A report explores the astronomical rise and catastrophic fall of GM cotton in India – the world’s largest producer and second biggest exporter of cotton
The tragedy of the collapse of GM Bt cotton in India is that it has taken the lives of so many farmers – first, through the suicides of farmers whose crops failed and who got into debt to pay for expensive GM seeds and chemical inputs; and second, through the poisoning of farmers who had to spray toxic pesticides to try to control pests that were eating their crop.
Below are details of two reports that document this sorry tale of corporate deception. Both reports give a clear direction for the future of cotton production, backed up by real-farm experience: non-GM, organic, and Integrated Pest Management.
The fall of GM cotton in India
Third World Network, 23 Nov 2017
Genetically modified (GM) cotton was first introduced to India in 2002 by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd., which is a joint venture between Mahyco Seeds and Monsanto India. The company sub-licences the GM technology to 49 Indian seed firms. Backed by an aggressive advertising campaign, Bt cotton became the dominant force in Indian cotton production. About 90% of the India’s cotton area of 11.8 million hectares is GM.
A recent report explores the astronomical rise and catastrophic fall of GM cotton in India - the world’s largest producer and second biggest exporter of cotton (Item 1). GM (Bt) cotton was genetically engineered to be resistant to the pink bollworm. But secondary pests abounded, and four years after Monsanto released its first-generation GM cotton, the pink bollworm had become resistant to it in Western India. Monsanto then released a more expensive, second generation Bt cotton, but within a few years, the pink bollworm had developed resistance to it too. All this led to increased insecticide use. In 2014, the Cotton Advisory Board of India found a threefold increase in the cost of growing cotton, due to the high price of Bt seeds, and other input costs such as fertilisers and the pesticides needed to deal with the serious pest problems.
Overall, the area planted with Monsanto’s seeds has declined by roughly 10 percent either because farmers have switched to desi (local strains of) cotton or have moved away from growing cotton altogether. Farmers report comparable yields of desi cotton, at nearly half the input costs compared to Bt cotton. India is the world’s largest producer of organic cotton.
Another report by PAN UK (Item 2), which investigates the current rate of pesticide use in cotton farming in six countries, confirms the above scenario. It reports that while insecticide use declined in some areas initially following the introduction of GM cotton varieties, it is on the rise again as farmers struggle to control secondary pests like aphids and whitefly. The report also finds that pesticide poisoning remains a serious problem in smallholder cotton farming. Noteworthy is that those countries which have been most successful at cutting pesticide use have been those who have embraced Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The report recommends making more use of tools like IPM and other agro-ecological approaches to control pests to replace pesticides.
FAILED PROMISES - THE RISE AND FALL OF GM COTTON IN INDIA
Soil Association, October 2017
* GM cotton fails and farmers die
In 2014, 80% of the cotton crop failed in the 150,000 acres of the Raichur district. Farmers incurred massive losses of over $4 million. The Cotton Advisory Board of India has found a threefold increase in the cost of growing cotton, due to the high price of Bt seeds, and other input costs such as fertilisers and the pesticides needed to deal with the serious pest problems.
Pro-GM advocates claim Bt cotton has increased yields, but most of the recent yield increases in India happened between 2002-5 when Bt comprised only 0.4-5.6% of India’s cotton. From 2008 to 2012 as Bt cotton production rose from 67% to 92%, yields steadily dropped.
A 2015 study led by a scientist from the University of California - Berkeley, found that annual suicide rates in rain-fed areas of India are directly related to increases in Bt cotton adoption. The study found that four of the seven factors that influence suicides are driven by the GM industry.
In the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra province, factors linked to the cultivation of Bt cotton are reported to have led to 7,992 farmer suicides between 2006 and 2011. The chairman of a mission working to stop farmer suicides said: ‘The downtrend started in 2006 when Bt cotton was introduced.… It led to massive economic losses, from which they [farmers] never came up. Subsequently, mounting debts and distress took their toll…Multinational companies showed them big dreams about crops like Bt cotton and ruined their lives completely’.
One of the ministers responsible for the introduction of Bt cotton into India, former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, recently expressed his regret for the decision: ‘In the 1990s, I introduced GM cotton in India. Twenty years later, I regret...I am responsible for suicide of thousands of cotton farmers’.
The beginning of the end for GM cotton?
By 2012 non-GM and organic farmers faced huge problems as supplies of non-GM, and particularly organic seed became scarcer. GM was then considered one of the biggest threats to the future of sustainable organic cotton in the country and elsewhere. All that has now changed – the 2016-17 cotton season saw a drop in Indian Bt cotton sales of about 15%.In Andhra Pradesh, the government planned to reduce Bt cotton cultivation in 2016-17 from 670,000 hectares to 450,000 hectares following the 2016 devastation by pink bollworm, in addition to suggesting alternative crops for farmers to cultivate such as millet and pulses. In Punjab and Haryana, the cotton growing area has declined by 27% as farmers move away from cotton following last season’s whitefly devastation. In Uttar Pradesh it has dropped by 19% for the same reasons.
Overall, the area planted with Monsanto’s seeds has declined by roughly 10 percent either because farmers have switched to desi (local strains of) cotton or have moved away from growing cotton altogether. As the Times of India reports, ‘At one time Bt seeds were available at a premium… Now traders are offering them at a discount’. Farmers report comparable yields of desi cotton, at nearly half the input costs compared to Bt cotton.
GM cotton and dancing girls
This report explores the astronomical rise and catastrophic fall of GM cotton in India - the world’s largest producer and second biggest exporter of cotton. Supporters of Genetically Modified (GM) crops claim they will solve a range of problems – feeding the world, eradicating poverty in developing countries, and increasing crop yields. In reality, the technology has consistently failed to deliver on these promises, and instead some of the poorest people in the world have paid a heavy price for the industry’s hype.
GM cotton was first introduced to India in 2002 by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd, backed by an aggressive advertising campaign involving everything from dancing girls to celebrity endorsement. The technology soon became the dominant force in Indian cotton production, and today, about 90% of India’s cotton area of 11.8 million hectares is GM.
The pink bollworm strikes back
GM (Bt) cotton was claimed to be resistant to the most common pest of cotton in India, the pink bollworm. Nature abhors a vacuum, and when one pest is eradicated another is likely to take its place. While the GM technology was successfully keeping pink bollworm numbers at bay, other insects stepped into the gap, and the crops were attacked by pests like whitefly, jassid and thrips, requiring additional pesticide applications. In Punjab in 2015, whitefly destroyed two-thirds of the cotton crop, causing an estimated loss of $629 million and leading to the suicide of 15 farmers.
In 2006, just four years after Monsanto released its first-generation GM cotton, the pink bollworm had become resistant to it in Western India. Monsanto then released a more expensive, second generation Bt cotton, but within a few years, the pink bollworm had developed resistance to it too. Rapid development of resistance occurs because Bt cotton plants are engineered to continuously release toxins, and this constant, long term exposure encourages the survival of any pests that are genetically resistant to the toxin. As a result, insecticide use has increased in recent years, from a reported 0.5 kg per hectare in 2006 up to 1.20 kg per hectare in 2015.
GM cotton – in a mess worldwide
GM cotton has caused problems world-wide. Between 2011 and 2016 Burkina Faso lost $82.4 million, and as a result, implemented a complete phase out of GM cotton for the 2017/18 season. Early indications suggest the phase out has been a success, with cotton output predicted to rise by 20% in the 2017/18 season. The introduction of GM into Nigeria was rejected by more than a hundred groups representing over 5 million Nigerians, on environmental and health grounds, and heeding the experiences of their near neighbour Burkina Faso. India’s neighbour Pakistan, where 86% of the cotton crop is GM, has also been badly hit by the cotton crisis, with a 27.8% decline in cotton production during 2015.
In the USA – Monsanto’s home territory – the cotton bollworm is leading an assault on Bt cotton across the cotton growing belt from the Carolinas to Texas. Due to increasing problems with pest resistance, Southern states are facing another year of large pest populations. In Texas, some bollworm populations are resistant to both the original Bt cotton and its replacement.
A non-GM and organic future
In India, organic cotton production is in a good position - before GM ran into difficulties organic cotton yields were just 14% lower than GM cotton, and the associated costs of organic were 38% lower, which puts organic at least on a par with conventional cotton in terms of profitability. India is the world’s largest producer of organic cotton – responsible for around 70% of organic cotton worldwide.
The organic market has been growing for several years and reached $15.7 billion in 2015. Brands across the world are adding organic cotton to their portfolio, and top companies already using organic cotton are expanding its share within their overall fibre purchasing. To allow farmers to continue to switch from the failing GM technology, consumers need to buy organic cotton products and ask their favourite brands and retailers to stock them, and brands need to include or increase organic cotton in their sourcing portfolio.
IS COTTON CONQUERING ITS CHEMICAL ADDICTION?
A review of pesticide use in global cotton production
Pesticide Action Network UK, 10th October 2017
A new report published today by PAN UK, with support from the C&A Foundation, investigates the current rate of pesticide use in cotton, and examines its trends and patterns of use.
Recent figures on pesticide use in cotton are out of date and inaccurate
Cotton supports around 100 million rural families across the globe. It provides employment and income, and is the mainstay of the economies of some of the poorest countries in the world. But cotton has its problems. It has been associated with everything from forced and child labour to pesticide poisoning of farmers and their families and environmental pollution. A number of high profile initiatives have been launched to tackle these problems and they are making inroads. Many of the most egregious practices harming human health and the environment have been – or are being – addressed. But it is a work in progress and data on the level of change is sketchy.
The debate on pesticide use in cotton in recent years has been severely distorted by the use of figures that are out of date and inaccurate. We take a detailed look at six countries and regions who between them account for around four-fifths of the world’s cotton production: Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and the United States.
Reliable data is not readily available
The task has not been easy. Reliable data on global pesticide use in cotton is not readily available and is spread across multiple sources with different approaches to data collection. In this report, we have drawn on figures from the Agricultural Outlook 2016-2017 database compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Where possible, these data sets have been compared with information made publicly available from other official and/or scientific literature sources (e.g. International Cotton Advisory Council, US Department of Agriculture and other national data sources).
Findings suggest that while insecticide use declined in some areas in the early part of the century following the introduction of GM cotton varieties, it is on the rise again as farmers struggle to control secondary pests like aphids and whitefly.
The report also finds that pesticide poisoning remains a serious problem in smallholder cotton farming.
Pest adaptation to the new transgenic GM environment is also changing the way pests are controlled, and in some cases requiring the pattern of insecticide use to be adapted.
Progress is not uniform: some countries have achieved and sustained significant reductions in pesticide use, while others have seen use rise. It is worthwhile noting that those countries who have been most successful at cutting pesticide use – and in keeping it low – have been those who have embraced Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
The lesson is clear: if it is serious about reducing pesticide use, the sector must make more use of tools like IPM and other agro-ecological approaches to control pests.