Science in Society Archive

India's Bt Cotton Fraud

Monsanto rides roughshod over Indian cotton farmers leaving a wake of false claims and doctored information, despite being fined for bribery in Indonesia. Rhea Gala

As the battle for control over cotton farming in India intensifies, Monsanto’s tactics to extend approval for its Bollgard Bt cotton call to mind those for which it was recently fined US$1.5m for bribery and corruption in Indonesia.

In advance of a deadline for a decision on licence renewal in March 2005, Greenpeace and the Sarvodaya Youth Organization released two versions of a report on Bt cotton prepared by the Joint Director of Agriculture of Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh (AP). The data in the original report, commissioned under a memorandum of understanding between the AP government and Monsanto-Mahyco, revealed a comprehensive failure of Bt cotton in AP. The second visibly tampered-with version exaggerated the yields, thereby substantially reducing Monsanto’s compensation to farmers. State agricultural committees have consistently demanded compensation to be paid to farmers for losses at a rate of Rs.20 000 (US$458.5) per acre, but Monsanto has refused to pay up so far.

Greenpeace campaigner Divya Raghunandan said, "We are disappointed by the government’s decision to expand the region under Bt cotton, while the need was to stop where it was already grown…The fact that data has been so clearly manipulated in this case, raises serious doubts about the authenticity of any data that the Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC) would use to review Bt cotton."

Market research: wishful thinking, or science?

Monsanto commissioned a study using a market research agency for the 2004 season, which claimed that Bt cotton yield was up by 58% on a country wide basis, resulting in a 60% increase in farmers’ incomes; and that in Andhra Pradesh, a 46% yield increase and a 65% reduction in pesticide costs gave a 42% increase in income to farmers.

A notorious piece of research by Martin Qaim (University of Bonn) and David Zilberman (University of California, Berkeley) was published in Science, claiming outstanding (80%!) yield increases from Monsanto’s GM cotton; and projected the results as relevant to farmers throughout the developing world. The paper drew a storm of protest, as it derived all its data from Monsanto and its findings were completely at odds with the reports coming from Indian farmers. Dr Devinder Sharma, a food policy expert, called Qaim and Zilberman’s paper a "scientific fairytale".

Agricultural scientists Dr Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari conducted an independent study on Bt cotton on a season-long basis for three years in 87 villages of the major cotton growing districts of AP - Warangal, Nalgonda, Adilabad and Kurnool - and found against Bt cotton on all counts:

  • Bollgard failed miserably for small farmers in terms of yields; non-Bt cotton surpassed Bt in yield by nearly 30% with 10% less expense
  • Bollgard did not significantly reduce pesticide use; over the three years, Bt farmers spent Rs. 2571 on pesticides on average, while the non-Bt farmers spent Rs.2766
  • Bollgard did not bring profit to farmers; over the three years, the non-Bt farmers earned on average 60% more than Bt farmers
  • Bollgard did not reduce the cost of cultivation; on an average, the Bt farmers had incurred 12% more costs than non-Bt farmers
  • Bollgard did not result in a healthier environment; researchers found a special kind of root rot spread by Bollgard cotton, infecting the soil so that other crops would not grow.

Another report entitled, The story of Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh: Erratic processes and results, published by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), documents the dubious events of three years of commercial Bt cotton cultivation in AP.

It researched the economics as well as the incidence of pests and diseases, and beneficial organisms in Bt cotton and non-pesticidal management (NPM) cotton fields. It established that the cost of pest management of Bt cotton was 690% higher than in NPM farming systems. Moreover seed cost of Bt cotton was 355% higher than conventional varieties.

These findings are documented by the women of the Deccan Development Society’s Community Media Trust, who have made a film called "Bt Cotton in Warangal: A three year fraud" Their previous film "Why are Warangal Farmers Angry with Bt Cotton" made in 2003, has been translated into French, Spanish, Thai and German and English; and is making waves around the world in national and international film festivals.

BBC’s recently broadcast Bitter Harvest series looks at the plight of farmers in India through issues such as seed-saving, patents, farmer suicides, depopulation of rural areas, subsidies, free trade and the debt trap.

The corporate take-over of farming, the green revolution and biotechnology are constant points of reference, with detail on how the public system in the Punjab is used to promote Monsanto’s seeds, and how Monsanto makes use of religion in its advertising to farmers in order to project its seeds as miraculous.

Never mind the facts

The GEAC approved six new varieties of Monsanto-derived Bt cotton seed for commercial use in the fertile northern states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, and eight new varieties have approval for large-scale trials in these states. This greatly extends the area given to GM cotton - which had previously been restricted to six central and southern states - in spite of the overwhelming evidence of harm caused to farmers’ livelihoods by the GM varieties.

Dr Vandana Shiva of Navdanya and Dr Krishan Bir Choudhary of Bharat Krishak Samaj, together with representatives of other NGOs, met the Prime Minister to demand the withdrawal of Bt cotton. Dr Devinder Sharma, called it "a scientific fraud" to impose Bt cotton on farmers.

The CSA and Gene Campaign complained to the GEAC about its pretence of inviting consultation with civil society. NGOs were invited, with one days notice, to voice their concerns; but their promised 10-minute slot was cut to 5 minutes and there was no discussion. A GEAC member refused to reveal her name on the grounds that it was confidential.

In a joint letter to GEAC chairman Suresh Chandra, CSA executive director Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu and Gene Campaign director Dr Suman Sahai alleged that the evidence of Bt cotton failure which they provided were not included in the minutes of the meeting. The minutes contained responses of seed companies on some questions raised by the GEAC.

The decision to extend the period of approval for Monsanto’s failed Bt cotton hybrids, Mech-12 Bt, Mech-162 Bt and Mech-184 Bt, which expires this season, was deferred again by the GEAC in April until the next meeting on May 11. One Bt variety was approved for commercial cultivation in the 2005 season in central India, and three more transgenic cotton varieties, including a VIP cotton from Syngenta, were approved for large-scale field trials in northern India.

These approvals, in the face of both grass-roots and scientific evidence of huge losses to farmers using Monsanto’s Bt seeds, are reminiscent of those in Indonesia, which came to an end with a change in government. Monsanto was exposed and fined $1.5m for bribery and corruption in the United States ("Corruption, half-truths and lies", SiS 25). The case of the tampered-with report on GM cotton remains unanswered here.

The AP Coalition demanded that the AP government immediately take steps to prevent the sale of Bollgard seeds for the present season, which is already going on. It also demanded that the government order a judicial enquiry into the official agencies’ suppression or manipulation of the evidence to favour the Mahyco-Monsanto corporation.

Farmers, scientists and researchers from around the world meeting in Hyderabad as part of the Global Week of Action, narrated first-hand encounters with Bt cotton and GM crops. A statement from the Deccan Development Society (DDS) said: "Having shared our encounters with genetic engineering from our countries, we are stronger in our conviction that the use of transgenic crops has unleashed new hazards onto our farms and into our lives. The profit-driven ‘life’ science industry is more life destroying than life giving."

Article first published 03/05/05


  1. GMW: Monsanto’s "Lie of the century" PV Satheesh 18 April 05
  2. Sharma AB. GEAC approval for only one Bt cotton variety
    Financial Express, Thursday, April 14 2005.
  3. India delays licenses for Monsanto's transgenic seeds
    Associated Press, April 13 2005
    Akhileshwari R Genetically-modified Bt cotton a cropper: Study
  4. Deccan Herald April 13 2005 Hyderabad.
  5. GMW:India’s GM expansion raises questions of corruption
  6. Devinder Sharma No Bt cotton, No pests! How cotton farmers are being fleeced. http://gmwatch.orgarchive2.asp?arcid=4935GMW
  7. The story of Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh Pts 1 and 2.
  8. The story of Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh: Erratic processes and results. Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, India.
  9. Bt cotton Vs. non pesticidal management of cotton: Findings of a study by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.
  10. Sharma AB. Bt cotton growers in AP feel the heat: study. The Financial Express, India. 22/2/05.
  11. Sharma AB Farm bodies cry foul over GEAC stand on Bt cotton
    Financial Express, April 27, 2005
  12. Response to latest Qaim and Zilberman fairytale

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