Opinion Think

The Trials and Tribulations of Bt Cotton

Farmers in India are constantly being sacrificed at the altar of politics. Nothing illustrates this better than the saga of Bt Cotton.

Delivering his fifth Independence Day speech on August 15, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he wanted to add value to each stage of agriculture, from the seeds that are planted to the produce that reach the market, (“बीज से ले करके बाजार तक हम value addition करना चाहते हैं”) so that farmers enjoy better opportunities and higher income.

At the same time, his government, following on the steps of its predecessor, is stifling the growth of the most successful commercial crop in recent years – cotton.

Agriculture is the largest private sector in the country. Yet, rather than freeing the entrepreneurial spirit, the government has continued to tie the farmers up with regulatory red tape, while claiming to be their saviour.

Jai Kisan: The reality underlying the rhetoric

Over the past year, the PM has repeatedly characterised farmers as “annadata” (donor/provider of food). It implies that the country is fed due to the generosity of the farmers, and not their self-interest. This characterisation as “annadata” seeks to reconfirm the belief among many that farming is not an economic profession, but a higher calling.

The latest manifestation of the “annadata” mindset is reflected in a new campaign: the Prime Minister Annadata Aya Sanrakshan Abhiyan (PM-AASHA, or Prime Minister’s campaign to protect the income of farmers). This campaign integrates a few sub-schemes aimed at ensuring remunerative prices to farmers. Since assuming office, Modi has launched a number of initiatives aimed at the farmers: raise MSP ensuring a profit margin of 50% above the cost of production, double farmers income by 2022, provide crop insurance, waive off farm loans, create a national digital market, an export policy, a soil health card, and many others.

The plethora of campaigns, policies and schemes are all reinforcing the notion that the “value addition” that the PM mentioned in his I-Day speech can only be undertaken by the government, and the farmers are mere recipients of largesse.

This is reflected in the prevalent discourse on agriculture, which has largely ignored the fact that agriculture is among the most regulated sectors in the country. From land, which is the basic capital of farmers, to credit, agro-inputs and outputs, infrastructure and logistics, technology and trade, every aspect of Indian agriculture is either regulated or constricted by state policy.

“Jai Kisan” has become a convenient platitude to camouflage with rhetoric the policies that are in reality enslaving the farmers, rather than ensuring their freedom.

Bt Cotton

The plight of cotton farmers best illustrates the state of Indian agriculture today. Instead of celebrating the potential of GM cotton in transforming the lives of Indian farmers, new generation technologies are being denied to them making their future insecure, even while the government claims to protect them.

Traditionally, cotton has been plagued by various types of bollworms, including larvae of moths and butterflies. Insecticides used to fight the menace were a major expense for farmer, apart from posing risks to health and environment. In addition, some of the pests were developing resistance to chemical insecticide.

In the early 1990s, agriculture biotechnologists in the US created the Bt cotton, with genes from a natural soil bacterium. Bacillus thuringiensis contains Bt toxins harmful to some insects.  Bt cotton (Bollguard 1 or BGI) was created by addition of a gene in to cotton. When bollworms ate the cotton plant, the Bt toxin killed the insects.

Farmers had used the soil bacterium to fight the bollworm in cotton for many years. With genetic engineering, however, the cotton plant became more effective in fighting off the bollworm.

However, Bt toxin is effective only against certain insects that affect cotton plan, and not others, for which insecticides would still be necessary. So with Bt cotton, the number of times farmers had to spray insecticide on their cotton crop came down. This lowered the costs of protecting crops and losses due to pests, thus improving production. Therefore, Bt cotton by itself, unlike high yielding varieties of some other crops like rice and wheat, does not directly contribute to any increase in yield, except by reducing potential losses.

Monsanto, now merged with Bayer, had pioneered this genetic modification in cotton. In India, Monsanto had partnered with Mahyco, a Maharashtra based company, to make Bt cotton available. Today, hundreds of companies have licensed the technology to introduce different varieties of Bt cotton meeting the diverse geo-climatic conditions across different cotton growing regions.

The success of Bt cotton can be gauged from the fact that within a decade over 90% of farmers adopted the genetically engineered seeds. Cotton is now being grown in states like Odisha that had no history of cotton barely 10 years ago.

In an apparent attempt to make the technology more accessible to farmers, the government has stepped in to control the price of Bt cotton seed, and has sought to fix the royalty paid. However, the innovation that lay at the root of this gene revolution is now being throttled by this regime of price control.

BT is Bharat Tomorrow

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had famously said that IT (information technology) is India today, and BT (biotechnology) is Bharat tomorrow. While IT is powered by the software code inside the computers, mobiles and other devices, genes are the carriers of information that powers all biological forms. And like IT, BT too needs to continuously upgrade the genetic code to deal with new and emerging viruses and bugs.

The first generation Bt cotton, BGI, launched in India in 2002, with single new gene, Cry1Ac. In 2006, BGII with two additional genes, cry1Ac and cry2Ab, were approved for use. But since then, the world has moved on to BGIII with additional pest resistance proteins. And now the herbicide tolerant HT (Roundup Ready Flex (RRF)), with better pest resistance, as well as improved capacity to tolerate herbicide used for removing weeds from the field.

However, the price control on seed, the cap on royalty, and inordinate delay and uncertainty in approval process has led Monsanto and Mahyco to withdraw their application for approval of new generation of GM cotton. Today, Mahyco is exploring the prospect of new Bt cotton in Africa. Its Bt brinjal has been approved in neighbouring Bangladesh, after UPA2 government denied approval, even after the green signal from its own expert committee.

Likewise, GM mustard developed by Delhi University-based Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), was approved for commercial release last year by the regulatory body, and then reversed just last year.

Farmers, like many other sections of society, were enthused by the promises of Modi. Soon after taking office in 2014, Modi had alluded to possibility of knowledge of genetic engineering in ancient India. While a section of Indians ridiculed Modi for claiming stories from epics as history, a section of farmers and agricultural scientists were greatly inspired at the prospect of genetic engineering getting a fillip due to the Prime Minister’s use of that allegory.

Today, Modi has disappointed farmers, particularly cotton growers. India is turning away from Vajpayee’s vision of biotechnology as India’s tomorrow, even while agriculture growth has halved under Modi’s watch, compared to the years immediately before.

Not in the pink of health

The emergence of a new strain of pink bollworm, resistant to the earlier Bt cotton, over the past few years, has only underscored the need to update the genetic engineering tool kit. It was known that some insects will develop resistance to Bt toxin, just as some pests develop resistance to chemical insecticide or pesticides.

As part of the protocol for Bt cotton, it was recommended that farmers plant a refuge surrounding their fields with non-Bt cotton seeds. Allowing insects to feed on non-Bt plants was aimed at retarding the spread of resistance to Bt toxins in bollworms. The sellers of seeds were mandated to distribute a secondary packet of non-Bt seed, along with the Bt cotton seed to farmers.

In the Indian context of small land holding, each farmer planting his own refugia with non-Bt cotton was largely unfeasible. In addition, desperation among many farmers to augment their income meant that some sought to maximise the harvest by planting early, and continuing till a summer harvest, clearing their field just before the monsoon, and the next cotton planting season. Both these factors contributed to the development of resistance in pink bollworms.

While the risk was known, there was hardly any effort to prepare the farmers and incentivise the best crop management practices, perhaps institute a common refuge by bringing together a community of neighbouring cotton farmers. From this year, however, the Bt cotton seed producers have been asked to mix the Bt and non-Bt seed in the same packet, so that some plants in every field could potentially act as a refuge for the insect.

Gujarat was one of the first states seriously affected by the pink bolloworm 2-3 years ago. Since then better pest management strategies have evolved, including timely detection and proper use of pesticide, in addition light and pheromone traps are being deployed to attract the insects away from the crops. So while Gujarat is expecting a record cotton harvest in the 2018-19 season, Maharashtra and a few others states are expecting a lower harvest.

Farmers seizing their future

At the dawn of the 21st century, while the government dithered on approving the first generation of Bt cotton, the news of the success of genetic engineering had spread in India. Sensing the demand from farmers, a seed company in Gujarat released the unauthorised Bt cotton seed in the late 1990s, without any reference to genetic engineering.

Over the next couple of years, the success of the new seed spread like wildfire. Farmers from as far away as Punjab travelled to Gujarat to pluck a few bolls of cotton in order to extract the seed to plant it themselves.

After four years of struggle to adopt the unauthorised Bt cotton, the revolt of cotton farmers led by the late Sharad Joshi forced the hands of the then prime minister Vajpayee’s government, leading to the approval of Monsanto-Mahyco’s Bt cotton in 2002. To his credit Vajpayee recognised the political and economic capital underlying this decision.

Eminent agriculture economist Ashok Gulati and his associates have estimated that apart from increase in income for farmers, “between 2003-04 and 2016-17, the country gained $67 billion by exporting raw cotton and yarn and saving on imports.”

India, which was barely self-sufficient in cotton in 2002, has now outpaced China to become the world’s largest producer of cotton, and has emerged as the second largest exporter, behind the US. The productivity of cotton continues to vary widely across different states. Although the yield of Bt cotton has increased 50-100%, it is still quite low by the benchmarks achieved elsewhere in the world. This indicates the enormous scope for improvement by adopting global best practices.

Bt cotton reflects the most successful “make in India” initiative to date.  In the past few years, MSP has become almost irrelevant for cotton farmers as Indian cotton got more integrated with the global markets. Yet, the proposed hike in MSP is likely to make Indian cotton uncompetitive in the global market, threatening $20 billion of exports (cotton and associated products), while creating a glut in the domestic market.

New challenges

Today, history is repeating again. Weeding is a serious issue for farmers, because weeds compete with the crop for nutrients and moisture in the soil. For cotton farmers, the usual herbicide is not a very effective solution, since it adversely affects the cotton plant too.  Manual weeding is time consuming and costly, accounting for 12-15% of the cost of farming cotton. In comparison Bt seed cost 4-5%. Herbicide tolerant cotton (HT) Bt cotton allows farmers to deal with the weeds more effectively without impacting the crop, and so improving the prospect of a better harvest. Today, 60% of cotton grown globally is HT Bt.  Glyphosate is among the most widely used herbicide in the world, and has been in use for decades in many crops, including India.

For the last couple of years there had been reports of unauthorised release of HT Bt cotton. Last year the government constituted a high level committee to survey the fields in major cotton growing states. The report was submitted to the government earlier this year, confirming the presence of HT Bt cotton in 15% of the fields surveyed in major cotton growing states of Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and 5% in Punjab. This was much higher than earlier guess estimate of 7-8% prevalence in Maharashtra.

The committee has now recommended a crackdown on sale of illegal HT Bt cotton, and called for a ban on the use of glyphosate to discourage farmers from seeking the new seed. State governments are also seeking to prosecute and penalise those caught selling unauthorised seeds.

The total sale of Bt cotton in 2017 is estimated at 45 million packets (450 gm each) for around 12 million hectares that are under cotton today. At 15% coverage, the sale of unapproved HT Bt cotton could be 6.75 million packets. These packets have been selling between Rs 1000 to 1300 per packet, almost double the price of legal, and price-controlled, Bt cotton seed. So the total business of Ht Bt cotton seed, even though it has not been approved, could come to a whopping Rs 900-1000 crore. This is a market large enough, with profits high enough, to attract the mafia to market unauthorised seeds.

Clearly, the cotton farmers are voting with their wallet for unauthorised Ht Bt cotton, and then on the herbicide, in search of any opportunity to improve their crop, and therefore their livelihood. Given the scale of demand, farmers are taking great risk, and some are likely to be duped by criminals selling spurious seeds.

The price control on seeds, questioning the patentability of genetically engineered seeds, regulating herbicides, is adding to the huge regulatory burden on the farmers. This will only retard the spread of new technology, and make the farmers more vulnerable. Indian farmers deserve better.

The green revolution had helped insulate the country from vagaries of nature and made famine history. But the green revolution was capital intensive, requiring massive infrastructure investment, and therefore it has been a challenge to spread the benefits to most farmers even after 50 years. The gene revolution, like IT, has reduced dependence on large public expenditures. This has enabled even small farmers to access the new technologies, making it possible for them to adopt better farming practices and integrate with the world market. For that farmers need to be recognised as professionals capable of standing on their own, and not projected as permanent recipient of government aid.

In fact, a recent analysis of Indian agriculture by OECD-ICRIER found that India was among the only 3 out of 52 countries where the farmers received a net negative support of -14% of the  gross farm receipts for the period 2000-17, after accounting for input subsidies. All the claims of securing income of farmers are largely just talk, to hide the stark reality Indian farmers’ face.

Like their predecessors twenty years ago, despite the risks, the cotton farmers today have little option but to search for better GM seeds and technologies, even unauthorised ones. Another revolt by cotton farmers is brewing, two decades after the first battle for Bt cotton.

The Politics of Power

Farmers are repeatedly putting their life and livelihood at risk in search for better strategies to improve their produce and productivity. At the same time, many academics, activists, policy makers and the media, with hardly any stake in agriculture, often claim a veto power over the farmers. The apparent animosity between activists and government dissolves with the former providing the rationale for the latter to expand its power and control over the farmers.

While farmers seek freedom to farm, access market, adopt new technologies, the activists urge the government to step in stop the farmers. Thus the government’s power to regulate GM crops degenerates into an instrument to stop access to new technologies. When recalcitrant farmers refuse the diktat of the state and seek out even unauthorised GM cotton, the anti-GMO, anti-chemical activists goad the government to stop farmers’ access to herbicide in a convoluted effort to stop HT Bt cotton.

The repeated sacrifice of farmers at the altar of politics is the manifestation of the politics of power engaged in an eternal battle against the freedom of the people. Rather than holding farmers accountable for breaking regulations, it is time to hold the government accountable for perpetuating anti-farmer laws, while failing to protect the farmers’ freedom to make their own choices.


Also check out:
‘Free the Farmers’ — Barun Mitra
‘The State of Our Farmers’ — Episode 86 of The Seen and the Unseen
‘We Must Save Our Farmers’ — Amit Varma
‘The Crisis in Indian Agriculture’ — Brainstorm discussion on Pragati

About the author

Barun Mitra

Barun Mitra is interested in engaging with people to prospect for social capital underlying various contemporary issues, and exploring ways of making policy proposals politically viable. He is passionate about protecting property rights, as the primary interface between democratic politics and economic markets.