Bt cotton is driving farmer suicides

August 2015
Photo Creative Commons
Indian farmers have been growing cotton for some 5,000 years. They made India the centre of world cotton innovation, and, during the industrial revolution, a major player in the textile industry. Pink bollworm was their key pest, but it clearly didn't hold them back.

The green revolution in the 1970s brought hybrid cottons and insecticides to control pink bollworm. Unfortunately, the insecticides also eliminated natural predators resulting in a surge of previously minor pests which proved more difficult to control than the bollworm.

Inevitable evolution of pests (including pink bollworm) to resist chemical pesticides made a bad situation worse. By 2002, 75% of insecticide used on cotton was for bollworm. That same year, GM 'Bt' cotton which generates its own insecticide was introduced to India to 'solve' the problem.

As a team of agro-ecologists who have prepared a new review and analysis of cotton growing in India commented:
"The inescapable conclusion is that Bt cotton was introduced to India to solve a bollworm problem created by insectide use" (see also [1]).
Aware that claims of increased yields due to the introduction of Bt cotton (a GM crop not designed for higher yield) were illogical, and that conflating data from diverse agricultural practices, or selecting data with inappropriate cut-off points, can produce statistics which hide problems, this latest analysis took a holistic view. The authors framed their study within a whole landscape and historical context.

The questions they sought to explore were whether Bt cotton really provides increased yields and an economic advantage, and if there is a link between Bt cotton adoption and farmer suicides.

Some of the realities revealed by the study are disturbing.

Claims of increased yield from 2004 onwards when Bt cotton was introduced are not supported by historical data. The upward trend started in 1975 and has continued steadily into the GM era. Also, in 2004 the Bt cotton planted amounted to only 8% of the total, and in 2005 was still less than half.

The very existence of Bt cotton is based on the assumption that pink bollworm needs to be controlled.

This is only true in certain circumstances. In the generally larger, irrigated fields, two cotton crops a year can be squeezed in. This means that there are cotton plants in the field at the time of year when the pink bollworm is ready to infest them. In smaller-scale (less than one hectare), rain-fed fields where only one cotton crop per year can be produced, there isn't a pink bollworm problem because the plants aren't available until too late in the year to accommodate the pests' life cycle.

Most Indian farmers fall into the latter category.

Such small-scale farms have lower and highly variable yields: they are inherently high-risk, and can't afford the extra fixed costs (such as royalties on seed, high-tech inputs and loan interest) which come with GM seed.

On the subject of farmer suicides, these are directly linked to level of poverty (measured as small farm size), level of risk (measured as low crop yield), and costs (measured as area planted to Bt cotton). Put another way, farmer suicides are linked to small-scale farmers who have taken on too much risk by planting Bt cotton which they don't need because their crops don't suffer from the pest that Bt cotton kills.

The authors point out that adopting a single, late, cotton cropping regime in irrigated areas too would eliminate the pink bollworm problem, obviate any need for expensive Bt seeds and insecticides, and free up land and water for growing food.

OUR COMMENT


This makes it very clear that the claimed benefits of Bt cotton have been (deliberately?) based on simplistic figures which ignore the real-life, ecological, agricultural and societal contexts in which the GM seed is sold and GM crops are grown.

The authors conclude that their results "amply illustrate how policy makers need holistic analyses before new technologies are promoted in agricultural development".

They could have added that the links between inappropriate deployment of Bt cotton and farmers becoming so desperate as to take their own lives suggests that the failure to apply holistic analyses should be considered a criminal offense.


Background:

[1] PESTS CREATE PESTS - July 2014


SOURCES:
  • Andrew Paul Gutierrez, et al., 2015, Deconstructing Indian cotton: weather, yields, and suicides, Environmental Sciences Europe 27:12 17.06.15
  • Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji, Bt Cotton Directly Linked to Indian Farmer Suicides in Rain-Fed Areas, Institute of Science in Society Report 14.07.15
  • Farmer suicides in rainfed areas of India correlate with Bt cotton adoption, GM Watch 19.06.15

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