GM Cotton – Reckless Gamble

The Profit Driven Move that Placed Indian Cotton Farmers in Corporate Noose

Colin Todhunter

The dubious performance (failure) of genetically engineered Bt cotton, officially India’s only GM crop, should serve as a warning as the push within the country to adopt GM across a wide range of food crops continues. This article provides an outline of some key reports and papers that have appeared in the last few years on Bt cotton in India.

In a paper that appeared in December 2018 in the journal Current Science, P.C. Kesavan and M.S. Swaminathan cited research findings to support the view that Bt insecticidal cotton has been a failure in India and has not provided livelihood security for mainly resource-poor, small and marginal farmers. This paper was not just important because of its content but also because M.S. Swaminathan is considered to be the father of the Green Revolution in India.

The two authors provided evidence that indicates Bt crops are unsustainable and have not decreased the need for toxic chemical pesticides, the reason for these GM crops in the first place.

The authors cite the views of Dr K.R. Kranthi, former Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur. Based on his research, he concluded in December 2016:

Bt-cotton plus higher fertilizers plus increased irrigation also received a protective cover from the seed treatment of neonicotinoid insecticides such as imidacloprid, without which majority of the Bt-cotton hybrids which were susceptible to sucking pests would have yielded far less. It can safely be said that yield increase in India would not have happened with Bt-cotton alone without enhanced fertilizer usage, without increased irrigation, without seed treatment chemicals, and the absence of drought-free decade.”

In effect, levels of insecticide use are now back to the pre-Bt era as is productivity due to pest resistance and crop failures.

Following on from this, an April 2018 paper in the journal Pest Science Management indicates there has been progressive bollworm resistance to Bt cotton in India over a seven-year period. The authors conclude:

High PBW [pink bollworm] larval recovery on Bt‐II in conjunction with high LC50 values for Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab in major cotton‐growing districts of central and southern India provides evidence of field‐evolved resistance in PBW to Bt‐I and Bt‐II cotton.”

This alongside other problems related to Bt cotton has had disastrous consequences for farmers. In a 2015 paper Professor Andrew Paul Gutierrez and his colleagues say:

Bt cotton may be economic in irrigated cotton, whereas costs of Bt seed and insecticide increase the risk of farmer bankruptcy in low-yield rainfed cotton. Inability to use saved seed and inadequate agronomic information trap cotton farmers on biotechnology and insecticide treadmills. Annual suicide rates in rainfed areas are inversely related to farm size and yield, and directly related to increases in Bt cotton adoption (i.e., costs).”

In a new December 2018 paper, Gutierrez sends a warning to those considering rolling out GM food crops in India:

…recent calls by industry and its clients to extend implementation of the hybrid technology in aubergine (brinjal, eggplant) and mustard and likely other crops in India will only mirror the disastrous implementation of the failed hybrid Bt technology in Indian cotton and, will only serve to tighten the economic hybrid technology noose on still more subsistence farmers for the sake of profits.”

He concludes that Bt cotton has placed many resource-poor farmers in a stranglehold. Bt cotton prevents seed saving and farmers must purchase costly seed, which leads to suboptimal planting densities. Stagnant/low yields have followed, insecticide use has grown and new pests resistant to insecticide/Bt toxins have emerged.

Giterriez says that leading Indian agronomists have proposed that adoption of pure-line high density short-season varieties of rainfed cotton which could more than double current yields and would avoid heavy infestations of pink bollworm, thus reducing insecticide use and pesticide disruption. This cotton is not a new technology and predates Bt cotton.

Given what Gutierrez says, it is quite timely that Kesevan and Swaminathan question regulators’ failure in India to carry out a socio-economic assessment of GMO impacts on resource-poor small and marginal farmers. They call for “able economists who are familiar with and will prioritize rural livelihoods and the interests of resource-poor small and marginal farmers rather than serve corporate interests and their profits.”

This mirrors what Gutierrez and his colleagues argued in 2015 that policy makers need holistic analysis before new technologies are implemented in agricultural development.

Naturally, corporations and many pro-GM scientists wish to avoid such things as much as possible. They try to convince policy makers that as long as the science on GM is sound (which it isn’t, despite what they proclaim), GM should be rolled out regardless. They regard regulators and regulations as a mere hindrance that is preventing GM from helping farmers. Deregulating GM is the order of the day. It’s a reckless approach. We need only look at Indian cotton farmers whose lives and livelihoods have been devastated due to the ill thought out roll-out of Bt technology.

Kesavan and Swaminathan criticise India’s GMO regulating bodies due to a lack of competency and endemic conflicts of interest and a lack of expertise in GMO risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts. Many of these issues have been a common thread in five high-level official reports in India that have advised against the commercialisation of GM crops:

  • The ‘Jairam Ramesh Report’, imposing an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal [February 2010];
  • The ‘Sopory Committee Report’ [August 2012];
  • The ‘Parliamentary Standing Committee’ [PSC] Report on GM crops [August 2012];
  • The ‘Technical Expert Committee [TEC] Final Report’ [June-July 2013];
  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment and Forests [August 2017]

In her numerous submissions to India’s Supreme Court, prominent campaigner Aruna Rodrigues has been scathing. She recently told me that:

It is proven in copious evidence in the Supreme Court in the last 13 years that our regulators are seriously conflicted: they promote GMOs openly, fund them (as with herbicide-tolerant mustard and other public sector GMOs) and then regulate them. Truth is a massive casualty. This is not lightly stated.”

She added that “failed hybrid Bt cotton in India” has put farmers on a pesticide treadmill as increasing levels of pest resistance becomes manifest.

Prior to this, in 2017, Rodrigues also said:

Never has an agri-tech been sold as a ‘magic bean’ to farmers, like Bt cotton, with opprobrium attaching to our regulators and ministries of governance who supported and continue to support this technology-castle built on sand, in the absence of evidence and when the hard data said the opposite.”

In the rush to plant these ‘magic beans’, the area planted under Bt cotton has often displaced vital food crops at a time when India should surely have been looking to achieve food security and self-sufficiency.

Writing in India’s The Statesman newspaper in 2015, for example, the knife-edge existence of the people that rich corporations profit from was highlighted in the case of Babu Lal and his wife Mirdi Bai who had been traditionally cultivating wheat, maize and millet on their farmland in Rajasthan. Their crops provided food for several months a year to the 10-member family as well as fodder for farm and dairy animals, integral to the mixed farming system employed.

Company agents (unspecified – but Monsanto and its subsidiaries dominate the GM cotton industry in India) approached the family with the promise of a lump-sum payment to plant Bt cotton seeds in two of their fields. Lal purchased pesticides to help grow the seeds in the hope of receiving the payment, which never materialised because the company agent said the seeds produced had ‘failed’ in tests.

The family faced economic ruin, not least because the food harvest was much lower than normal as the best fields and most labour and resources had been devoted to Bt cotton. It resulted in Lal borrowing from private moneylenders at a high interest rate to meet the needs of food and fodder. On top of this, the company’s agent allegedly started harassing Lal for a payment of about 10,000 rupees in lieu of the fertilisers and pesticides provided to him. Several other tribal farmers in the area also fell into this trap.

The promise of a lump-sum cash payment can be very enticing to poor farmers, and when companies co-opt influential villagers to get new farmers to agree to plant Bt cotton, farmers are reluctant to decline the offer. When production is declared as having failed, solely at the company’s discretion it seems, a family becomes indebted.

According to that article, there was growing evidence that the trend to experiment with Bt cotton has disrupted food security in certain areas and had introduced various health hazards and had damaged soil due to the use of chemical inputs.

Before finishing, it is certainly worth mentioning Stone and Flachs’s 2017 paper on how certain interests within and beyond India are attempting to break traditional farming cotton cultivation practices with the aim of placing farmers on yet another corporate treadmill. This time, the aim appears to be to introduce herbicide-tolerant (HT) cotton in India on the back of Bt cotton. The authors indicate just how hugely financially lucrative for corporations the relatively ‘undeveloped’ herbicide market is in India. These HT cotton seeds have now appeared illegally on the market.

Ultimately, as Gutierrez implies, the bottom line is cynical corporate interest and profit – not helping Indian farmers or some high-minded notion about feeding the world. Just ask Babu Lal and thousands like him!

Of course, given the track record of HT crops, it is another disaster in the making for Indian farmers and the environment. This warning has already been made clear by the Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee, which regards HT crops as being wholly inappropriate for India.

With various GM crops waiting in the wings, India should continue to adopt a precautionary approach towards GMOs as advocated by Jairam Ramesh and not implement another reckless gamble with farmers’ livelihoods, the nation’s health and the environment. About nine years ago, based on a rigorous consultation with international scientific experts regarding the commercialisation of Bt brinjal, one of those experts, Prof Andow, concluded that without any management of resistance evolution, Bt brinjal would fail in 4-12 years. Jairam Ramesh pronounced a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010 founded on what he called “a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach.”

Isn’t such failure what we now witness with Bt cotton? It serves as a timely warning for implementing a widespread GMO food crop regime in India. The writing is on the wall.


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Jan 4, 2019 4:14 AM

Reclaiming lost calories: Tweaking photosynthesis boosts crop yields https://theconversation.com/reclaiming-lost-calories-tweaking-photosynthesis-boosts-crop-yields-109283

Crop yields increases up to 40%? Find out, don’t be a Luddite.

Hope K
Hope K
Jan 3, 2019 12:57 PM

They’re probably making Frankencotton near where I live. We have seed spies, for real. 🌱

Jan 4, 2019 11:18 PM
Reply to  Hope K

What any legal person claims ownership of is pretty much a 1:1 mapping of what they’ve stolen. No honour amongst thieves? Big deal. All hail Xi Jinping, Stalin II on globalized steroids.

John A
John A
Jan 3, 2019 9:29 AM

On December 17, the United Nations General Assembly took a quiet but historic vote, approving the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas, by a vote of 121-8 with 52 abstentions. The declaration, which was the product of some 17 years of diplomatic work led by the international peasant alliance La Via Campesina, formally extends human rights protections to farmers whose “seed sovereignty” is threatened by government and corporate practices.

The only “no” votes came from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.
I am currently investigating why Sweden gave such a vassal vote to the usual suspects. If I obtain more information, I will provide an update.

In the meantime, the only surprise is that Canada and Ukraine did not also vote no.
See link:

Jan 3, 2019 3:42 PM
Reply to  John A

Interesting, thanks for the info, John. Not that the US would endorse it currently, (without a massive shift away from Duopoly politics) but well done to La Via Campesina. A landmark move and huge step in the right direction. Love and gratitude to them.

Jan 4, 2019 11:02 PM
Reply to  eastangle

You write that the vote was 121-8 (with a possible maximum vote for the vile of 60, hurrah!) but you then name only 7 ‘only’ countries. I wonder if Assange would be able to hazard a credible guess about Sweden’s decision should he not have a lot else of concern to contend with at the moment.

Tish Farrell
Tish Farrell
Jan 2, 2019 12:06 PM

Surely one of the worst aspects of this GM technology is that if farmers take it up, they lose all autonomy. The enforcement to buy new seed every year is NOT a small thing. It is customary for small-holder farmers all over the world to retain part of their crop for the next year’s sowing. Over time this will have resulted in many local strains, which are surely an advantage in pest-rife regions. So irrespective of the growing failures or successes of particular GM crops, the tyrannical ways in which companies maintain control over their seed (and this can affect none GM farmers whose crops get cross-polinated by neighbouring GM crops and they then make the mistake of keeping the resulting seed), is to my mind a complete violation of natural justice.

Gary Wilson
Gary Wilson
Jan 2, 2019 4:14 PM
Reply to  Tish Farrell

Surely one of the worst aspects of hybrid technology is that if farmers take it up, they lose all autonomy. The enforcement to buy new seed every year is NOT a small thing. In agriculture, the purpose in hybridizing plants is to increase yield. In order to increase yield you increase the carbohydrate content of the crop while decreasing the protein content. (“The Albrecht Papers”, Volume II, Chapter 4 “Nutritious Feeds via Soil Fertility and Not Plant Pedigrees”, section titled “THE LOW QUALITY AS NUTRITION AND HIGH YIELD OF BULK DEMONSTRATE THEIR MATHEMATICALLY CLOSE RELATION”) Farmers, including organic farmers, grow hybrids to produce higher yields to make more money. If your organic farmer grows hybrids, he or she had no interest in nutrition. If your organic dairy farmer feeds the cattle organic corn, the farmer has no interest in the nutritional value of the milk. If your organic dairy farmer… Read more »

Tish Farrell
Tish Farrell
Jan 2, 2019 8:47 PM
Reply to  Gary Wilson

You seem to be misquoting my opening sentence. I quite agree about the importance of soil health.

Gary Wilson
Gary Wilson
Jan 2, 2019 10:06 PM
Reply to  Tish Farrell

That was not a misquote. What you are saying about GMO seeds requiring the farmer to purchase seeds every year also applies to hybrid seeds. The farmer’s using hybrid seeds requires the farmer to purchase seeds every year. You can’t save your own seeds from either GMO or hybrid crops to grow the same crop the next year. Farmers choose to buy hybrid seeds every year because their motive is the profit motive. The profit motive causes the farmer to grow crops for higher yield without caring about the decline in the nutritional value of the crop. As Voisin states in his book, “Soil Grass and Cancer”, “Questions of deficiency in agricultural products become subjects of interest only when they find expression in a commercial loss. As long as it is only a matter of a lower ‘biological value’ for man, no one is concerned.” That applies to both ‘conventional’… Read more »

Jan 5, 2019 12:42 AM
Reply to  Tish Farrell

The prohibition on reusing GM or hybrid seeds is not necessarily or even usually the result of terminator genes, but of terminator systems. Claims of ‘Intellectual Property (sick) are not petit theft but monumental theft and unforgiveable larceny. What anyone first thinks is firstly what everyone thereafter is able to think (and consciously or unconsciously does think, by virtue of the intrinsic nature of thought) and only secondly a lease on the basic needs of life for those who can first think it, as their equal and individual portion of the communal production value, positive or negative, of that life. In the basic ethic of the noösphere, if Albert Einstein or Charles Manson once first thought it, so thereafter can and has everybody. The relentless, ongoing misappropriation by the more criminally-inclined members of the legal underclass and their predatory clients, of jubilee-limited leases on the production value of thought, as… Read more »

Jan 5, 2019 3:25 AM
Reply to  Robbobbobin

Typo. For “terminator systems” read “terminator legal systems”. On a more inclusive note than plant biology, the legal framework for the extirpation of 99% of the human species’ non-mitochondrial DNA is now being laid every day in plain sight, yet most people, although they know it, cannot acknowledge it. What people understand as “the ruling” (and “the ruling,” themselves, falsely nominate as an “elite”) see in the now explosive convergence of technologies (genetic, nanoscale, materials, medical, information…), finally, the opportunity to eugenicize into self-sustained existence a perfect world for their perfect few. In the final, operational stages of that, the necessary war will be fought not by soldiers on battlefields and in cities but by politicians in legislatures, lawyers in courtrooms and programmed technologists with missiles, literal and metaphorical, guided from their seventh heaven. Consoled–short of an Armageddon)–in your 4 a.m. baby food stumble by the thought of your offspring… Read more »

Jan 2, 2019 8:07 AM

Of all the genes in the human genome, 55 percent were already present in the first animal https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/04/science/first-animal-genes-evolution.html

Also natural: Horizontal gene transfer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizontal_gene_transfer

Jan 2, 2019 9:02 AM
Reply to  Antonym

OK not mAny, I’ll bite – in words of one syllable for the science challenged;
a gene does not encode a protein in isolation, there are a suite of genes responsible for a trait,
a gene does not necessarily produce a trait in the absence of a particular environmental condition,
a gene taken in isolation without the associated genes or conditions may produce an unintended trait,
natural selection (responsible for observed interspecies gene acquisitions) removes unsuccessful traits and conserves beneficial effects (which may be subtle) over generations,
horizontal gene transfer is subject to the above parameters.

M.S. Swaminathan is called the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’ in India. For him to be saying GM is a mistake is very significant.

Re your comment below, read the story again.

Jan 2, 2019 7:26 AM

India cotton production shot up since 2003 both in total and yield per acre. Reason: Bt cotton https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/indian-cotton-growers-farmers-cotton-crop-cotton-farming-narendra-modi-govt-5292899/ 14 years and still improving.
Why is this bad? The main worry is to break any GM monopoly by a single company.

Jan 2, 2019 7:43 AM
Reply to  Antonym

I put a Bt cotton winter jacket on our cat and it turned into a dog, which we have provisionally renamed Antonym.

Jan 3, 2019 7:58 AM
Reply to  Robbobbobin

Ad Hominem like this shows you have no real arguments, only dirt at your disposal.

Jan 2, 2019 12:43 PM
Reply to  Antonym

Re read the article and re-visit your facts from an unbiased source, which this OffG article is.