Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] The twisted track of Bt cotton in India

India is expected to be the world’s largest cotton producer, surpassing China, but with increasing pressure to buy hybrid seeds, the indigenous varieties have lost out over the years.
By IASToppers
September 11, 2020

Content:

  • Introduction
  • What is BT Cotton?
  • Background of BT Cotton in India
  • Issues related to BT Cotton
  • Compact varieties Vs hybrids
  • Challenges
  • Suggestions
  • Conclusion

The twisted track of Bt cotton in India

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Introduction:

Indian cotton dominated the world trade for period of thousand years and were exported to many places. Cotton fabric from around 3,000 BCE has been excavated from the Mohenjo-daro. Much of the cotton cultivated until the 20th century was of the indigenous ‘desi’ variety. From the 1990s, hybrid varieties were promoted. These hybrids cannot resist a variety of local pests and require more fertilizers and pesticides.

What is BT Cotton?

  • BT cotton is an insect-resistant transgenic crop designed to combat the attack of Cotton bollworm insect (also known as Heliothis bollworm or pink ballworm).
  • It involves insertion of two genes – ‘Cry1Ab’ and ‘Cry2Bc’ from the soil bacterium ‘Bacillus thuringiensis’ into cotton seeds.
  • BT cotton remains the only GM crop allowed to be cultivated in India.

Background of BT Cotton in India:

  • The increasing use of synthetic group of man-made pesticides to control pests and the rising acreage under the American long-duration cotton led to the emergence of resistant pests.
  • Resistant Pink and even American Bollworm (ABW), began increasing, leading to a growing use of a variety of pesticides.
  • Rising debts and reducing yields, coupled with increasing insect resistance, worsened the plight of cotton farmers. It was in this setting that Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002.
  • This pesticide, now produced in each Bt plant cell, ought to protect the plant from bollworm, thereby increasing yields and reducing insecticide spraying on the cotton plant.
  • According to the Ministry of Agriculture, from 2005, adoption of Bt cotton rose to 81% in 2007, and up to 93% in 2011.
  • Many short-duration studies examining Bt cotton, in the early years, pronounced that Bt was a solution for dwindling yields and pesticide expenses.
  • The two-decade mark now provides an opportunity to review GM cotton in India more comprehensively.

Issues related to BT Cotton:

  • Cotton suffers from plenty of infestation from moth pests (Lepidopteran) such as the Pink Bollworm (PBW) and sap-sucking (Hemipteran) pests such as aphids and mealy bugs.
  • BT Cotton require more inputs, including fertilizer and water. Though hybrid cotton seed production is expensive, requiring manual crossing.
  • In India, there are discrepancies between yield and the deployment of Bt cotton. For instance, the Bt acreage was only 3.4% of the total cotton area in 2003, not sufficient to credit it for the 61% increase in yield in 2003-2004.
  • Furthermore, with only 15.7% Bt cotton coverage by 2005, yield increases were over 90% over 2002 levels.
  • While Bt cotton adoption corresponded to a drop in spraying for bollworms, the study states, “countrywide yields stagnated after 2007 even as more farmers began to grow Bt. By 2018, yields were lower than in the years of rapid Bt adoption.”
  • In Maharashtra, yields climbed in the decade after 2000, with no change in the rate of increase when Bt cotton was introduced.
  • In Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well, there is no correlation between the adoption of the variety and increase in yields. Similar findings are seen in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, where yield increase is incongruous with the spread of Bt cotton.
  • With rising acreage under Bt cotton cultivation, expenditures for spraying for sucking pests also went up.
  • Cotton is a dryland crop and 65% of area under cotton in India is rain-fed. Farmers with insufficient access to groundwater in these areas are entirely dependent on rain.

Compact varieties Vs hybrids:

  • For over three decades, most countries have been growing cotton varieties that are compact and short duration. These varieties are planted at high density, whereas hybrids in India are bushy, long duration and planted at lower density.
  • The lower boll production by compact varieties compared to hybrids is more than compensated by the greater planting density.
  • The advantages of compact varieties over hybrids are considerable: more than twice the productivity, half the fertilizer, reduced water requirement, and less vulnerability to damage from insect pests due to a shorter field duration.
  • Yet, India has persisted with long-duration hybrids, many years after benefits of compact varieties became clear from global experience.

Challenges:

  • It is tough to isolate one particular aspect of a technology and evaluate it properly. A technology that works in the lab may fail in fields since real-world success hinges on multiple factors, such as different kinds of pests and local soil and irrigation conditions.
  • The benefits of Bt cotton have been modest and short-lived. Changes to the agricultural systems correlate better with positive yields, and countrywide yields have not improved in thirteen years.
  • The Indian cotton farmer is left with little choice but to use Bt hybrid seed produced by private seed companies.
  • Bt cotton hybrids have negatively impacted livelihoods and contributed to agrarian distress, particularly among resource-poor farmers.
  • India’s productivity (yield per unit area), is much lower than other major cotton-producing countries, meaning a much larger area is used for cotton production. 
  • The cost of ignoring desi varieties for decades has been high for India. These varieties resist many pests and don’t present the problems faced with hybrids.
  • Agricultural distress is extremely high among cotton farmers and the combination of high input and high risk has likely been a contributing factor.

Suggestions:

  • India must be clear that the outcome of using Bt is determined by the context in which it is deployed, and not just by the technology itself
  • There is a need for better consultation in policy, be it agriculture as a whole or crop-wise. India is a signatory to international treaties on GMO regulation (Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety), which specifically provide for inclusion of socioeconomic considerations in GMO risk assessment.
  • With pure-line cotton varieties, high density planting, and short season plants, cotton yields in India can be good and stand a better chance at withstanding the vagaries of climate change.
  • It is important to recognise that adoption of any new technology such as Bt is a choice and not an imperative.

Conclusion:

It is time to pay attention to science and acknowledge that Bt cotton has failed in India, and not enter into further misadventures with other Bt crops. There is an urgent need of the government backing for resources, infrastructure and seeds is essential to scale up ‘desi’ varieties.

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