A Decade of Bt Cotton in India (2012)

Workshop Report on ‘A Decade of Bt Cotton in India a Report’

Conference organized at India International Centre, New Delhi on by Centre for Environment Education, Centre for Sustainable
Agriculture & Council for Social Development June 11th-12th 2012

Executive Summery

A review process of ten years of Bt cotton in India was initiated by Centre for Environment Education (Ahmedabad), Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (Hyderabad) and Council for Social Development (New Delhi), through a national conference organized in Delhi on June 11th and 12th 2012.

  • The main objectives of the conference were:
    to bring the various nuances to the debate related to Bt cotton performance and other experiences from the ground in India to one table (not just the cotton yields debate) through the participation of numerous stakeholders who have drawn out a picture of Bt cotton in the past from a particular perspective or vantage point; within this, to look at the picture emerging across different states if possible and to look at the main claims around Bt cotton vis-à-vis performance;
  • to initiate a review process in the country that could lead up to a formal official review;
  • to glean out some main lessons/issues to be considered for the future by policy makers and regulators by re-looking at the policy and regulatory issues involved.

The conference had more than 150 participants from all over India, consisting of several regulators from Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) and Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), agriculture and molecular biology experts from different parts of the country, industry representatives, farmers’ organizations, organic farming groups, other civil society groups, academics and representatives of media. The Conference alsosaw Central Government representatives including Prof Abhijit Sen, Member in charge of Agriculture, Planning
Commission; Sri Anupam Barik, Additional Commissioner, Crops, Ministry of Agriculture and Mr M F Farooqui, Chairman, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee chairing various sessions. The experiences, studies and available data while questioning the absolute success of Bt cotton across the country brought forth the fact it has failed in the rainfed regions, which cover 65% of the total cotton cultivation in the country, due to various reasons. The conference organizers opined that this is a first step towards a comprehensive review process that needs to be taken up.

The review saw a number of presentations of micro-studies as well as macro-data on a variety of subjects including farm economics (yield, production, farmer incomes) with Bt cotton in different comparative frameworks, pesticide usage, regulatory regime, policy frameworks related to GMOs, riskiness and farmer suicides associated with Bt cotton, on public sector Bt cotton, on emerging scientific evidence with Bt cotton, on social, political and other implications etc., with further analysis and discussions on the same. At the end of the penultimate session on the second and final day of the conference, rapporteurs presented summary reports of each of the five sessions.

The main issues that emerged from this conference are:

  • The conference noted that adoption of Bt cotton in India is quite high. It also noted that distress amongst a large majority of cotton farmers is also high (especially in rainfed growing conditions).
  • The conference acknowledged the fact that such adoption should also be understood in the context of the failure of an earlier, related technology of chemical pesticides.
  • The conference found a mixed picture as the reality with Bt cotton with the agreement that it is not the best solution for rainfed regions. It was also noted that results from irrigated farming with Bt cotton have shown varying trends across regions and across years.
  • The conference also noted that different official sources of data are inconsistent with each other, and unreliable. While different micro-studies are questionable on their methodologies or design adopted, macro-data is sometimes contradictory between different sources.
  • It was however acknowledged that cotton area, production and yield have increased in the country in the past decade. How much of this is attributable to Bt technology and whether there is a causal correlation at all requires an in-depth investigation given that:
    There has been a large scale shift to hybrid cotton cultivation in the country;

    • That (irrigated) cotton area is on the increase;
    • That there have been favorable climatic conditions, especially in states like Gujarat, as analysed by the state level officials/scientists;
    • That input use on Bt cotton has been higher, in terms of chemical fertilizers etc.
    • That pest incidence has been generally lower due to favorable weather conditions for cotton cultivation, as acknowledged by official monitoring reports also and therefore, puts a question mark on Bt technology’s contribution to yield increases.
    • This causal correlation analysis has to be taken up also because in the years that India reported the highest year on year increases in cotton yields, AICCIP (All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project) results were showing that bollworm incidence was low to moderate. When Bt cotton can result in higher productivity only under pest pressure by protecting the crop from pest damage, how can such yield increases then be related to Bt technology?
    • Moreover, the recent stagnation and decline in cotton yields has to be understood further.
    • There was also a near-complete agreement on the increase in cost of cultivation after the adoption of Bt cotton. Comparative analysis with other alternatives like NPM and organic farming practices highlighted the definite advantage of these practices in cost of cultivation
      in comparison to intensive agricultural practices with Bt cotton hybrids.
    • On pesticide consumption data, some micro-studies seem to indicate pesticide use reduction initially, with use on sucking pests and other pests increasing, with per acre pesticide usage increasing and a dangerous cocktail of pesticides on the rise, while others indicate a steady increase. However, official data on pesticide consumption in India does not reflect any decline, except in Andhra Pradesh, where large-scale adoption of NPM is being followed.
    • The conference brought out the fact that riskiness analysis has to be incorporated into decision-making in technology assessment, more importantly in the case of transgenics like Bt cotton.
    • Concerns around the existing regulatory architecture in India, including the total absence of policy directives against even crops for which we are the Centre of Origin and diversity, in which we have trade security interests and where intense social implications lie (like herbicide tolerant crops) came to the fore.
    • The discussion on the regulatory mechanisms identified the need for further safety assessments for Bt cotton especially in the light of high volumes of oil from Bt cotton seeds reaching the edible oil supply and the usage of oil cakes as cattle feed.
    • It was also clearly pointed out that any decision-making on transgenics should incorporate need assessment and an assessment of alternatives, before considering a transgenic option at all.
    • The need for a liability regime to be put into place in addition to a labeling regime was
    • 93% of cotton seed being ‘controlled’ by one American MNC was noted. Seed sovereignty being threatened, with the public sector in India becoming redundant and irrelevant was a concern shared by many. It was noted that Bt cotton seed companies were not being made accountable, with the seed industry often taking governments to court – in this situation, the hope for farmers’ rights being upheld appears meagre.
    • There was concern around public funds being wasted in several ways, including on transgenic research that gets bogged down in IPR issues and “contamination” issues, in addition to lack of ability to take the R&D products to farmers; further, governments are
      paying compensation packages to farmers when the crop fails, with public funds.
    • The conference noted that public sector research is being sidelined with private sector takeover of seed. This is also limiting seed choices for farmers.
    • On the other hand, increased chemical fertilizer usage in Bt cotton was acknowledged, especially in terms of data available from Gujarat state – this not only has further public financing implications, but also serious environmental concerns where we are not treating our soil fertility as our main capital.
    • The conference also repeatedly noted that safer, cheaper and sustainable ecological alternatives exist, which are acknowledged by the NARS system and also practiced on a large scale by lakhs of farmers in the country. The conference put forward a
      recommendation that the government should create a level playing field between such alternatives and intensive agricultural technologies, for rational, informed choices to be made.
    • The conference identified that various parameters to assess Bt cotton have not been taken on board so far.
    • Aggressive marketing of Bt cotton seed was noted as a matter of concern and it was opined that this should be curbed, given that seed is an Essential Commodity.

The concluding session had Mr Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development, who opined that the story of Indian cotton needs to be studied thoroughly, to understand the “structural transformation” in the cotton economy in India in the past two decades. He pointed out that Bt cotton adoption by farmers is a fact to be noted, even as the contribution of hybrid seed and irrigation to cotton yield increases is to be acknowledged. Jairam Ramesh also pointed out that there is more scientific evidence that has emerged in the recent past which needs to be taken seriously. He pointed out that biotechnology in agriculture should not be restricted to one tool like Bt/Genetic Engineering and should explore and invest in a spectrum of tools like Marker Assisted Breeding etc. He appreciated the more active role being played by state governments in the recent past. There are a large number of scientific problems that have to be addressed. He felt that appropriate lessons have to be gleaned for research, seed production, extension, regulatory regime and so on, by the country taking up a comprehensive review of Bt cotton at this point of time. Most importantly, he pointed out that he does not see any reason why organic and NPM alternatives cannot be promoted by the government as much as support for transgenic research.