GM Bt seeds “have proved defenceless against pests and weather change, leading to devastating losses”

EXCERPT: Bt cotton had promised higher yield, low fertiliser use and tolerance to pests, but 15 years on, it has failed on all counts. As pests develop resistance, farmers are forced to increase pesticide use.

Fly in the face of Bt cotton

Saurabh Yadav
The Hindu Business Line, 6 May 2016

* India grows 95 per cent of its cotton from genetically modified hybrid seeds, which have proved defenceless against pests and weather change, leading to devastating losses

Cotton has been cultivated for over 5,000 years in India and traded for nearly as long. Today, more than 95 per cent of the cotton grown in the country comes from a foreign stock — the genetically modified (GM) hybrids of Bt cotton, which have proved defenceless against weather change and insect attacks year after year. Spurious insecticides have added to the cultivator’s woes.

Crop failures in the cotton-growing belt had, at the beginning of the year, provoked the Union government to set price controls on Bt cotton seeds. This saw shares of Monsanto, which sells patented GM cotton seeds, lose more than 20 per cent of their value. The company threatened to leave India if prices were capped, and Minister of State for Agriculture Sanjiv Balyan was quoted as saying it was free to go.

India boasts one-fourth of the total cotton-growing area worldwide but its yield per hectare has remained 470-550kg for over a decade, way below the world average of 786. China, growing cotton in half the area that India does, is the world’s top producer. Indian growers have been the worst hit by changing weather and pests — they lost half their crop, while growers elsewhere lost only a quarter, according to a 2009 research paper by IIM-Ahmedabad.

Experts blame the loss on a faulty decision to grow the wrong type of cotton, that too at the wrong time. “India is cultivating a longer maturing variety (more than 180 days’ duration), and this gives insects that turn up in November a chance to attack the crop,” says KR Kranthi, director, Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR). “Across the globe people got rid of bollworm by cultivating shorter-duration varieties, while India moved to hybrid varieties of 180-240 days, giving insects an even longer window to attack the plants.” The hybrids that were cleared for cultivation in India were not suited for the long term. CICR had issued warnings in the past, but these were ignored. “Fortunately, the bollworm and the whitefly have helped us out,” says Kranthi, with no trace of irony.

Timeline of loss

In 2014, after the Bt cotton crop failed in over 56,000 hectares in seven districts of Karnataka, the state government blacklisted Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Private Limited), in which Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake. Ground visits by government agencies and Mahyco representatives pegged the loss at 235 cr [rupees]. Mahyco offered the farmers a token compensation of 10 crore [rupees], which the state government rejected and instead gave 35 crore [rupees] to the farmers on its own.

“The people of India have paid 270 crore [rupees] and the company profited,” says Mohini Mohan Mishra, secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS).

In 2015, whitefly attacked and destroyed nearly two-thirds of the cotton crop in Punjab and Haryana even after the farmers sprayed pesticides repeatedly. “Four years ago it was the mealy bug, last year it was the whitefly which attacked,” says Mishra.

Seeds of worry

Within a decade, input costs have increased threefold as seeds become more expensive and farmers have had to use more fertilisers to increase yield while also spraying pesticides. In 2012, farmers spent ₹63,751 per hectare, compared to less than ₹30,000 in 2007, as the figures compiled by the Cotton Advisory Board of India show. An increase in the international price of cotton is the reason farmers are still able to make some profit and continue growing the crop.

Seed prices make up a significant part of the input costs, as GM seeds are more expensive and cannot be reused — farmers buy them from seed companies every year. For the first time, this year, a Central government committee capped seed prices at 635 [rupees] (450 g packet) for the BG-1 hybrid and 800 [rupees] for the BG-2 hybrid. “The price of seeds has risen uncontrollably; companies are selling at their will and crops are failing,” says Mishra.

Input-output mismatch

The country’s cotton production has been falling yearly, even as pesticide use has increased to the levels seen before Bt cotton was introduced. While it’s true that pesticide use shrank initially, in the last three years, however, farmers have used 1 kg/hectare as they scrambled to contain the bollworm and whitefly. It is estimated that over 50 per cent of the pesticides used in the country ends up being sprayed on cotton crops.

As for fertilisers, hybrids have always required more. “The volume of fertiliser use has increased; we are now using 1 kg/ hectare compared to .9 kg/hectare before 2002,” says Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor at ASHA Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. “Chemical fertiliser use has increased threefold in the last five years, and this will burden public finances as our fertilisers are subsidised,” she adds.

Bt cotton had promised higher yield, low fertiliser use and tolerance to pests, but 15 years on, it has failed on all counts. As pests develop resistance, farmers are forced to increase pesticide use.

Planting change

Agri activists point out that there is still time to turn the clock back and shift from Bt cotton to better-suited, diverse varieties. “If the government wants, it can give the seeds to farmers. We have 65 agricultural universities, 642 Krishi Vigyan Kendras and hundreds of other institutions which can contribute and give farmers the traditional varieties of seeds within a year,” says Mishra.

Cotton plants in India are grown at some of the lowest densities per acre worldwide, and hybrid plants require more fertiliser to flourish. Each cotton plant is under pressure to produce at least 100 bolls (fluffy cotton fruit), while the global average is seven bolls — this means the plants need a longer time to mature and grow bushy. The timing of the planting is important to ensure the plant is mature enough to deal with pests.

The CICR has developed 10 new hybrid varieties that mature faster and are also more suitable for cultivation in rain-fed areas. “If we plant cotton more densely, at 40,000 plants per acre, sow early and use varieties that mature faster, it is a much better combination to tackle the problems faced by cotton growers in the last few years,” explains Kranthi.

With the right kind of aid, the country’s cotton growers can once again capture the stature of top global producer.