Is Bt cotton a success? Government’s GM mustard move reignites 20-year-old debate

According to provisional estimates provided by the Cotton Corporation of India, 340.62 lakh (34 million) bales of cotton were produced in 2021-2022 (File image of a cotton field)

According to provisional estimates provided by the Cotton Corporation of India, 340.62 lakh (34 million) bales of cotton were produced in 2021-2022 (File image of a cotton field)

As the government introduces genetically modified (GM) mustard in the country, debate still rages on a similarly modified variety of cotton introduced 20 years back.

In 2002, Bt cotton from Monsanto was introduced in India and now forms 90 percent of the total cotton crop area in the country. During this period, India has gone to become one of the top producers and exporters of cotton in the world from being an importer.

While the government is looking to achieve a similar feat with mustard, agriculture experts claim that farmer distress has increased after the introduction of Bt cotton due to stagnating yields and a rise in costs because of the higher use of pesticides and fertilisers.

“Bt cotton has not done much to the yield for sure and especially in the rain fed areas,” says Anantha Sayanan, founder of Tula, a Chennai-based non-profit that works with cotton farmers. “Yes the area under Bt has surely increased due to many reasons such as the use of agriculture extension arms for marketing, making only the Bt seeds available, shutting the effective breeding or saving of traditional seeds,” Sayanan said.

The cotton trajectory

In the first five years from 2002-03, there was a consistent rise in the yield, which more or less stagnated or even fell after that.

The yield per hectare yield in 2002-03 was 191 kg, which rose to 467 kg in 2007-08. After that, the yield fluctuated – rising to 511 in 2026-17 and then falling to 436 per kg in 2019-20, according to the Directorate of Economics and Statistics (DES). The area under Bt cotton has been mostly rising consistently year-on-year (YoY).

In FY2002-03, the total area under cotton was 86.24 lakh (8.62 million) hectares, of which the Bt variety accounted for only 0.29 lakh (0.029 million) hectares, or 0.33 percent, according to DES data released in the Lok Sabha in 2020.

Ten years later, in 2012-13, the total area covered by cotton went up to 119.77 lakh (11.9 million) hectares, of which Bt cotton’s share was 105.43 lakh (10.5 million) hectares) or roughly 88 percent.

In 2019-20, cotton coverage was 125.84 lakh (12.5 million) hectares and that of Bt was 117.47 lakh (11.7 million) hectares – or 93 percent.

Production of cotton in 2002-03 was 86.21 lakh (8.6 million) bales, according to the same data set. One bale contains roughly 170 kg of cotton. In 2019-20, 322.67 lakh (32.26 million) bales of cotton were produced.

According to provisional estimates provided by the Cotton Corporation of India, 340.62 lakh (34 million) bales of cotton were produced in 2021-2022.

India is now one of the top producers and exporters of cotton. In 2020-2021, India exported 77.59 lakh (7.75 million) bales of cotton worth Rs 17,753.83 crore, cotton corporation data quoting Committee on Cotton Production and Consumption estimates said. Bangladesh, China and Vietnam are among the top importers of Indian cotton.

Beyond the numbers

Despite the rise in production, activists and experts remain sceptical.

Suman Sahai, founder and chairperson of research and advocacy organisation Gene Campaign, seconded Sayanan, saying “It’s well understood that Bt cotton acreage has increased rather than yield, leading to higher production.”

A Parliamentary standing committee report submitted in 2017 said, “India’s cotton yields increased by 69 percent in the five years (2000-2005) when Bt cotton was less than 6 percent of the total cotton area, but by only 10 percent in the 10 years from 2005 to 2015 when Bt cotton grew to 94 percent of the total cotton area.”

The panel went on to say that the government agencies had made attempts to “portray a rosy picture with regard to the success of Bt cotton, which actually is not the case.”

Fertiliser and pesticide use rises

Others said the rise in production was not because of Bt cotton alone but also due to other factors such as increased irrigation, the rampant use of fertilisers, which can have a detrimental effect on soil, groundwater and ecology, as well as seed treatment chemicals. Cotton is a water-guzzling crop.

According to agriculture ministry data compiled by the Cotton Association in its weekly publication in 2016, fertiliser use per hectare rose from 96 kg per hectare in 2002 to 223 kg in 2013.

The rise in cotton yield in India can be attributed to an improvement in irrigation and a steep increase in the use of fertilisers, says Sujatha Byravan, a scientist who works on climate change and agroecology.

Devinder Sharma, a trade and agriculture expert, points to a 2020 study in Nature by Keshav R Kranthi, former head of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, who spoke about an increase in the use of fertilisers, better irrigation infrastructure and pesticides.

“We find that the technology’s benefits have been modest and largely ephemeral. Bt’s adoption has been conspicuously incongruous with positive yield effects. Changes in other inputs, including irrigation, insecticides and especially fertiliser use, correspond better to yield rises,” Kranthi said in the study.

Pest attack continues

The Bt variety was sold as a solution for falling yields and rising pesticide expenses. It was touted to protect the plant from the bollworm, a moth larva that attacks the fruiting bodies of certain crops, especially cotton, and reduce the usage of insecticides.

Over the years, however, Bt cotton’s ability to fight pests dwindled, leading to a dependence on hazardous pesticides.

The pest resistance of Bt cotton collapsed in a few years as the bollworm developed resistance and secondary pests such as pink bollworm emerged, both Sahai and Sayanan said.

Sharma said Bt cotton should have been withdrawn after its resistance against the pink bollworm failed. “In Punjab, a secondary pest attack destroyed 70 percent of the crop in 2015, leading to protests.” Reports of pest attacks came in from Punjab in 2021 and 2022 as well as other parts of India.

As per the Cotton Association report, pesticide use in 2002 was 0.88 kg per hectare, which rose to 0.97 per hectare in 2013.

The Nature report by Kranthi also says, “…countrywide yields have not improved in 13 years, and Indian cotton farmers today are spending more per hectare on insecticide than they did before Bt began to spread.”

Farmers in distress

The rising costs of fertilisers, pesticides and seeds added to the distress of farmers. In 2021, an average of Rs 1,621 was spent by a cotton farmer per hectare, which rose to Rs 8,246 in 2013.

“As we know, more than 70 percent of the farm suicides in India happen in cotton belts and the Bt cotton hasn’t altered that a bit nor has it helped farmers escape debts,” Sayanan said. “Year-on-year, the input costs and pests have increased. Farmers are forced to buy seeds, fertilisers and pesticides and the vulgar profits keep soaring.”

Seconding Sayanan, Sahai said, “When cash crops like Bt cotton fail, the financial losses are heavy and the increased debt burden can drive the farmers to take such extreme steps.”

According to Sharma, in 2002, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) was hasty in clearing the Bt cotton and should have done more research before okaying it for cultivation. He said he had raised objections during a public hearing in 2001 before Bt cotton was released and demanded at least three more years of research but it was released a year later.

The GEAC had given the go-ahead for the crop after a positive report from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) on field trials.

“I was recently in Kurnool, where farmers complained against Bt cotton. They say only the Bt variety is being pushed and no other alternatives are available. In Punjab, 80 percent cotton is Bt and only that variety was attacked,” Sharma said.

Others say the traditional varieties of cotton need to be explored more as they resist many pests, and don’t present the problems faced by hybrids.

Sayanan said the ‘desi’ seeds are less prone to pests and are drought-resistant too, and they don’t displace food. “Since these are never mono-cropped and grown with mixed crops, there is more food. Typically, in an acre, only one-third will be cotton and the rest will be multiple crops, adding to self-reliance,” Sayanan said.

In defence

Defending Bt cotton, YG Prasad, director of ICAR-Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, said it is not a yield-enhancing technology but a yield-saving one. On the pest attacks, Prasad said the efficacy loss is against pink bollworm but Bt is still effective against a major cotton bollworm, helicoverpa, and another spotted bollworm.

“As long as it is effective against major bollworms, it is a successful technology for the purpose it was developed. Yield performance is the cumulative effect of several other factors, including genetic and agronomic traits, interaction with the environment and the level of crop management,” Prasad said.

Prasad attributed the rising pesticide usage to an increase in sprays against insect varieties such as jassids, thrips & whiteflies and boll rot, which Bt cannot control.

Ram Kaundinya, director general of the Federation of Seed Industry of India, said inadequate investments in seed research due to price control have resulted in a lack of development of high-quality cotton seed varieties in the last 10 years.

“Backed by the performance of Bt cotton technology, India tripled cotton production from 2002 to 2013 but output dropped to 32 million bales last year. For the last five years, the cotton yields stagnated and started decelerating lately,” Kaundinya said.

Yield losses due to pink bollworm, boll rot and sucking pests, coupled with expensive weed management, have become a nightmare for cotton farmers, Kaundinya said, adding no new biotech traits have been approved for commercialisation since 2005, resulting in inefficiencies in pest control and a drop in yield.

GM mustard debate

So what about GM mustard?

The government recently ordered the environmental release of the GM mustard—the Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) — paving the way for the commercial release of the crop, triggering a debate among agricultural experts and farmer activists over its efficacy.

The government says GM mustard would increase productivity and reduce dependence on edible oil imports but not everyone is convinced.

Sayanan said there is no sense in rushing GM mustard when so many people have pointed out faults. The move, he said, will open the floodgates for other genetically modified organisms “coming to our farms and food.

Sahai said GM mustard’s safety has been questioned and the data have not been released to the public. “The higher yield claim is not supported by fact.”

Honey producers, Sahai said, are up in arms at the prospect of losing the honey export market due to contamination with GM mustard. The mustard crop is important to honey bees as a lot of nectar and pollen are available on the flowers.

Farmers in Punjab say if the herbicide-tolerant GM mustard is allowed, it will lead to the increased use of chemicals and render the leaves unfit for consumption.

The release of GM mustard for commercial cultivation is set for four years after the date of approval.