Government report reveals desperation of Indian cotton farmers

September 2012

Picture of a farmer manually weeding a cotton field in South India
Farmer manually weeding a cotton field in Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh, South India.
Picture by jankie on Flickr
Close on the heels of the publication of a German study which concluded that “Bt cotton has created large and sustainable benefits, which contribute to positive economic and social development in India” (see ANOTHER Bt SUCCESS STORY - September 2012) comes a government report which reached a very different conclusion.

The German study showed that, from 2002 when Bt cotton was introduced to 2008, "Bt has caused a 24% increase in cotton yield per acre through reduced pest damage and a 50% gain in cotton profit among smallholders"*. It was further showed that “Bt cotton adoption has raised consumption expenditures, a common measure of household living standard, by 18% during the 2006-2008 period”.
*As previously noted, the 'smallholders' in this study seem to have owned considerably more land than is usually considered 'small'.

The government report on the “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops - Prospects and Effects” was drawn up by the all-party Standing Committee on Agriculture. It was based on an examination of 18,000 documents, 1,000 memoranda and 56 witnesses, 100 farmers' widows, farmers in each state, and stakeholders, including Monsanto. It also followed from meetings with people in two villages who were determined to be heard.

The conclusions of the Committee were unanimous, with “not a single amendment or dissent” (Chairman Basudeb Acharia). In light of the problems recorded “the government must not allow field trials of GM crops till there is a strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system in place”. Clearly, the cosy extra crops yield, extra profit and extra cash flow suggested by the Germans didn't grab the Committee's attention.

The story surrounding the meeting with villagers in the compilation of this government report is interesting.

Responding to pleas from the Vidarbha region cotton farmers' advocacy group, VJAS, the Committee scheduled a visit to two villages in the state of Maharashtra. Maharashtra remains the worst single State for farm suicides for over a decade, with over 3,000 per annum in recent years. In the “dying fields of Vidarbha” region, more than 9,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide. One of the villages the Committee was asked to visit had been featured in Times of India as Monsanto's model Bt cotton village.

On the day of the visit, the Committee was reportedly side-lined by the Maharashtra government into alternative visits to “progressive farmers” (“bigger farmers with irrigated land”) and “input dealers and traders” (i.e. vendors of seeds fertilizers, pesticides etc).

However, when farmer activists discovered the diversion, they used their press contact to get a message to the Committee Chair. The Chair immediately insisted on reverting to the original plan and the entire Parliamentary Committee set off for the nearest village. Once it was realised that both villages could not be visited in the time remaining, the Committee split into two and half went to hear representations in each village.

The Committee met a 'sea of desperation' in the villages: widows whose husbands had committed suicide after Bt seed led them to bankruptcy and whose suicides were denied by the authorities; crippling Bt seed prices, which at their worst (before the government moved to control them) were up to six times that of the old conventional seed, and even now cost twice as much or more if an artificial scarcity is created; additional costs for special fertilizers; the impossibility of Bt crop success without irrigation, and water pumps (given as part of relief measures to reduce farmer distress) lying rotting for years because no electricity connections have been put in place.

It also emerged that the photographs which appeared in Times of India showing happy 'villagers' in Monsanto's model village were actually a few prosperous farmers who had been taken to a lush green irrigated farm belonging to a distributor.

While the GM propaganda cogs continue to turn in industry, in government, and (sadly) in science, a more rational initiative is already underway in India. The Central Institute for Cotton research (CICR) has put together a package to provide farmers with its best varieties of traditional Desi cotton species and other superior staple varieties, along with an old but discarded technique of cultivation in which plants are packed tightly together in rows.


Bt cotton seems paradoxically to be leading farmers in India back to their traditional crops and crop management methods.

Interestingly, the CICR is still developing multi-gene “super Bt cotton” dwarf varieties of cotton. Will Indian farmers buy it? Experiences so far should give them a healthy scepticism of future GM miracles crops.

  • Genetically modified crops no panacea for food security, interview with Basudeb Acharia, The Hindu, 21.08.12
  • Genetically Modified truths and an Outstanding Quest,, 20.08.12
  • Latha Jishnu, Desi cotton to the rescue, Down To Earth, 15.07.12
  • P. Sainath, Farm suicides rise in Maharashtra, State still leads the list, The Hindu, 3.07.12
  • German study on Bt cotton benefits in India is untrue and misleading - VJAS, Vidarbha Times, 3.07.12
  • German study on Bt cotton benefits in India is untrue and misleading - VJAS, Vidarbha Time, 3.07.12
  • P. Sainaith, Farm suicides rise in Maharashtra, State still leads the list, The Hindu, 3.07.12

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