Bt Cotton, a bitter harvest for farmers
It is clear that the mounting evidence that is coming into the public domain, including the internal advisory from the agriculture ministry linking farm distress and suicides with Bt cotton, is causing panic among GM promoters and their lobbies in the country as their false hype and failed promises lie exposed. The biotechnology industry constantly claims that Bt cotton is responsible for the impressive yield growth in cotton that the country witnessed for a few years in the recent past.
Just two common-sense questions are asked to bust the myth: how can Bt technology increase yields when the pest incidence itself, across crops and not just cotton, has been low over the past decade? Two, how does one explain cotton yield increases in India that have happened at an impressive rate when the same is not present in any other country that has adopted Bt cotton? Even a lay person can point out that the reasons lie not in Bt cotton, but on good old factors like large-scale shift to hybrid seed sources (it is only in India that Bt cotton comes in hybrid seed form and not varieties). In the past decade, the area under cotton hybrids rose to 85.5 per cent of our cotton area from being around 40 per cent in 2000. Uptil 2005, 100 per cent of cotton area in the north zone was under varieties; now, 95 per cent of cotton cultivated in Punjab and Haryana is with hybrid seed. Similarly, there has been a significant shift to irrigated cotton cultivation. Sixty-five per cent of Gujarat’s cotton is irrigated today while it was only 39.5 per cent in 2000, contributing 84 per cent of the state’s cotton production, even as Gujarat is the largest cotton producer in the country. The state’s average productivity figures complete the story: in irrigated conditions, it is 689 kg per hectare of lint whereas in unirrigated conditions, it is a mere 247 kg per hectare.
What’s more, the top cotton scientists in the country have this to say: “The use of irrigation facilities, bringing new lands under Bt cotton, low pest activity, well-distributed rainfall, the overwhelming shift towards hybrid cotton and introduction of pesticides with novel modes of action are important factors that helped cotton productivity, not just the introduction of the novel Bt gene.”
Analysis of yield also shows that impressive productivity increases in cotton have happened before Bt cotton became prevalent. In the five-year period from 2000-01 to 2004-05, yield increased by 69 per cent. In the Bt cotton period starting from 2005-06, a moderate 17 per cent increase in yield is shown over three years up to 2007-08 (554 kg per hectare compared to 470 kg per hectare). Further, the yields show a downward trend since then.
If we look at the chemical pesticide usage, one more Bt cotton lie gets exposed. Insecticide usage in cotton (value) increased from `597 crore in 2002 to `880 crore in 2010 (data from CICR’s director). Pesticide consumption data in volume across crops from Government of India shows an increase in pesticide use in all the major cotton-growing states (Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka) except Andhra Pradesh. The most damning number to expose the hype around Bt cotton is related to farm suicides in a state like Maharashtra. The annual average number of suicides in the state during 1997-2002 was 2,833 and it was 4,067 during 2003-08 (P Sainath’s information, based on NCRB data). If nothing else, it is clear that Bt cotton has not provided any solution to the crisis here, but only seems to have exacerbated the distress.
Behind all the hype and lies around Bt cotton, the truth is that it has been a bitter harvest for Indian cotton farmers and a bonanza of prosperity for seed and pesticide companies. The story of Bt cotton once again showcases how sustainable, safer and affordable alternatives, even though they exist, do not receive the attention and investment that they deserve. Ten years after Bt cotton introduction, the government should examine the cotton crisis independently and in a nuanced manner undeterred by aggressive propaganda by seed companies. It should also step in urgently to promote alternatives like non-pesticide management that have a proven track record and direct public sector seed companies to produce high quality conventional cotton seeds to provide genuine choices for cotton farmers.
Kuruganti is national convenor of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture