High costs, falling returns hurt Bt cotton farmers

Decreasing yields and high risks have tipped the scale against genetically-modified cotton. Is Bt maize set to take the same course?
Last Updated : 25 September 2022, 04:56 IST
Last Updated : 25 September 2022, 04:56 IST
Last Updated : 25 September 2022, 04:56 IST
Last Updated : 25 September 2022, 04:56 IST

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Two decades ago when Bt cotton was introduced, farmers were enticed by the promise of high yield, high market prices and insulation from devastating pink bollworm. "But over the years, increasing input costs and crop failures have outnumbered the strokes of luck," says farmer Channabasappa Masuti. He stopped growing the genetically modified cotton variety a decade ago and now grows local varieties.

Sitting in his 200-year-old house at Uppin Betageri village in Dharwad district, Masuti said, "We have sown cotton for decades. I remember cotton cultivation reaching its peak between 1995 and 2005. Of this period, the last two years saw rampant cultivation of Bt cotton."

The Bt seed technology involves genetically modifying the crop by inserting genes of a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into the plant cell's chromosome in order to produce a toxin that kills pests. Bt cotton was officially introduced to India's fields in 2002. By 2013, 95% of cotton grown in the country was of this variety.

While some credit the genetically modified (GM) variety of cotton for greater yields, farmers and researchers continue to decry this to be a myth. "What Bt has done to our land and our environment is unknown. What it has done to farmers is out in the open," says Masuti.

Despite the many controversies and farmers' concerns, the Union and state governments recently approved confined field trials of Bt cotton and Bt maize. This has kickstarted a debate once again. While the latest cotton trial is the third iteration of the technology in Karnataka, the clearance of Bt maize for trial has surprised many.

The concern is evident in the villages of Haveri that were once the test beds for Bt cotton. Yamunesh Agasanahalli, a farmer, has experienced the cotton boom, as well as the crop hitting its rock bottom. “Except for the few hundred rupees spent on seeds and a marginal amount on fertilisers, we did not spend on insecticides and pesticides in the first two years. I remember the yield in my field going up from 3.5-4 quintal per acre to 20 quintal per acre. Today, the average yield in the village is 8 quintal per acre, while input costs have grown over ten times,” he says.

Guddappa Hulmani, another Haveri farmer, splits a green cotton boll in his field to show the pink bollworm eating away the white clumps inside. “I have sprayed pesticides religiously. Even then, pests have destroyed entire squares (base of the boll). I will be lucky if 50% of the bolls survive to bloom this year,” he says.

In addition to pest resistance, the Bt cotton and maize seeds promise tolerance to herbicides like the chemical glyphosate, used to kill weeds. This has unleashed a new set of worries among activists and environmentalists.

“When using herbicides, farmers keep having to use larger amounts of chemicals as plants develop resistance. Moreover, herbicides kill the natural and benign organisms in the soil, requiring us to invest more in fertilisers,” Yamunesh adds.

Myth of Bt success

The false claims of Bt cotton success have been busted in studies by experts like Keshav R Kranthi, former head of the Central Institute of Cotton Research. Kranthi's empirical study attributes the rise in cotton yield to the over twofold increase in fertiliser use between 2006 to 2013, as well as the growth of irrigation infrastructure and the high use of insecticides.

"Countrywide yields have not improved in 13 years, and Indian cotton farmers today are spending more per hectare on insecticide than they did before Bt began to spread," Kranti concludes.

"Often, a Bt farmer’s debt journey starts from buying seed and gets steeper as the pesticide, fertiliser and labour costs add up,” Yamunesh adds.

The costs and uncertainties are so high, that a study by the Institute of Social and Economic Change found that one-third of the 321 Karnataka farmers who killed themselves in 2014 grew either cotton or tobacco. The researchers found that cotton cultivators of Belagavi and Haveri were not able to cross even 45% of the potential yield.

"Farmers have nothing to gain from Bt cotton," says Andrew Paul Gutierrez, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, whose work on the link between the cotton crisis and farmers suicides in India has acquired landmark status.

"The cost of hybrid Bt cotton seed is so high that it forces farmers into a low-density, long-season system that brings with it the buildup of late-season pests and low yield. Now, the seed manufacturers want to add herbicide tolerance, adding further to seed costs and hoping to sell herbicides as well," he adds.

In 2014, the state government banned Bt seeds sold by seed company Mahyco, after an inquiry found that over 54,000 farmers in seven districts suffered severe losses. Hybrid and GM cotton seeds have since then been sold by other private entities.

Desi varieties

Yamunesh notes that while desi seed varieties do not produce a great yield either, they do not lead farmers into crippling debt. “The seeds are available at Rs 100 and can be saved. Sahana and Jayadhar are popular desi cotton varieties known for yielding 350 to 400 kg per acre. Cultivating desi cotton and adopting intercropping or crop rotation is the best practice for farmers to avoid a crisis," he adds.

Back in Uppin Betageri, Masuti says it has been a decade since he embraced desi cotton. "I go for natural farming. I get an yield of around 350 kg per acre. Though I do not invest much in insecticides, I cannot escape the fertiliser costs. The only solace is that I have an assured buyer with a stable price of about Rs 8,000 per quintal," Masuti says.

Another advantage of local cotton varieties is that the seeds can be saved, unlike Bt cotton. "I have not bought seeds for the past 19 years," says Mallikarjun Rotti, a farmer in Hiregunjal near Kundagol.

However, unlike Masuti and Rotti, whose families own 40 and 20 acres respectively, farmers with small and marginal land holdings are not in a position to resist the Bt lure.

Bhagavanth Kusubi, whose family has five acres in the same village, said he diversifies crops but reserves a two-acre plot for cotton every year. "Cotton prices have gone up. Other crops are not bringing similar returns," Kusubi says.

Walking to the plot where the rich green leaves of Bt Cotton grow thick in the dry black soil, Kusubi shows the underside of a leaf, where tiny green and black insects thrive. "It has been only 15 days since I paid for pesticide spraying. Each of the three bottles cost me Rs 1,000, and the labour charges came up to Rs 1,200. Now, I have to pay to kill these things all over again," he says.

Seed monopoly

Experts at local, national and international levels have conducted multiple studies to show that Bt seeds were helping multinational companies at the cost of farmers.

Aruna Rodriguez, an activist, notes that the Union government itself acknowledged before the Delhi High Court (WP(C) 12069/2015) that Mahyco-Monsanto's "near monopoly" on Bt cotton seeds has led to market failure, as there are few alternative technology providers.

"A farmer succumbs to the pressure to use the best seed available in the market even when he might not have the means to cultivate such a crop. Consequently, in case of a crop failure, the farmers incur enormous debts in view of the loans taken to cultivate such Bt cotton crop...which in turn has caused a rise in farmers' suicides across various cotton-growing states," the government said.

State Agriculture Minister B C Patil did not respond to requests for comment. Central Institute For Cotton Research Director Y G Prasad could not be reached.

At the state committee meeting headed by the chief secretary last year, an expert member raised these points to oppose the proposed trial of GM crops.

"At least two members, including an expert member, opposed both the trials. One of them explained how hybrid varieties are more effective and sustainable than GM seeds by giving the example of brinjal. Developing hybrid brinjal by taking three varieties — one known for size, a second for pest resistance and another for taste — has given more benefits than those offered by Bt brinjal. More importantly, farmers do not have to be dependent on MNCs," the member tells DH.

Another expert said even the confined trials would affect the surrounding fields of the same crop.

"It is well known that cross-pollination has destroyed local varieties. But the committee overruled the objections and took a unilateral decision to approve the trials," a source said.

The approval of the Bt maize variety with herbicide tolerance has worried activists. “Genetically-modified foods are unsafe, and there is scientific evidence to that effect. GM crop trials themselves are risky, and it was in Karnataka that we had produced solid evidence of biosafety violations,” Rodriguez says.

When it comes to GM crops, India has a dubious record of poor regulatory mechanisms in all stages, right from the scientific evaluation of a seed to the failure to monitor its use.

"It is a path to perdition," says a scientist who has worked extensively on plant genetics for three decades. "We are still reeling from the invasion of pests which have developed a resistance to the Bt toxin. Why bring such a technology to maize as well? Allowing Bt maize will also open the gate for other food crops (to be genetically modified)," he says.

Published 25 September 2022, 03:57 IST

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