What Is Wrong With Bt Cotton?


By Suman Sahai



Bt Cotton is based on a technology that will work with reasonable success in many countries but it will not work in India. Its irrelevance to our small farmers is the crux of the resistance to its introduction here. Another reason why many have opposed Bt cotton (not GM technology) is the fact that it belongs to Monsanto. Monsanto has a record of prosecuting farmers for technology infringement and harassing them with lawsuits. Using their technology will have implications in the field of Intellectual Property Rights because their policies are in conflict with Indian law.


Bt cotton was developed for cold temperate countries like the US where pests are limited - chiefly the bollworm, against which the Bt toxin works and pest load in fields is not high. There land holdings are large, and subsidies are so huge that the risk taking capacity of farmers is substantial. Bt cotton is unlikely to work for more than a few years in India because it is fundamentally at odds with the agricultural and climatic conditions here. Insects are likely to develop resistance quite fast, making the variety useless in a few years. For the Bt technology to be successful, Monsanto stipulates that the farmer has to set aside about 20 % of his acreage for non-Bt cotton. This is essential so that the bollworm can feed partly on non poisonous ,normal cotton and remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. Otherwise , like the mosquitoes developed resistance to DDT , the bollworm will quickly become resistant to Bt toxin and the crop will fail.


In the US with 10,000 to 30,000 acre holdings, wasting 20 % of the acreage, even more if needed, is not an issue. Pesticide sprayings are reduced because there is only one main pest , the bollworm and that is targeted by Bt toxin. Should even then everything go wrong, the 1 billion dollar a day agriculture subsidy of the OECD countries is more than adequate to bail out the American farmer so that he is not in any danger of contemplating any extreme steps like his abandoned Indian brethren.


In India, with its small land holdings, the economics of Bt cotton cannot work after setting aside 20% as an insect refuge. There are many kinds of cotton pests in India apart from the bollworm. The use of pesticides will have to continue because spraying will be needed to kill these other pests. Pesticide use will also continue because as in all tropical countries, pest attack is far more intense and the number of  insects per acre will be far higher than in colder countries. It is unlikely the Bt strategy alone will be effective in controlling the intense pest attacks common in the tropics. Monsanto fully aware of this, recommends that farmers should count the number of insects in their fields and if these exceed a certain number, pesticide sprayings should be done.


So what is the final take on Bt cotton for India? As the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) stated in its approval  'with conditions', Bt cotton is not recommended for small farmers. But wasn't the rhetoric of the scientific- administrative establishment these past few years replete with arguments that Bt cotton was crucially needed to provide a good cotton variety to small farmers to stop the tragedy of cotton suicides. When critics asked why we should not use Indian technology rather than Monsanto's, the powers replied that the small farmers were in urgent need of help and we could not wait for the Indian technology.


Now that the GEAC has had to admit what everyone knew from the start, that this Bt technology will not help the small farmers, the public needs to know who is responsible for pushing Monsanto's technology in this way. Which lobby is railroading India's GM policy ? There are many other questions. Given the record of pesticide abuse because of  the failure to educate farmers, is it realistic to expect that the complex system of refuges will be implemented even by larger farmers ?


The cotton problem in India has several causes. Mixtures of  varieties are being sold to farmers in the name of standardized seed, resulting in uneven crops and low yields.  Spurious and adulterated pesticides that failed to control the pests  landed the farmer in deepening debt. There are problems with grading and pricing and ad hoc government policy when sudden imports can reduce the value of cotton crops.  The problems facing cotton farmers have to be dealt at various levels if there is a genuine desire to solve them. With the introduction of Bt cotton, the government has sought to make Monsanto happy, not the cotton farmers in trouble.



Suman Sahai is a geneticist and Convenor of the NGO Gene Campaign