Press articles document the destruction of GM Bt cotton – and farmers’ livelihoods – by three different pests

Corn earworm, pink bollworm and whitefly have lain waste to Bt cotton in India this year, as articles from the Indian press report.

The first article below also reminds us of the reliance of Bt cotton on irrigation, which is reported to be inadequate.

The Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) referred to in the first article is a farmers’ movement.

1. KRRS seeks relief from seed companies for failure of Bt cotton
2. Pink bollworm a nightmare for Bt cotton growers
3. Black clouds over Bt cotton as whitefly runs amok

1. KRRS seeks relief from seed companies for failure of Bt cotton

Kumar Buradikatti
The Hindu, 2 Dec 2015

Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) has asked the State government to ensure that Bt cotton companies pay compensation to farmers whose crops were destroyed by corn earworm across the State. Addressing a media conference here on Tuesday, State president of the organisation Chamarasa Malipatil said that nearly half of the Bt cotton crop was destroyed due to the Helicoverpa pest.

“At the time of introducing Bt cotton in India a few years ago, there was a big propaganda that it was pest-resistance. Now, we find that the genetically modified organism, Bt cotton, is vulnerable to corn earworm. An overwhelming majority of cotton growers have cultivated Bt cotton this time. Over 50 percent of cultivated Bt cotton of all brands have now been destroyed by the pest attack. The seed companies that sold Bt cotton seeds to farmers are liable to pay compensation and the government should ensure that they do,” he said. He added that vast tracts of Bt cotton fields in Andhra Pradesh were also destroyed by the corn earworm. He suspected that seed companies might have supplied substandard seeds to farmers in order to deal with growing cotton stock in the international market.

Mr. Malipatil alleged that neither the officials of the Department of Agriculture nor the agricultural scientists from the University of Agricultural Sciences, Raichur, had paid any visits to the Bt cotton fields hit by the corn earworm. The farmers’ leader verbally attacked Power Minister D.K. Shivakumar for improper and insufficient power supply to irrigation pumpsets.

“The government had promised to provide three-phase power to irrigation pumpsets at least 8 hours a day. In reality, it is supplying less than two hours. Farmers are forced to sit near pumpsets waiting for the power,” he said. He warned that his organisation would call upon farmers to take power from Niranthara Jyothi villages to their pumpsets, if the government would not supply quality power.

2. Pink bollworm a nightmare for Bt cotton growers

Kumar Buradikatti
The Hindu, 5 Dec 2015

handasab [sic.], a farmer from Kadagamdoddi village in Raichur taluk, spent Rs. 2 lakh to cultivate Bt cotton on 15 acres that he had taken on lease. Before he could harvest the first round of yield, the entire field was destroyed by pink bollworm.

“I dread visiting my cotton field and seeing this devastation,” he told The Hindu on Friday. He is not the only farmer to face this problem.

Veeresh K., from the same village, who cultivated Bt cotton on 18 acres of land said the crop was destroyed by the pink bollworm. He incurred a loss of over Rs. 3.5 lakh.

Lakshman Gowda, another farmer whose Bt cotton on 10 acres was destroyed by the pest, has uprooted the plants and cleared a portion of his field to cultivate other crops.

Disheartening stories of Bt cotton farmers are unfolding across Raichur district, which is one of the major cotton growing districts in the State. The extent of loss is yet to be measured as no survey has been conducted. Cotton is cultivated on nearly 60,000 hectares of lands in the district, most of which is Bt cotton. Farmers started switching to the crop in big numbers in 2007-08 and there has been increase in acreage over the years since then.

Chamarasa Malipatil, State president of Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, claimed that around 40 per cent to 50 per cent of Bt cotton was destroyed by the pink bollworm this year, not only in Karnataka but also in Telangana.

Bt cotton is genetically engineered with a gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and is toxic to the bollworm, a pest that preys on the cotton plant. There’s also the possibility that the plant is being attacked by other insects. A team of agricultural scientists from the University of Agricultural Sciences, Raichur (UAS-R) will be visiting some of the affected fields to study the pest menace.

“The pink bollworm, with its negligible population, was not a threat to cotton crop when the Bt technology was developed. But over a period of time, the worm massively increased its population and is now causing maximum damage to the crop,” said Dr. Jayaprakash Nidagundi, associate professor, Plant Breeding, UAS-R.

A.G. Shreenivas, associate professor, Entomology, UAS-R, pointed out that Bt cotton is vulnerable to climatic variations and attack by sucking pests and insects outside the resistance-claim purview. Farmers control sucking pests, usually found at the backside of leaf, by heavily spraying different pesticides.

“But we cannot control pink bollworm through pesticide spraying as it is inside the cotton boll. The cotton bolls look absolutely normal from outside. But, each boll is infected by the pink bollworm inside. The worm eats cotton seeds and thus prevents the development of cotton staple fibre around it well before the cotton boll opens,” explained Mr. Veeresh. He opened cotton bolls that seemed normal on the outside and showed this reporter the worm in each one of them.

3. Black clouds over Bt cotton as whitefly runs amok

Ikhhlaq Aujla
The Times of India, Sep 9, 2015

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are perturbed over a sense of deja vu they are experiencing ever since the attack of the pest - the whitefly - on their BT cotton crop. It has unnerving similarities to attack of the American bollworm, colloquially known as 'Amrikan sundi,' in the 1990s and 2000s on hybrid cotton varieties. The bollworm attack had led farmers to shift to the BT variety post 2004 which resisted the pest. But the whitely has shown that the BT cotton too can be vulnerable, creating a crisis at a time when the monsoon has failed.

Both Punjab and Haryana account for about 11-12% of country's total cotton output, but the pest could cause a noticeable drop in average yields thereby hitting output as picking of cotton has begun in the region. In Haryana, area under cotton is 5.80 lakh hectares and in Punjab it is 4.50 lakh hectares this season.

In fact, much like the bollworm, pesticides sprayed have not been able to eliminate the whitefly that attacks the leaves of cotton plants. In the early 2002, cotton farmers had used so much pesticide against the whitefly that the chemical is believed to have affected the soil and groundwater. Many believe this is the reason behind a large number of cancer cases being detected among people in the cotton belt.

Farmers in many parts of Punjab and Haryana have even uprooted cotton for other crops in recent days. Baljinder Singh Sidhu from Kotbhara village in Bathinda said, "Build-up to the pest was so sudden that it caught us unawares. Many farmers in my village have uprooted cotton since the damage to the crop was massive."

Farmers fearful that whitefly would become more aggressive in coming seasons as prolonged hot, humid conditions without rainfall led to the growth of the pest and could spread to other states. "The yield could drop by about 15% this season in Punjab," said noted farm economist professor P S Rangi, marketing consultant, Punjab State Farmers Commission (PSFC).

Prof Ashok Dhawan, former head of the entomology, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, said, "The whitefly attack can lead to 30%-40% drop in average yield in the affected areas. Spraying pesticides is not the best solution. Farmers need to follow a composite plan. We need varieties that are resistant," said Prof Dhawan.

An official from the Punjab agriculture department said, "We are organizing camps in villages and telling farmers to use recommended pesticides, but that is only a temporary measure. Enormity of the attack can't be quantified immediately as picking of cotton has just begun. One thing is sure that we need varieties of cotton that are resistant to whitefly, otherwise farmers are going to suffer just like they did when American bollworm ravaged huge swathes of cotton about two decades back."


In the 1990s and 2000s the American bollworm or "Amrikan sundi" had become resistant to pesticides and ravaged thousands of hectares of hybrid cotton planted in both Punjab and Haryana. While the cost of inputs went up significantly, average yield of cotton dropped sharply, hitting the farmers hard. Their fortunes changed as the government allowed cultivation of BT cotton in March 2005 in both states with the nod from the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC). Even before government clearance, farmers from Punjab's cotton belt, had started bringing BT seeds from Gujarat in a train that was referred to as "BT Express".

As per the data from the Cotton Advisory Board (CAB), average yield of cotton in Punjab fell to 170kg per hectare in 1997-98 from 367kg per hectare in 1996-97, and in Haryana the average yield declined to 240kg per hectare from 354kg per hectare in the same period. Average yield of cotton dropped further to 151kg per hectare in 1998-99 in Punjab while Haryana also saw a decline to 204kg per hectare. However, the average yields started improving from 2005-06 as BT cotton cultivation was allowed in both states. Provisional figures from CAB put the average yield of cotton in 2013-14 to 704kg per hectare and 702kg per hectare in Punjab and Haryana respectively. With BT cotton being resistant to American bollworm, area under these varieties shot up rapidly in Punjab and Haryana, which stands at over 90% in both states. While BT cotton varieties offered resistance to American bollworm, these are under the attack of whitefly in both Punjab and Haryana this season.