ISIS Report 26/01/05
GM Cotton Fiascos Around the World
A fully referenced
version of this article is posted on ISIS members website.
GM cotton not environmentally friendly or safe
Cotton is responsible for more than 10% of world pesticide use including
some of the most hazardous, and 25% of all insecticide use. As weeds and
insects become resistant, more and more pesticides are needed in a vicious
circle thats a recipe for socio-economic, health and environmental
disaster. About half of the GM cotton grown in the United States is herbicide
resistant, and a comprehensive analysis by Dr. Charles Benbrook, a former
Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture of the US National Academy of
Science, confirmed that it required more herbicide than conventional
Most GM cotton crops worldwide are engineered with Bt for resistance to
insect pests and promoted by firms like Monsanto as environmentally friendly,
because they need less pesticide.
Monsantos GM cotton Bollgard carries the cry1Ac
gene from soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, (Bt) to produce a
toxin that kills some cotton pests including the boll weevil. However, Bollgard
does not resist sucking pests, such as aphids, that might also damage the crop
and will therefore require subsidiary spraying.
GM cotton not friendly to farmers
GM cottonseed prices include a technology fee that can go up
every year, and is calculated on supposed savings from reduced pesticide use
with the Bt variety in a particular location.
All farmers growing Monsantos Bt cotton sign a contract, called a
Technology Use Agreement that is strictly applied. It stipulates that,
- Farmers cannot save seed for replanting
- Farmers are prohibited from supplying seed to anyone else
- Farmers must pay 120 times the technology fee, plus the legal fees of
Monsanto, if they violate the contract.
The Indonesian experience: A cautionary tale
Indonesia was the first country in Southeast Asia to permit commercial
GM farming against the warnings of scientists and activists on the
environmental and socio-economic impacts. Fortunately, permission was granted
only on a year-by-year basis, and the government reviewed the impact of the
failed Bt crop.
The review was scathing. This "Gene Revolution", it said, seemed to be
"a modern tool for cementing farmers dependence on seeds and
transnational agrochemical corporations appearing in developing countries in
different guises." The evidence from Indonesia is that "GM crops are nothing
more than a profit-motivated deployment of scientific power dedicated to
sucking the blood of farmers."
Monsanto promised Bt cotton would return 3-4 tonnes of cotton per
hectare while requiring less pesticide and fertilizer than Kanesia, the local
cotton variety. The seed was given to farmers with pesticide, herbicide,
(including Roundup) and fertilizer as part of a credit scheme costing sixteen
times more than non-Bt cotton. In fact, the average yield was 1.1 tonnes per
hectare and 74% of the area planted to Bt-cotton produced less than one tonne
per hectare. About 522 hectares experienced total crop failure. Despite that,
the government extended approval for Bt cotton for another year; and the
results were no better.
In 2001 farmers signed contracts, but in 2002 the seed price rose and
the cotton price slumped. Farmers had no choice but to shoulder the debt and
sell at the companys rate; as a result, 76% of farmers who joined the
credit scheme couldnt repay their debt and many burned their cotton in
protest against the government and the company (see "Broken promises",
SiS 22 http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isisnews.php).
In 2003, Monsanto halted operations saying that the Indonesian
Governments decision to authorize Bt cotton production on a year-by-year
basis had been a big obstacle to business investment. PT Monagro Kimia, a
Monsanto subsidiary, was under investigation by the US Department of Justice
and the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission on suspicion that a
payment of US$ 50 000 was made to Indonesian officials in 2002.
In January 2005, Monsanto was found guilty of authorising the bribe and
fined $1.5m (see "GM cotton:
corruption, hype, half-truths and lies", this series).
Bt cotton in India: Lessons not learned
Bt cotton entered commercial production in India in 2002 without
comprehensive assessment for detrimental effects, and despite fierce protests
by farmers and public interest organizations. Only six of Indias 29
states in the south and the west of the country have had permission to plant
Monsantos Bt cotton. Four strains of Bt seed were available with at least
one Indian variant of the licensed Monsanto varieties.
A 2002 study of Bt cotton in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh
found a 35% reduction in the total yield of Bt cotton with a net loss of Rs
1295, compared to a net profit of Rs 5368 for non-Bt cotton. Bt cotton yield
was 50% lower than that promised by Monsanto. Bollworm were predominant on both
Bt and non-Bt crops showing that Bt cotton was ineffective against its target
In 2003, there was 30% more rainfall than in 2002, and a new Bt hybrid
compared favourably with the previous year; however it was still 9% less
profitable than the non-Bt hybrids.
In 2004, farmers in the state of Andhra Pradesh grew Bt cotton on 10% of
the cotton acreage. Half of the farmers growing Bt cotton bought licensed seed
from Monsanto at 1 500 rupees per 400 gm packet, while the other half bought
unauthorised hybrid Bt seed at between Rs 800 to 1 200 per packet. Non-Bt
hybrid seed cost farmers about Rs 400.
Farmers found that, with fluctuating weather as in 2002, much of the
crop showed signs of wilt, and although some Bt cotton recovered from severe
moisture stress, the yield was very poor compared to non-Bt types; also the
yield from the unlicensed Bt cotton was better than Monsantos seed
because drought tolerant females had been chosen for crossing to produce the
hybrid. Monsanto is now demanding royalties of 70% from these seed
Many Bt plants were small with few bolls that were infested with
bollworm and other pests, including cercospora leaf spot, so the cotton had
been neither high-yielding nor resistant to bollworm as promised by Monsanto.
On 12 October, hundreds of farmers in Warangal district protested on the
streets where the seed and pesticide dealer shops were located and demanded
compensation for their losses, staging a sit-in on the highway. A second
protest took place two days later when senior officials promised to attend; a
Monsanto official was subsequently kidnapped. Meanwhile there has been a bumper
harvest in non-GM cotton.
Bt cotton in China
Monsanto received a permit in 1997 for commercial production of Bt
cotton in China and has since shared the Bt cotton market with domestically
developed varieties that have expanded quickly over the countrys
China has been held up as the success story in GM cotton, and is the key
to statistics claiming benefit for small farmers from GM. However, earlier
warnings of major problems have now been confirmed by a Chinese researcher who
reports that the technology will not only be useless within six to seven years,
but "could cause a disaster". Liu Xiaofeng, a researcher from Henan,
Chinas second largest cotton producing province, told Reuters that the
cotton bollworm is indeed developing resistance and will not be susceptible to
Bt cotton after 20-30 generations, or in six to seven years. Moreover, Bt
cotton does not effectively control secondary pests such as Lygus bug.
The early warnings appeared in a study published in June 2002 based on
the work of scientists at a research institute funded by Chinas
Environmental Protection Agency. It found that although Bt cotton was effective
in bollworm control, it had adverse impacts on the parasitic natural enemies of
bollworm, and was not effective in controlling many secondary pests that
damaged the crop. The study also found the diversity indices of the insect
community in Bt cotton fields to be lower than in conventional cotton fields,
and that the cotton bollworm could develop resistance to Bt cotton.
Lius work has received further collaboration by another study
published in October 2004, which found that Bt cotton did not reduce the total
numbers of insecticide sprays because additional sprays were required against
Field trials in Africa
South Africa, already the sixth biggest producer of GM crops in the
world, grows Bt cotton on large and small commercial scales, extolling the
benefits to small farmers in spite of the serious debts incurred.
Although there is a glut of cotton in the world market and depressed
prices caused by US subsidies to their own growers worth $3.7 b per annum, the
US government and the worlds biggest agrochemical companies are putting
pressure on West African countries to introduce Bt cotton, the trojan
horse for other GM crops waiting in the wings. In West Africa there are
wild relatives of cotton that may be contaminated, but in the US, GM cotton is
prohibited in Florida where wild relatives grow.
In November 2003, USAID, with the official support of the International
Institute of Tropical Agriculture, declared that it wants to GM-ize
Malis National Agricultural Research Institute has been
negotiating with Monsanto and Syngenta for field trials of Bt cotton. There is
a plan to convert the countrys crop to GM varieties over the next five
years; local farmers and the public are unaware of this intention. West African
farmers, already unable to sell enough natural cotton because of subsidies, are
locked into a cycle of poverty with credit against next years harvest.
- Burkino Faso has been field-testing Bt cotton since July 2003 in
collaboration with Monsanto. But Francois Traore, president of the National
Union of Cotton Producers, says, "If we already have the means to reduce
pesticide use, why look for things that are going to complicate life?"
- Benin has had a moratorium on GM products since March 2002, but is
under constant pressure to introduce Bt cotton.
- Senegal ran an unofficial field trial of Monsantos Bt cotton,
but efforts were abandoned after the cotton failed to perform.
- Egypt has a pro GM policy with field trials underway for Bt cotton
and many other crops.
- Kenya has many research institutes pushing GM crops, and research on
GM cotton is under way.
- Uganda has just published its first biosafety policy bill, which has
yet to be made law by parliament, however it is expected to take up Bt cotton
- Zimbabwe: The government destroyed some unsupervised field trials of
Bt cotton conducted by Monsanto some years ago.
In the US, home of Monsantos Bollgard first planted in 1996, there
have been problems with erratic and disappointing yield, especially in
Southeast Arkansas where costs were significantly higher on Bt acreage. In
2002, despite the use of supplementary pesticides, 7.5% of the Bt crop was
destroyed by bollworm and 1.4% destroyed by Spodoptera and
Pseudoplusia includens caterpillars. The total insecticide use has
remained relatively stable due to the increasing importance of secondary pests;
it is lower in dry states such as Texas, but increasing in the Mississippi
Research on Bollgard cotton adopted in North Carolina, conducted between
1996-2003 by Jack Bacheler, North Carolina State University Extension
entomologist found changes in insect communities, and that while damage from
bollworms decreased, stink bug problems have increased.
In 2004, Bt cotton was grown in nine states and comprised more than 75%
of all cotton grown. Most varieties are Roundup Ready (RR) or RR and Bt
combined . The proposed technology fee for Bollgard II was US $99 ha
in 2004, this is to be added to the seed price.
Bt cotton is also grown in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Columbia. In
Columbia the vice-president of the biosafety council works for Monsanto and was
thus able to both apply for and grant permission for release of a Bt crop in an
area that is a centre of origin for some wild cotton species. Moreover, the
pest responsible for 70% of pesticide use on cotton is the picudo, which
is not targeted by Monsantos cotton. The small farmer will once again
lose out due to this folly.
Overproduction of cotton devastating the environment and destroying
World overproduction of cotton, a crop that degrades the environment by
escalating requirement for pesticide, demand on scarce water resources and
exhaustion of soil, is a subject for serious concern in its own right. Large
commercial plantings - which attract subsidies in rich countries - create
monoculture deserts and distort world markets. As a result, the poor producer
in the south, who has traditionally grown a crop of one or two hectares,
descends into a spiral of debt. The aggressive introduction of GM cotton will
exacerbate all the problems of the conventional crop and, in developing
countries, nullify centuries of successful local crop breeding by farmers,
destroying their autonomy and control of seed, their livelihoods and cultural