Non-GM cotton to the rescue

June 2019

GM cotton in India has probably been the biotech industry No.1 success story.

When the Indian government liberalised the economy in the 1990s, it pulled back agricultural subsidies on fertilisers, pesticides, water and seeds. Shops which had previously stocked a limited range of public agricultural goods were suddenly flooded with new, private brands.One of these was 'Bt' insecticidal GM cotton seed which was allowed into India for cultivation in 2003, followed by an upgraded version in 2006.

Both the yield per hectare and the area under cotton expanded dramatically, and there was a reduction in insecticide use ... for a while.  From an initial three types of seed on the market, by 2019, there were more than 1,200.

India became one of the world's top producers and exporters of cotton fibre, and Monsanto's GM cotton seed technology now dominates 90% of India's cotton acreage.

That's the macro-economic picture.  It suggests Bt cotton is a runaway success with Indian farmers and is delivering a good yield.

However, as Andrew Flachs, a US systems ecologist and cotton analyst, points out, it's what's happening down on the farm that matters: "if farmers are doing well, that national (level) statistic takes care of itself".

Down in the farm, the reality is that cotton yields are stagnant and there's an increasing need for pesticidal sprays.  Yet, Indian cotton farmers remain steadfastly on the biotech treadmill.

Bt cotton was adopted by India to protect against the native pest, pink bollworm, later joined by American bollworm.  It's a funny thing about cotton, the more you spray, the greater the outbreaks of pests; this phenomenon has occurred world-wide.  The Bt-induced loss of bollworm simply left a gap for previously secondary pests, such as whitefly, mealybugs and jassids, to occupy.  Farmers inevitably found themselves spending money to lose money.

"Unquestioned in this story is why yields would plateau when almost all farmers plant GM cotton, why hybrids are water intensive when so many farmers lack irrigation, why the hybrid seeds are exclusively (a single) species so vulnerable to nontarget pests that total insecticide use has now surpassed pre-GM levels (Kranthi 2014), or what farmers will do now that some bollworms show resistance to the insectidal genes (Aryai 2016).  Also unquestioned is why the world needs so much cotton; the planet produces far more cotton than could be spun into clothing, a glut that has lasted several years (Patwordhan 2015; USDA Foreign Agricultural Service 2016)" (Flachs).

Given all these questions, why do Indian farmers remain so devoted to biotech cotton?

A study in one major cotton-producing state in South India came up with some unexpected answers.

Indian farmers aren't planting one favoured cotton seed they've found gives them a good yield.  Rather, they all plant one brand of seed en masse, shifting the following year to another brand en masse.  The yields of the six most popular cotton seeds are actually all within the normal range for cotton as a whole.

It seems the popularity of GM cotton is "entirely a social decision".  Faced with a bewildering array of seeds, and no information to help in their choice except the marketing hype in flashy advertisements, farmers choose to plant what their peers are planting to prove they're good, modern farmers, "A robust cotton field is a public stage visible to friends, rivals, family, and other passers-by ...and a healthy field ... stands as public proof of one's good agricultural decisions."

Industry has been cynical in capturing Indian farmers with aggressive marketing of high-priced, manually pollinated Bt cotton hybrids, which can be planted for one season only, and are uniquely produced in India.

"Small and subsistence farmers of India have paid a huge price on the gallows of current hybrid Bt cotton" (Andrew Paul Gutierrez).

Or, put simply, Bt crops are inappropriate for India.  So, is there an alternative?

In 2018, two non-GM cotton varieties developed by the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) became available, with six more in the pipeline.  These seeds are insect-resistant and high yielding, with quality fibre, minimum cultivation- and pesticide-costs, and good water use efficiency.

The best thing the Indian government could do to help its small-holders is to reduce the bewildering influx of new seed each season, improve the road and irrigation systems, and support the CICR which is struggling for lack of manpower and facilities.


The good news here is that the Indian government may be beginning to notice something wrong with the biotech seed it's allowed on the market because in the last four years, it's cut the royalties companies have to pay to Bayer/Monsanto three times.  It has also raised the price of GM seed.  Will reducing industry profits while pricing its seeds out of the market be enough to make alternative, practical, non-GM, CICR cotton seed 'fashionable' to Indian farmers?

·         Andrew Flachs, 2019, Planting and Performing: Anxiety, Aspiration, and "Scripts" in Telangana Cotton Farming, American Anthropologist 121:1
·         Faced with choice overload, Indian farmers say, 'I'll have what he's having',, 25.02.19
·          Anrew Paul Gutierrez, Problems in Indian cotton need ecological understanding, not biotechnology,, 9.04.19
·         Uma Shakar Kar, Insect-resistant cotton varieties to rescue of ryots, The New Indian Express, 4.08.18
·         In fresh blow to Monsanto, India cuts GM cotton seed royalty, GM Watch 11.03.19

Photo: S Aziz123 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

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