7 PM Editorial |The Twisted Trajectory of Bt Cotton| 10th September 2020

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The Twisted Trajectory of Bt Cotton

Overview – The cost of adopting Bt Cotton over the indigenous varieties.


Cotton has been cultivated in India for thousands of years. Cotton fabric from around 3,000 BCE has been excavated from the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, and archaeological findings in Mehrgarh, Pakistan, show that cotton was used in the subcontinent as far back as 5,000 BCE.  India also had cotton trade relations with Greece, Rome, Persia, Egypt, Assyria and parts of Asia.

What was the variety of cotton cultivated?
  1. Until the 20th century, it was the indigenous variety- Gossypium arboreum.
  2. From the 1990s, hybrid varieties of hirsutumwere promoted.

However, with the adoption of the hybrids, several issues emerged. One of the main issues was that the hybrids cannot resist a variety of local pests and require more fertilizers and pesticides. Cotton suffers from plenty of infestation from moth pests (Lepidopteran) such as the Pink Bollworm (PBW) and sap-sucking (Hemipteran) pests such as aphids and mealy bugs. With increasing pressure to buy hybrid seeds, the indigenous varieties have lost out over the years.

What was done to control this issue?

There was increasing use of synthetic pyrethroids (group of man-made pesticides) to control pests. With the use of the pesticides, there was  increasing acreage under the American long-duration cotton. This led to a further issue which was the emergence of resistant pests. Some of the resistant pests that emerged were Resistant Pink and American Bollworm (ABW). Also because of these pests, there was increasing pesticide use leading to rising debts and reducing yields, worsening the plight of the farmers. This was when the Bt Cotton was introduced in India in 2002.

Bt Cotton: It is a genetically modified cotton. It contains the pesticide gene from bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). It has now been grown in the country for almost 20 years.
Adoption of Bt Cotton

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, from 2005, adoption of Bt cotton rose to 81% in 2007, and up to 93% in 2011. A lot of studies have proclaimed Bt Cotton to be the panacea for dwindling yields and pesticide expenses. WIth the passing of 20 years, the performance of Bt Cotton is being reviewed.

Broad review

A review in the scientific journal Nature Plants, was carried out to analyse the entire picture of the use of Bt cotton in India. Earlier studies had attributed to Bt of tripling the cotton yield between 2002-2014 in India. Each State was separately studied and the correction factor for illegal Bt cotton planting was also taken into account.

The results
  1. Bt acreage was only 4% of the total cotton area in 2003, not sufficient to credit it for the 61% increase in yield in 2003-2004.
  2. With only 15.7% Bt cotton coverage by 2005, yield increases were over 90%over 2002 levels.
  3. Countrywide yields stagnatedafter 2007 even as more farmers began to grow Bt.
  4. By 2018, yields were lowerthan in the years of rapid Bt adoption.
  5. In Maharashtra, yields climbed in the decade after 2000, with no change in the rate of increase when Bt cotton was introduced.
  6. In Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well, there is no correlationbetween the adoption of the variety and increase in yields. Eg. Gujarat’s surge in cotton yields was 138% in 2003, even as Bt cotton was used only for 5% of land under cotton.
  7. Similar findings are seen in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, where yield increase is incongruouswith the spread of Bt cotton.
So, if Bt adoption was not associated with the increasing yields, how did the yield increase?
  1. The rise in cotton yields can be explained by improvements in irrigation, for instance in Gujarat, and a dramatic growth across the country in the use of fertilizers. Gross fertilizer use for cotton more than doubled from 2007-2013; the average rose from 98 kg/ha in 2003 to 224 kg/ha in 2013.
  2. There is a strong correlation between the rise in use of fertilizers in individual States and yields, and this bias increases when it is combined with improvements in irrigation.

Bt Cotton was not responsible for the yield increases. The performance has been by far not up to the mark which is manifested in the fact that:

  1. The Pink Bollwormhas developed a resistance against it by 2009. In a few years, the situation was dreadful. Bollworm spraying began to climb again. Sap-sucking insects have surged for the hybrids, as the hirsutum Bt cotton hybrids are quite vulnerable. With rising acreage under Bt cotton cultivation, expenditures for spraying for sucking pests also went up. By 2018, farmers were spending an average of $23.58 per hectare on insecticide — 37% more than the pre-Bt levels.
  2. The benefits of Bt cotton have been modest and short-lived. India’s global rank for cotton production is 36 despite heavy fertilizer use, irrigation, chemicals and Bt cotton usage. This is below the national average of some resource-poor African countries that don’t have Bt, hybrids or good access to inputs.

The cost of ignoring indigenous varieties for decades has been high for India. These varieties resist many pests and don’t present the problems faced with hybrids. Research suggests that with pure-line cotton varieties, high density planting, and short season plants, cotton yields in India can be good and stand a better chance at withstanding the vagaries of climate change. It is time for the government to take note and not push the Bt varieties.

Source: The Hindu

Mains Question
  1. Do you think there is a need to focus on indigenous varieties of agricultural produce rather than the genetically modified ones? Comment in context of the performance of Bt Cotton over the years.
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