jatan on Bt cotton in India with four acclaimed scientists as the speakers, the data and evidence presented suggests that the government needs to seriously re-look at the narrative that is being woven officially around Bt cotton performance in India. This is more so since it is around 20 years since India’s Bt cotton cultivation began, first illegally and later legally,” the letter said. The link to the webinar is here.

The letter lists the key points that emerged in the webinar: Of the 75 countries that grow cotton, India ranks 36th in yields. Out of the 35 countries (having more than 50,000 ha of cultivation) ahead of India in yield, a large majority do not use GM cotton; only eight do.

Webinar participants also noted that the American bollworm was not a major pest of cotton until 1978. The use of synthetic pyrethroids (organic compounds used as insecticides) may have caused resurgence of American bollworms and white fly from the 1980s, the letter notes, adding that the Bt technology was meant to contain the boll worms, but may have induced the problem.

Participants in the webinar also noted that the productivity spike of cotton in India could not be attributed to Bt technology. There was an increase in irrigated area, heightened fertilizer use, improved varieties of cotton and better agronomy (the science and technology of using plants).

The biotechnology industry has a huge role in keeping up a false narrative around the increased productivity of Bt cotton, the letter writers say, among whom is Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. They point out that per kg of lint production, India is the highest consumer of chemical fertilizers, at 360 g per kg.

Real increase in Bt cotton productivity in India was between 2003 to 2005, the letter notes, explaining that about 90% of the area was under non-Bt cotton in this time. Bt cotton was introduced legally only in 2002, and after that the area under it increased sharply. However, yield increases did not match the years of 2003-05 subsequently.

“The use of chemical fertilizers in cotton crop in India doubled from 96 Kg/ha in 2002 to 222 Kg/ha in 2011. This is one of the major contributors to yield increase. This is also reflected as positive correlation (0.42)

between fertilizer use and yield. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of the country is indeed right in urging farmers to phase out chemical fertilizer usage, for a variety of reasons,” the letter notes.

The letter writers, among whom are agriculture scientists, note that the development of resistance against Bt toxin is a predictable manifestation of natural evolutionary processes. “The intensity of infestation of Pink Bollworm was 30 to 70% in second generation Bt cotton (with two genes) in India during the years 2015 to 2017. This has led to huge financial losses for the farmers and the economy. It is estimated that this was to a tune of Rs 8320 crores in 2017. This evidence shows clearly that toxic molecule based plant protection (whether the toxin is produced in a chemical factory or a plant cell) is unsustainable,” the letter reads.

“The cost of production for cotton farmers has increased by 226% (2.26 times) in 2016 compared to 2005 - there were negative net returns to farmers to a tune of Rs 5849 per hectare and Rs 6286 per hectare in 2014 and 2015 respectively. This loss was a record loss in history since 1996. As far as profitability of cotton crop is concerned, Bt cotton gave benefits for six years starting from 2006 to 2012,” the letter notes, pointing to the correlations between Bt cotton cultivation and farmer suicides in India.

In an affidavit filed in court, the Government of India has admitted that “Indian farmers have paid an estimated Rs 7437 crore as trait fee, that went to a multinational company Monsanto (now taken over by Bayer). The company was found guilty of monopolistic practices, and there is also an ongoing legal dispute about the patentability of the genetic material used for Bt cotton,” the letter notes.

The farmer-activists recommend that the government now promote native species of cotton that are best adapted to rainfed growing conditions in India. Cotton farmers must be encouraged to sow pure line varieties instead of hybrids and plant short season cotton in high density, the letter states, explaining that the negligence of native varieties is a loss to the environment and also imposes a financial burden on farmers. “Desi cotton varieties like PA 812 and several others produce more cotton per hectare in a high-density planting and have excellent fibre qualities too,” the letter notes, adding that India has the answers to high productivity and profitability; what is apparently lacking is only atma vishwas (confidence in oneself).

The letter is addressed to the Prime Minister, the Ministers of Environment and Agriculture, besides bureaucrats in the NITI Aayog and state agriculture ministers.

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