A new report by the Coalition for GM Free India says that ten years after Bt cotton officially entered India, its manufacturers and promoters would like the world to believe that it is an unqualified success but the reality is starkly different.
The report put together by the Coalition, a broad network of organizations, scientists, farmer unions and consumer groups says the hype over Bt cotton is typified by recent advertisements by Mahyco-Monsanto claiming “Bollgard boosts Indian cotton farmers' income by over Rs.31,500 crores,” which was pulled up by Advertising Standards Council of India for false information. Underlining the deep crisis in cotton farming after a decade of transgenic seeds, the report says that the spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers.
In Andhra Pradesh, out of 47 lakh acres planted with Bt cotton during Kharif 2011 season, the crop failed in 33.73 lakh acres as per the state government estimates in December 2011.This means two-thirds of cotton area had yield loss of more than 50 per cent. In Maharashtra, the poor performance of cotton crop has led to lowering production estimates significantly in spite of an increase in the area of cotton cultivation. Last year's crisis propelled the Maharashtra government to announce a bailout of Rs 2000 crores, which included paddy and soyabean.
The report puts together various statistics culled from the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) and other sources and says the data should serve as a wake up call to policy makers and MPs. While Bt cotton was approved in 2002, the initial adoption was slow, and by 2004-05, only 5.6 per cent of the cotton cultivated area was planted with Bt cotton. Data from Cotton Corporation of India5 and area under Bt cotton adapted from Dr. K.R. Kranthi, Director of CICR show increasing area under Bt cotton and decreasing yields. Considering the period from 2000-01 as the pre-Bt Cotton expansion period and the phase from 2005-06 to 2011-12 as the Bt cotton period, a different picture of the yield gains emerges.
Yields were already rising sharply in the pre-Bt cotton era due to non-Bt hybrid seed and other factors. In the 5 year period from 2000-01, yield increased by 69 per cent. In the Bt cotton period starting from 2005-06, an increase in yield is seen for a couple of years, showing a moderate 17 per cent increase over 3 years up to 2007-08 (554 kg/ha (hectare) compared to 470 kg/ha). But the yields show a downward trend since then. Presently, the cotton yields have reached pre-Bt levels – 481 kg/ha compared to 470 kg/ha. In fact, the yield estimate of 481 kg/ha for 2011-12 is only an initial estimate from the Cotton Advisory Board and the actual number is likely to be lower, the report says.
This trend is corroborated in Dr Kranthi's paper reviewing the 10 years of Bt Cotton, quoted in the report.
“The main issue that worries stakeholders is the stagnation of productivity at an average of 500 kg lint per ha for the past seven years. The gains have been stagnant and unaffected by the increase in area of Bt cotton from 5.6 per cent in 2004 to 85 per cent in 2010. The yield was 463 kg per hectare when the Bt cotton area was 5.6 per cent in 2004 and reached a mere 506 kg per hectare when the area under Bt cotton increased to 9.4 million hectares at 85 per cent of the total 11.1 million hectares.” The same paper provides numbers which show “progressive problems and stagnation of production and productivity.”
Maximum yield gains were from Gujarat which brought 0.6 to 0.7 million hectares of new land under cotton (previously under groundnut) irrigated by a 100,000 new check dams (Kranthi.K, 2011). In 2000, 40 per cent of cotton area came under hybrids and the rest was under different varieties. By 2009, 85.5 per cent area came under hybrids and the rest were under cotton varieties.
The report says that 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.
According to Dr.Kranthi there has been depletion of nutrients in the soil due to repeated cultivation of Bt cotton hybrids, which draw more nutrients and water from the soil. The crop is exhibiting nutrient deficiency especially in rain-fed zones where wilt and leaf-reddening problems are also getting more severe over the years.
Despite Dr Kranthi's and other data from the government itself, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar praised Bt cotton in Parliament saying that the use of high quality hybrid cotton seeds had helped farmers make big gains due to reduced use of pesticides. A rethink seems unlikely.