Unforeseen circumstances of GM cotton in India

February 2012

IN066S08 World Bank
Harvesting cotton. India.
Photo: © Ray Witlin / World Bank published on Flickr
'Bt' cotton, genetically transformed to generate its own insecticide against American bollworm, has been grown in India since 2003. The authorities there encouraged farmers to buy Bt cotton seed with promises of huge yields, a dramatic halving of expenditure on pesticides, and great profits, despite the high price of the GM seed. Initial resistance was overcome by aggressive marketing, and GM cotton now comprises more than 90% of the crop. Production has tripled, making India a net exporter and second largest world supplier of cotton.

However, the reality of growing Bt cotton with inbuilt machinery to kill its number-one enemy is proving fraught with “unforeseen circumstances”.

While productivity (lint produced per hectare) increased by 74% between 2002 and 2009, the levels are low compared to the world average.

One unforeseen shortcoming has been that if a Bt cotton crop fails, it is a total failure and financial disaster for the grower. As one farmer explained it: 
“With our native species, even if flowering failed due to excessive rain in the first half of the season, we would still manage at least some yield since the plants flower again. Bt cotton flowers once and any failure means re-sowing the expensive Rs1,200-a-packet seeds”.

Farmers also soon realised their expensive GM seed entailed a whole stack of other expensive inputs. Fertiliser costs re high, while extra insecticides against previously minor pests such as mealy bug and whitefly are now necessary. And, the American bollworm hasn't disappeared. The cost of insect treatment rose by a quarter between 2006 and 2008 alone.

A recently published study is beginning to unravel why Bt cotton in India is not living up to the hype.

The problem seems to be that for the plant to manufacture insecticidal protein it needs energy and raw materials. While the GM cotton is growing shoots and leaves Bt generation is plentiful. Once the plants shift into boll-production (and the bollworm becomes a major threat) all resources are re-directed to this end, and Bt-toxin levels drop. Levels of the insecticide regularly fall below the established minimum concentration needed to protect the plant. This is serious because the bollworms are not controlled, the farmer has added work and expense to combat the pest on a crop he expected be immune (and may not have been monitoring diligently), and exposure to low levels of any pesticide is a sure route to pest-resistance.

One environmental resource particularly needed by GM cotton to produce its Bt-protein, is a good supply of water and nutrients in the soil to ensure well-functioning roots.

Because the topography in India is very varied, rainfall and soil depth are highly localised. Since 60% of India's agricultural land is rain-fed and the water-retaining capacity increases with soil depth, crops suitable for cultivation there must tolerate wide variations in water-availability.

Biotech crops are not renowned for their ability to tolerate stress: Bt-cotton is no exception. Too little water, and the Bt production falls. Too much water and the Bt production falls. These GM plants are clearly not well-suited to rain-fed areas.

In the State of Gujarat, where irrigation systems have been created, Bt crops have been more successful. So much so that the agrarian economy there grew by 16.6% in 2010, largely due to the 35% increase in Bt-cotton production. This might be good news, were it not for another, more sordid, side the the Bt-cotton story.

The regulatory landscape surrounding Bt cotton in India is woefully inadequate.

Because Bt cotton plants have to be pollinated artificially and the task can only be undertaken by a very short person, children are being brought in to work in the cotton fields. Concerned NGOs estimate that 60,000 workers as young as 8-years are taken out of primary school to work 10-12 hours a day for 40 days in a very unsafe environment. The state government calls these allegations “baseless, false, fictional and non-factual”, but the reality is that the only violation of Indian law in the Bt cotton fields is probably that the children are exceeding their legal maximum working-hours of 5 per day. Without this ultra-cheap labour source, the exploitation of children, and the exploitation of the poor families who disrupt their children's education by sending them to the cotton fields, Gujarat's Bt-cotton farmers would not be banking a profit.

Farmers in the Vidarbha region can claim compensation for crops drowned by excess rainfall. This should protect Bt-cotton farmers, but the reality is that rainfall (and therefore the payments) is measured by a hydrometer located at the local authority offices and may have little relevance to what farmers are experiencing in the field. In some places farmers in 2011 are still awaiting compensation for losses incurred during 2005-2006. Their perception is that payments are only reaching farmers in villages with the right political contacts.

Sadly, Vidarbha has featured repeatedly in GM-alert circles because its high farmer suicide levels: victims of the many unforeseen circumstances surrounding Bt-cotton crops.


There was no reason for any of these Bt-cotton crop 'circumstances' to have been unforeseen: the truth of industry hype, the Bt-protein levels achieved in the field, and the necessary characteristics for a crop in a given region can all be measured by science. Labour needs, and the regulations needed to protect farmers and labourers can all be identified by good agricultural and socio-economic risk-assessments.

That 'cheap' cotton T-shirt you're wearing might exist only because of some unforeseen and very heavy costs borne by the farming community in India.

  • Jacob P. Koshy, Pesticides, soil, all count in GM crops' effectiveness, finds study, The Wall Street Journal, 27.09.11
  • Rajiv Shah, Bt cotton fostering illegal child labour? Times of India, 2.09.11
  • Yogesh Pawar, Bt cotton crops washed away by 0.00mm rainfall, Daily News and Analysis, 25.09.11
  • D. Blaise and K. R. Kranthi, 2011, Cry1Ac expression in transgenic Bt cotton hybrids is influenced by soil moisture and depth, Current Science 101:6

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