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Insights into Editorial: The flawed spin to India’s cotton story

Insights into Editorial: The flawed spin to India’s cotton story



Bt Cotton is a genetically modified organism or genetically modified pest-resistant variety of cotton.

Genetically Modified (GM) pest resistant Bt cotton hybrids have captured the Indian market since their introduction in 2002.

These now cover over 95% of the area under cotton, with the seeds produced entirely by the private sector.

India’s cotton production in 2019 is projected as the highest ever: 354 lakh bales.

Bt cotton’s role in increasing India’s cotton production, which GM proponents have highlighted as being instrumental, has also been used to argue for extending GM technology to increase food crop yield.

However, critics say that Bt cotton hybrids have negatively impacted livelihoods and contributed to agrarian distress, particularly among resource-poor farmers.

The Indian experience:

India is expected to be the world’s largest cotton producer, surpassing China in output.

However, India’s productivity (yield per unit area), is much lower than other major cotton-producing countries, meaning a much larger area is used for cotton production.

Indeed, India’s productivity has been only a third of these countries for over four decades.

Reasons for India’s Low yield per unit area:

  • India is the only country that grows cotton as hybrids and the first to develop hybrid cotton back in 1970.
  • Hybrids are made by crossing two parent strains having different genetic characters. These plants have more biomass than both parents, and capacity for greater yields.
  • They also require more inputs, including fertilizer and water. Though hybrid cotton seed production is expensive, requiring manual crossing, India’s low cost of manual labour make it economically viable.
  • All other cotton-producing countries grow cotton not as hybrids but varieties for which seeds are produced by self-fertilization.
  • A key difference between hybrids and varieties is that varieties can be propagated over successive generations by collecting seeds from one planting and using them for the next planting; hybrid seeds have to be remade for each planting by crossing the parents.
  • So, for hybrids, farmers must purchase seed for each planting, but not for varieties. Using hybrids gives pricing control to the seed company and also ensures a continuous market.
  • Increased yield from a hybrid is supposed to justify the high cost of hybrid seeds.
  • However, for cotton, a different strategy using high density planting (HDP) of compact varieties has been found to outperform hybrids at the field level.
  • It cannot be explained by agronomic or socio-economic differences because these countries include both developed and developing countries, and different geographies.

Background: India’s Policy for Hybrid Cotton:

Phase-1: Pre-GM cotton: This phase of the policy ranges from 1980-2002 when India persisted with hybrids while other countries shifted to HDP (High-density Planting).

The Cotton research centres & Public sector institutions ignored such a significant innovation (in the form of HDP) in cotton breeding in India.

Phase-2: Post-GM: This phase began post-2002 when Bt cotton was being considered for introduction into India.

In this phase, the deliberation of hybrids versus compact varieties could have been undertaken which could have led to the introduction of the HDP technology in India.

However, the scope of evaluation by the GM regulatory process in India was narrow and did not take the agro-economic conditions prevalent in India into account.

Therefore, the hybrid seed model for cotton in India persisted for many years even after benefits of compact varieties became clear from global experience.

For example, there was a steep increase in productivity for Brazil, from 400 to 1,000 kg/hectare lint (yield of cotton fibre after ginning, i.e, after separating cotton fibres from their seeds) between 1994 and 2000- the period which coincides with large-scale shift of the world to a non-GM compact variety.

Impact of Policy:

Market Capture: Commercial Bt hybrids have overshadowed the market, accompanied by the rollback of public sector cottonseed production.

Commercial Bt hybrids have completely taken over the market, accompanied by withdrawal of public sector cotton seed production.

The Indian cotton farmer today is left with little choice but to use Bt hybrid seed produced by private seed companies.

Hence, the Indian cotton farmers are left with little choice but to use Bt hybrid seed produced by private seed companies.

Due to the combination of high input and high risk, agricultural distress is extremely high among hybrid cotton cultivating farmers.

Compact varieties would have significantly reduced this distress as well as increased yield.

But, Farmer distress is also a reality:

  • Agricultural distress is extremely high among cotton farmers and the combination of high input and high risk has likely been a contributing factor.
  • Compact varieties would have significantly reduced distress as well as increased yield.
  • Therefore, the hybrid seed model for cotton that India, and India alone, has followed for over three decades, is inferior to the HDP model being used in other countries on three important counts: much lower productivity; higher input costs; and increased risk particularly for low resource farmers in rain-fed areas.
  • It is likely that production levels could have been much higher, with considerably lower risk and input costs, had compact varieties been developed and used in India.
  • The purpose of risk assessment in GMO regulation is to enable exercising of this choice by careful and comprehensive evaluation of costs and benefits.
  • In the case of Bt cotton hybrids, the benefits were limited and costs may well have been too high, particularly for resource-poor farmers.


Takeaways from the experience of Bt cotton:

First, we must be clear that the outcome of using a technology such as Bt is determined by the context in which it is deployed, and not just by the technology itself.

If the context is suboptimal and does not prioritise the needs of the principal stakeholders (farmers), it can have significant negative fallouts, especially in India with a high proportion being marginal and subsistence farmers.

Second, there is a need for better consultation in policy, be it agriculture as a whole or crop-wise.

Notably, India is a signatory to international treaties on GMO regulation (the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety), which specifically provide for inclusion of socioeconomic considerations in GMO risk assessment.

However, socioeconomic and need-based considerations have not been a part of GMO regulatory process in India.

It is important to recognise that adoption of any new technology such as Bt is a choice and not an imperative.

For example, some of the major cotton-producing countries such as Brazil (until 2012) and Turkey (up to the present) have achieved high productivity without the use of GM cotton by using alternative pest-management approaches.