IAS Gyan

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The twisted trajectory of Bt cotton

10th September, 2020 Editorial

Context:  Despite finding huge favor in India, the GM crop has only brought modest benefits


  • Cotton has been woven and used 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.
  • Indian cotton fabrics dominated the world trade during the succeeding millennia and were exported to many places, including Greece, Rome, Persia, Egypt, Assyria and parts of Asia.
  • Much of the cotton cultivated until the 20th century was of the indigenous ‘desi’ variety, Gossypium arboreum.
  • From the 1990s, hybrid varieties of G. hirsutum were promoted. These hybrids cannot resist a variety of local pests and require more fertilizers and pesticides.
  • With increasing pressure to buy hybrid seeds, the indigenous varieties have lost out over the years. But recently, there has been some resurgence of interest.
  • The increasing use of synthetic pyrethroids (group of man-made pesticides) to control pests and the rising acreage under the American long-duration cotton led to the emergence of resistant pests.
  • Resistant Pink and even American Bollworm (ABW), a minor pest in the past, began increasing, leading to a growing use of a variety of pesticides.
  • Rising debts and reducing yields, coupled with increasing insect resistance, worsened the plight of cotton farmers.
  • It was in this setting that Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002.
  • Genetically modified (GM) cotton, the plant containing the pesticide gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), has been grown in India for about twenty years.
  • This pesticide, now produced in each Bt plant cell, ought to protect the plant from bollworm, thereby increasing yields and reducing insecticide spraying on the cotton plant.
  • According to the Ministry of Agriculture, from 2005, adoption of Bt cotton rose to 81% in 2007, and up to 93% in 2011.
  • Many short-duration studies examining Bt cotton, in the early years, pronounced that Bt was a panacea for dwindling yields and pesticide expenses.
  • The two-decade mark now provides an opportunity to review GM cotton in India more comprehensively.

Broad review

  • As per a review in the scientific journal Nature Plants, analysing the entire picture of the use of Bt cotton in India found that contribution of Bt cotton to yield increase was only about 4% each year; still, since yields vary annually by over 10%, the benefits claimed were dubious.
  • There are discrepancies between yield and the deployment of Bt cotton.
  • For instance, the Bt acreage was only 3.4% of the total cotton area in 2003, not sufficient to credit it for the 61% increase in yield in 2003-2004.
  • Individual State data are more helpful in understanding subnational trends.
    • In Maharashtra, yields climbed in the decade after 2000, with no change in the rate of increase when Bt cotton was introduced.
    • In Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well, there is no correlation between the adoption of the variety and increase in yields. For instance, Gujarat’s surge in cotton yields was 138% in 2003, even as Bt cotton was used only for 5% of land under cotton.
    • Similar findings are seen in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, where yield increase is incongruous with the spread of Bt cotton.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Real-world challenges

  • It is tough to isolate one particular aspect of a technology and evaluate it properly.
  • A technology that works in the lab may fail in fields since real-world success hinges on multiple factors, such as different kinds of pests and local soil and irrigation conditions.
  • The benefits of Bt cotton have been modest and short-lived.
  • Changes to the agricultural systems correlate better with positive yields, and countrywide yields have not improved in thirteen years.
  • 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 ‘desi’ 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.
  • But government backing for resources, infrastructure and seeds is essential to scale up ‘desi’ varieties.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)

  • The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is a statutory body constituted under the ‘Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export, Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms or Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells, 1989’ notified under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
  • It functions in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
  • As per Rules, 1989, it is responsible for appraisal of activities involving large scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle.
  • The committee is also responsible for appraisal of proposals relating to release of genetically engineered (GE) organisms and products into the environment including experimental field trials.
  • GEAC is chaired by the Special Secretary/Additional Secretary of MoEF&CC and co-chaired by a representative from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).
  • Presently, it has 24 members and meets every month to review the applications in the areas indicated above.

Conclusion: It is time to pay attention to science and acknowledge that Bt cotton has failed in India, and not enter into further misadventures with other Bt crops such as brinjal or herbicide resistance.

Reference: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-twisted-trajectory-of-bt-cotton/article32566091.ece?homepage=true