ISIS Report 06/01/10
Farmer Suicides and Bt Cotton Nightmare Unfolding in India
The largest wave of farmer suicides and ecological
nightmare unfolding around Bt cotton
Mae-Wan Ho exposes the “fudged” data and false claims of ‘successes’
that have perpetrated the humanitarian disaster
referenced version of this report has been submitted to Shri Jairam Ramesh
Environment Minister of India, urging him to stop growing Bt cotton and other
GM crops in India; it is posted on ISIS members’ website (details
here) and can be downloaded here
Please circulate widely and repost, but you must give the URL of the original and preserve all the links back to articles on our website
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The Bt cotton killing fields
As the cotton growing season drew to a close in the state of Andhra
Pradesh, farmer suicides once again became almost daily occurrences.
Officially, the total number of suicides within a six-week period between July
and August 2009 stood at 15, but opposition parties and farmers’ groups said
the true total was more than 150 . Opposition leader N. Chandrababu claimed
in a speech that he had the names and addresses of 165 farmers who ended their
lives because of the distress caused by the drought.
By November, similar reports were coming from another
cotton growing state Maharashtra. Farmers of Katpur village in Amravati district sowed Bt cotton four years ago. Instead of the promised miracle yields,
huge debts have driven many to suicide, and cattle were reported dying after
feeding on the plants  (see  Mass
Deaths in Sheep Grazing on Bt Cotton, SiS 30).
One ray of hope was that the 5000-odd farmers of the
Maharashtra village have decided to shun Bt cotton, and are now growing
soybean instead. Some have also taken to organic farming.
“We were cheated by the seed companies. We did not
get the yield promised by them, not even half of it. And the expenditure
involved was so high that we incurred huge debts. We have heard that the
government is now planning commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal. But we do not
want Bt seeds of any crop anymore,” said farmer Sahebrao Yawiliker.
Successive studies in Maharashtra have concluded that indebtedness
was a major cause of suicides among farmers .
Within a week, two farmers in neighbouring villages
in Wardha district killed themselves. Their Bt cotton crops were devastated by lalya,
a disease that caused the cotton plants to redden and wilt . The first
farmer, 55 year old Laxman Chelpelviar in Mukutban, consumed the pesticide Endoulfan
when the first picking from his six-acre farm returned a mere five quintals and
an income of Rs15 000, way below his expenses of Rs50 000. The second farmer,
45 year old Daulat Majure in Jhamkola, was discovered by his mother hanging
dead from the ceiling. The cotton yield from his seven-acre farm was a
miserable one quintal, worth Rs3 000.
Agricultural scientists said lalya points to
a lack of micronutrients and moisture content in the soil. Lalya develops
with pest attacks, moisture stress and lack of micronutrients in the soil. The
plant’s chlorophyll decreases with nitrogen deficiency, resulting in another
pigment, anthocyanin, which turns the foliage red. If reddening starts before
boll formation, it results in a 25 percent drop in yield, said a scientist from
the Central Institute of Cotton Research at Nagpur, who wished to remain
anonymous. “Lalya is here to stay.” He declared.
According to the agricultural scientists, the disease has
its roots in the American Bt technology that India imported. Almost all of the
500-plus Bt seed varieties sold in India in 2009 are of the same parentage, the
American variety Coker312 Bt cotton, a top CICR scientist said. They are F1
hybrids, crossed with Indian varieties.
Coker-312 (initially from Monsanto) showed high
susceptibility to attacks by sucking pests like jassids and thrips. The thrips
disperse within plant cells, while jassids suck the sap as they multiply under
a leaf’s surface, forcing the plant to draw more nutrients from the soil,
aggravating the soil’s nutritional deficiency.
Another characteristic of Bt cotton that depletes the soil
is that the bolls come to fruition simultaneously, draining the soil all at
once. In a region like Vidarbha, plants wilt in two or three days. “It is like
drawing blood from anemic woman.”
“If such a technology mismatch continues, soil
health and farmers’ economy will take a further hit,” a top ICAR scientist with
years of experience in cotton research was reported saying . “The state
needs to take up soil and water conservation efforts on a war footing in
India has about ten million ha under hybrids and Bt cotton,
much high than in China (6.3 m ha), US (3.8 m ha) and Pakistan (3.1 m ha). Unlike India, 79 other countries use self-seeding and non-Bt hybrids.
The cotton crisis and successive crop failures due to
declining soil health goes hand in hand with the imported GM (genetic modification)
technology, which is energy and input intensive, the report  concluded.
Other effects of Bt cotton the Indian scientists could have
mentioned are the resurgence of secondary pests and especially the new exotic
mealy bug pest introduced with the Bt cotton, as well as the reduced yields of
other crops on land cultivated with Bt cotton  (see Mealy
Bug Plagues Bt Cotton Fields in India and Pakistan, SiS 45).
A recent scientific study
carried out by Delhi-based Navdanya compared the soil of fields where Bt-cotton
had been planted for three years with adjoining fields planted with non GM
cotton or other crops . The regions covered included Nagpur, Amravati and
Wardha of Vidharbha, which account for the highest Bt cotton planting in India,
and the highest rate of farmer suicides (4 000 per year).
In three years, Bt-cotton was
found to reduce the population of Actinomycetes bacteria by 17 percent.
Actinomycetes bacteria are vital for breaking down cellulose and creating
Bacteria overall were
reduced by 14 percent, while the total microbial biomass was reduced by 8.9
percent. Vital soil enzymes, which make nutrients available to plants, have
also been drastically reduced. Acid phosphatase which contributes to the uptake
of phosphates was lowered by 26.6 percent. Nitrogenase enzymes, which help fix
nitrogen, were diminished by 22.6 percent. The study concluded  that a
decade of planting with GM cotton, or any GM crop with Bt genes could lead to
total destruction of soil organisms, “leaving dead soil unable to produce food.”
After some respite in the post loan-waiver year of 2008,
farmer suicides have begun to climb again . The number of suicides in the
six worst-affected western Vidarbha districts in 2009 was approaching 900.
November saw 24 famers take their own lives in Yavatmal alone.
“Crop survival this year is only 44 percent in some
blocks,” said Sanjay Desmukh, Yavatmal collector. “Rains have been scanty.”
Official records underestimate the real extent of
According to Indian government records, 182 936
farmers committed suicide in India between 1997 and 2007 . Nearly two-thirds
occurred in five states, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh
and Chhattisgarh, with one-third of the country’s population. The count has
been rising even as the numbers of farmers are diminishing. As many as 8
million quit farming between 1991 and 2001, and the rate of quitting has only
These official figures tend to be
huge underestimates. The records are collated by the National Criminal Records
Bureau, a wing of the Ministry of home Affairs; but the numbers reported to the
Bureau by the states are often massaged downwards. For example, women farmers
are not normally accepted as farmers, as by custom, land is never in their
names, although they do the bulk of the work in agriculture.
P. Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The
Hindu and author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought, refers to the
suicides as “the largest sustained wave of such deaths recorded in history”,
and attributes it to India’s “embrace of the brave new world of neoliberalism.”
The rate of farmers’ suicides has worsened
particularly after 2002 (the year GM crops were introduced to India, although Sainath does not say so). Between 1997 and 2001, the number of suicides was
78 737, or 15 747 a year on average. Between 2002 and 2006, the number was 87
567, or 17 513 a year on average.
Indebtedness the cause
Those who have taken their lives were deep in debt (as
successive studies in Maharashtra confirmed ). Peasant households in debt nearly
doubled in the first decade of the neoliberal “economic reforms” , from 26
percent of farm households to 48.6 percent, according to the National Sample
Survey data. But in the worst affected states, the rate of indebtedness is far
higher. For example, 82 percent of all farm households in Andhra Pradesh were
in debt by 2001-02.
Furthermore, those who killed
themselves were overwhelmingly cash crop farmers growing cotton, coffee,
sugarcane, groundnut, pepper, and vanilla. Suicides were fewer among those that
grow food crops such as rice, wheat, maize and pulses.
Giant seed companies have been displacing cheap hybrids and far
cheaper and hardier traditional varieties with their own products. A cotton
farmer buying Monsanto’s GM cotton would be paying far more for seed. Local
varieties and hybrids were squeezed out with enthusiastic state support.
In 1991, farmers could buy a kilogram of local seed for as little as
Rs7 or Rs9 in today’s worst affected region of Vidarbha. By 2003, they would
pay Rs350 (US$7) for a 450 gram bag of hybrid seed. By 2004, Monsanto’s
partners in India were marketing a 450 grams bag of Bt cotton seed for between
Rs1 650 and Rs1 800 ($33 to $36). This price was brought down by government
intervention overnight in Andhra Pradesh, where the government changed after
the 2004 elections. The price dropped to around Rs900 ($18), still many times
higher than 1991 or even 2003.
Health and food costs sky-rocketed while
farmers’ income crashed, and so did the price they got for their cash crops,
thanks to subsidies to corporate and rich farmers in the US and EU. These subsidies
on cotton alone destroyed cotton farmers not only in India but in African
nations such as Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali and Chad.
As costs rose, credit dried up and debt
went out of control, and the tides of suicides washed over India.
To add to the farmers’ plight, the
unsustainable farming practices are coming home to roost. More than 1 500
farmers in the state of Chhattisgarh committed suicide, driven into debt by
crop failures due to falling water levels, which dropped from 40 feet to below
250 feet in just the past few years .
More “sinister” GM crops
But there is yet a more “sinister reason” for the mass
suicides: GM crops, notably Bt cotton. Millions of Indian farmers had been
promised undreamt of harvests by switching to planting GM seeds. They borrowed
money to buy the exorbitant seeds, only to find their crops failing miserably,
leaving them with spiralling debt from which the only exit is suicide. British
journalist Andrew Malone writing for the Mail  reported an estimated
125 000 farmers had taken their own lives directly as the result of GM crops;
the crisis being branded “GM genocide” by campaigners. It is perpetrated by
powerful GM lobbyists and prominent politicians all over the world who persist
in claiming that GM crops have transformed Indian agriculture and producing
greater yields than ever before.
Malone described how he travelled
to Maharashtra in the suicide belt to find out for himself who is telling the truth.
There he witnessed the cremation of the body of the farmer in a cracked barren
field near his home 100 miles from Nagpur in central India.
Death by insecticide
“As flames consumed the corpse, Ganjanan, 12, and
Kalpana, 14, faced a grim future. While Shankara Mandauka had hoped his son and
daughter would have a better life under India’s economic boom, they now face working
as slave labour for a few pence a day. Landless and homeless, they will be the
lowest of the low.” Malone wrote.
Shankara drank insecticide to end
his life 24 hours earlier. He was in debt for two years’ earnings and could see
no other way out of his despair.
“There were still marks in the dust
where he had writhed in agony. Other villagers looked on – they knew from
experience that any intervention was pointless – as he lay doubled up on the
ground, crying out in pain and vomiting.”
Neighbours gathered to pray outside
the family home. Nirmala Mandaukar told how she rushed back from the fields to
find her husband dead. “He was a loving and caring man,” she said, weeping.
Shankara’s crop, Bt cotton, had
failed twice. Like millions of other Indian farmers, he switched from
traditional seeds to GM seeds, beguiled by the promise of bumper harvests and
future riches. He borrowed money to buy the GM seeds. But when the harvests
failed, he was left with mounting debts and no income.
“Simple, rural people, they are
dying slow, agonizing deaths. Most swallow insecticide – a pricey substance
they were promised they would not need when they were coerced into growing
expensive GM crops.” Malone wrote. “Pro-GM experts claim that it is rural
poverty, alcoholism, drought and ‘agrarian distress’ that is the real reason
for the horrific toll. But as I discovered during a four-day journey through
the epicentre of the disaster, that is not the full story.”
In one village, he found 18 farmers had committed
suicide after being “sucked” into GM debt. Village after village, families
told how they had fallen into debt on being persuaded to buy GM seeds. Famers
paid £10 for 100 g of GM seeds, a thousand times the cost of traditional seeds.
The GM salesmen and government officials promised farmers that these were
‘magic seed’ that yield better crops without parasites and insects.
Far from being magic seeds, the GM crops
were devastated by bollworms. They also required double the amount of water.
When rains failed for the past two years,
many GM crops simply withered and died.
In the past when crops failed, farmers
could still save seeds and replant them the following year. But with GM hybrid seeds,
they have been unable to do that.
Suresh Bhalasa was another farmer cremated
the same week, leaving a wife and two children. His family had no doubt that
their troubles began the moment they were encouraged to buy Monsanto’s Bt
“We are ruined now,” said the 38-year-old widow.
“We bought 100 grams of Bt cotton. Our crop failed twice. My husband had become
depressed. He went out to the field, lay down in the cotton and swallowed
Monsanto admitted that soaring debt was a
“factor in this tragedy,” but said that cotton production had doubled in the
past seven years. A spokesman blamed other reasons for the recent crisis, such
as “untimely rain” or drought, and that suicides have always been part of the
rural Indian life.
Malone’s findings on GM cotton and farmers
suicides confirm what we reported in 2006  (Indian Cotton Farmers Betrayed, SiS
29); when organic cotton was already providing farmers a lifeline  (Message from Andra
Predesh:Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt cotton trap, SiS 29; see also  Stem
Farmers’ Suicides with Organic Farming, SiS
Yield ‘jump’ due to Bt cotton?
However, the findings by journalists and activists on
the ground were contradicted by a discussion paper  of the International
Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on
International Agricultural Research). The CGIAR describes itself  as a
“strategic partnership” of 64 members supporting 15 international centres
working in collaboration with many hundred of government and civil society
organizations as well as private businesses around the world.
Based on the analysis of information from
a variety of official and unofficial sources, published and unpublished
studies, the IFPRI paper  concluded that “there is no evidence of a
“resurgence” of farmer suicides in India in the last five years, and that Bt
cotton technology has been “very effective overall in India.”
It stated that Bt cotton is “neither
a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides.”
Nevertheless, “in specific regions and years, where Bt cotton may have indirectly
contributed to farmer indebtedness, leading to suicides, its failure was mainly
the result of the context or environment in which it was planted.”
These conclusions absolve Bt cotton
from having played any part in the farmers suicides, laying practically
all the blame on inappropriate rainfall and drought, with no mention of the
exorbitant price of GM seeds compared with traditional seeds; nor of failed
harvests or of increased pesticide use.
Actually, the data presented showed
that the two states with the largest planted areas of Bt cotton, Maharashtra (1 840 000 ha) and Andhra Pradesh (830 000) in 2006 (Table 7 of IFPRI paper) were
also the ones with the highest suicide rates that year.
The following year’s harvest in Maharashtra was no better despite the hype of a ‘bumper crop’ by the state government
suspected of intending to boost the image of Bt cotton and to depress the price
. Farmers were reporting huge losses. One Bt cotton farmer harvested 80
quintals (1 quintal = 100 kg) in 45 acres and expected to harvest a further 80
quintals at most. As cotton seed is about one-third lint, the actual lint yield
was less than 12 kg/acre or 32.5 kg/ha. The state had projected a total
production of 7 000 000 bales (1 bale = 170kg), but the Divisional Commissioner
of Amravati said it would not exceed 4 000 000 bales. In the end, the official
record on the Indian Government’s Cotton Corporation of India database was 5 000 000 bales .
The most dubious claim in the IFPRI
paper  was in a graph showing that the average yield of cotton for all India shot up from about 300 kg/ha to 500 kg/ha in the five years after Bt cotton was
introduced in 2002, an increase attributed largely to Bt cotton. But when the
average cotton yields by region were plotted, no such jump was evident; and
even less so when the average yields by states were plotted (see Figure 1). Maharashtra, the state with the largest area of Bt cotton, had the lowest yields.
Without a proper statistical
analysis, it is impossible to tell if the trend before and after the
introduction of Bt is different; furthermore, there is no evidence Bt cotton is
responsible for any yield ‘jump’.
The official Indian Government data
 do not present yields from Bt cotton separately from those of non-Bt
cotton. The IFPRI paper  provided some information on the number of
hectares planted with Bt cotton in its Table 7 for the years 2002 to 2006. In
2004, 500 000 ha were planted with Bt, representing 5.69 percent of the
total8 786 000 ha of cotton land. If Bt cotton were solely responsible
for the increase in yield to 470 kg/ha reported that year, the 5.69 percent of
land planted with Bt cotton would have had to yield a miraculous 2 460.5 kg/ha,
because the extrapolated yield without Bt cotton, according to the old curve
would have been only 350 kg/ha.
Clearly other factors were
responsible for the increase in yield that apply to cotton crops in general, Bt
and non-Bt, as was pointed out by a researcher of the Coalition for a GM-Free
India : an enormous increase in irrigation, good rainfall (for rain fed
crops), increase in use of fertilizers and hybrid seeds (including Bt hybrids
with indigenous varieties) and lack of pests.
But are the reported increases in
Figure 1 Yield jump
due to Bt cotton. Top, average cotton yields for all India 1980-2007; middle, average
cotton yields for different regions 1975-2007; bottom, average cotton yields
for states, 1975-2007 (redrawn from )
Questionable reliability of data
The reliability of the Indian Government’s database 
is open to question. For example, the production of the whole of India for 2008 was recorded at 31 500 000 bales, giving an average yield of 567 kg/ha. But
according to the later estimate by American agencies, the 2008 production was
23 000 000 bales , or an average yield of only 414 kg/ha. Data from other
countries such as the United States and China also showed that yields of cotton
have stagnated since the introduction of Bt cotton.
Massive failures of Bt cotton crops in the
states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra were widely reported in the first year
of introduction [19-22] (Bt cotton fails in India, Science in Society 16).
The Khargone district in Madhya Pradesh facing a severe drought reported 100
percent Bt cotton failures compared with 20 percent failures of non-Bt cotton.
The Vidarbha cotton belt in the adjoining state of Maharashtra reported more
than 30 000 ha damaged by root rot with over 70 percent of the crop areas
affected. Farmers in both areas were demanding compensation.
In 2005, in advance of a deadline for a decision
on license renewal, Greenpeace India 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  (India's Bt Cotton
Fraud, SiS 26).
Local scientists and farmers accused the
State Agriculture Department scientists of “fudging data” on Bt cotton
performance . “For example, 4 is made into 14 quintals yield, and figures
are similarly concocted to show reduced pesticide use.”
Monsanto commissioned a study using
a market research agency for the 2004 season (see below), which claimed that Bt
cotton yield was up by 58 percent on a country wide basis, resulting in a 60
percent increase in farmers’ incomes; and in Andhra Pradesh, a 46 percent yield
increase and a 65 percent reduction in pesticide costs gave a 42 percent
increase in income to farmers. Every one of those claims was directly
contradicted by independent research on the ground .
A notorious paper by Martin Qaim
(University of Bonn) and David Zilberman (University of California, Berkeley)
was published in the top journal Science, claiming outstanding (80
percent) 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
These Bt fantasies were
contradicted by independent studies.
studies contradict claims of Bt yield jump
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 (Monsanto’s Bt cotton) failed miserably for small
farmers in terms of yields; non-Bt cotton surpassed Bt in yield bynearly
30 percentwith 10 percent less expense
Bollgard did not significantly reduce pesticide use; over the
three years, Bt farmers spent Rs 2 571 on pesticides on average, while the
non-Bt farmers spent Rs2 766
Bollgard did not bring profit to farmers; over the three
years, the non-Bt farmers earned on average 60 percent more than Bt
Bollgard did not reduce the cost of cultivation; on an
average, the Bt farmers had incurred 12 percent 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, The story of Bt
cotton in Andhra Pradesh: Erratic processes and results  published by
the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), documented the controversial
events surrounding the failures of Bt cotton during its first three years of
commercial cultivation in Andhra Pradesh.
In the first year (2002-2003), the
popular non-Bt hybrid yielded on average 276 kg/ha compared with 180 kg/ha from
Bt-cotton (an increase of 53 percent). The average net return for non-Bt
farmers was Rs2 147 compared with Rs518 for Bt farmers, an increase of 314
percent. Some 71 percent of farmers on Bt cotton suffered a net loss compared
with only 18 percent of farmers who planted non-Bt cotton. Similar surveys
carried out in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh by New Delhi based Research
Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology confirmed the dismal results of
Bt cotton; farmers who planted Bt cotton suffered a net loss of Rs 3 300 per
acre, whereas those growing non Bt hybrids and desi varieties (indigenous non
Bt cotton) gained Rs10 750 and Rs 8 250 respectively. These trends were
confirmed in a third study by non-government organization, Gene Campaign.
Monsanto-Mahyco, however, conducted
its own survey, which presented positive findings for Bt cotton.
In the second year (2003-2004),
Monsanto-Mahyco commissioned a survey by a market research agency A C Nielson,
which came up with the appropriately positive report. However, a season-long
monitoring by Deccan Development Society, Permaculture Association of India and
Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity (APCIDD) returned quite
different findings. It showed that Bt crops did not significantly reduce the
cost of pesticides, they required more insecticide sprays for controlling
sucking pests than non-Bt crops, and Bt crops led to a 9 percent reduction in yield
and less net profit for farmers (see Table 1).
Table 1. Monsanto Commissioned study vs independent
Pesticide Usage Reduction
Increase in Net Profit
Quintals / Acre
Rs / Acre
In the third year, the areas planted with
Bt expanded again, to six times the previous year, as conditional approval was
granted by the GEAC for commercial release for RCH2 Bt, a Bt hybrid with an
indigenous variety of Rasi Seeds, for South and Central India.
Mass Bt crop failures were detected early
in the season in Warangal district. The government had sent out 50 teams of
experts to visit the fields and compile a report, but no information was
forthcoming. By November 2004, the agricultural officials in Warangal admitted
that out of 20 000 ha of Bt cotton grown in the district 65 percent was damaged
by wilt, where the flowers, bolls, and the plants dried up resulting in very
low yields. In contrast, only 15 percent of the non-Bt crops were damaged.
Qayum and Sakhari continued a fourth successive
year of study on Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh for the APCIDD, the Deccan
Development Society and the Permaculture Association of India . They
compared the performance of Bt cotton with non-Bt cotton, and organic (NPM,
non-pesticide management) cotton and the corresponding economic returns to
The previous report  from 2002-2005
covered the Bt cotton hybrids MCH162 and MCH184 introduced by Mahyco-Monsanto.
These hybrids were found to have “failed miserably” as small farmers could neither
reduce pesticide use nor cost of cultivation, and some diseases similar to
Rhizotaria root rot and bacterial leaf blight had widely spread first in Bt
hybrid cotton, which later infected the non-Bt hybrids. As a result of the
report and extended agitation by farmers in the region, GEAC and the Government
of Andhra Pradesh imposed a ban on the cultivation of Mahyco-Monsanto hybrids
in the state during 2005-2006.
Between 2004 and 2006, a number of
new hybrids were released for cultivation in Andhra Pradesh. These include RCH
20, ProAgro368, Bunny and Mallika, in addition to Rasi’s RCH-2. So the study
for 2005-2006 analysed the performance of all the Bt hybrids in nine villages
in three districts, Warangal, Adilabad and Nalgonda .
The results showed that NPM cotton and
non-Bt cotton cost less than Bt cotton by 22.83 percent and 16.66 percent
respectively and resulted in better net economic return by 35.35 percent and
8.81 percent respectively. There were only slight differences in yields with Bt
cotton hybrids ahead of non-Bt and NPM cotton by 6.09 and 6.6 percent
respectively. The greatest savings were in the cost of seeds. Bt-hybrid seeds
cost Rs1 750 per acre compared with Rs481.8 for non-Bt hybrid seeds, and
Rs473.7 NPM-hybrid seeds.
Incidentally, the average yield over the
five years 2002-2006 for Andhra Pradesh according to state record was 328 kg/ha . But the figures from the government
database  gave an average of 485 over the same period, an inflation of 48
While the incidence of American
bollworm – the pest that Bt cotton protects against – was low throughout the
study area irrespective of whether Bt, non-Bt or NPM cotton was grown, other
important pests, the sucking pests, were rampant. The incidence was higher in
Bt cotton fields and extended to longer duration, so Bt farmers had to spray
once or twice more than non-Bt farmers, while NPM farmers did not have to use
insecticides at all. These findings confirmed results obtained earlier, which
we reported in detail  (Organic
Cotton Beats Bt Cotton in India, SiS 27).
In 2007, a study on Bt cotton in Vidarbha documented
that it has failed in the region . Suman Suhai, director of Gene Campaign,
told The Hindu that despite knowing that Bt cotton would not work in
rain fed areas, the government had introduced it in Vidarbha, and as a result
the high input costs of Bt cotton had increased indebtedness in an area already
heavily indebted. The study showed that 70 percent of small farmers had already
lost their landholdings as collateral for loans that they could never repay.
Suhai said seed dealers encouraged farmers to buy
far more fertilizer and pesticide than was needed, raising their input costs.
They promised farmers 12 to 15 quintals per acre when the actual harvest was in
the range of three to 5 quintals per acre. At the same time cotton price came
down with the import of Chinese cotton. On average, farmers who adopted Bt
cotton lost Rs1 725 per acre.
The study further revealed that many farmers adopted
Bt cotton because they believed it was a “government seed”, instead of being
privately produced and marketed. They also adopted it because the government
was activity promoting it. Local officials like the Agriculture Commissioner of
Amravati were aware of the failures of Bt cotton, but the state agriculture
department continued to promote it.
The study also collected evidence of other effects
of Bt cotton on plants and animals: cattle deaths in areas where they grazed in
harvested Bt cotton fields . Women working in cotton fields had complained
of rashes (see  (More
Illnesses Linked to Bt Crops, SiS 30), and mango trees that were not
flowering. But the government has turned a deaf ear to those reports to this
Vandana Shiva has roundly condemned
the IFPRI paper in her critique , exposing all its
false claims. More recent field studies in Vidarbha carried out by her
organization Navdanya showed a 13-fold increase in pesticide use by farmers
since Bt cotton was introduced in 2004.
A 2008 survey comparing Bt cotton
with organic cotton showed that organic producers earned on average Rs6 287/acre,
nearly ten times as much as the Rs714/acre income of Bt cotton farmers.
These problems with Bt cotton are
not unique to India. We reviewed GM cotton failures around the world at the
beginning of 2005  (GM
Cotton Fiascos Around the World, SiS 26), notably Indonesia, China, and The United States.
Independent study in US confirms Bt cotton failures
A 4-year study  by researchers at the University of Georgia and the US Department of Agriculture confirms that the use of GM cotton
did not provide increased return to farmers in the United States. On the
contrary, it may decrease income by up to 40 percent  (Transgenic
Cotton Offers No Advantage, SiS 38).
grew a number of different cultivars of cotton at two locations in the state of
Georgia. The transgenic varieties consisted of two main traits, herbicide
tolerance and Bt biopesticides, alone and variously combined (stacked); they
Bollgard (B), expressing the
Bt toxin Cry1Ac from soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to control
the cotton bollworm
Bollgard II (B2) expressing
two different Bt toxins, Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab, to delay the evolution of pest
Roundup Ready (RR), tolerant
to glyphosate herbicide;
Bollgard/Roundup Ready (BR)
Liberty Link (LL), tolerant
to herbicide glufosinate
non-transgenic cotton cultivars were also grown. Each cultivar, whether
transgenic or not, was managed to maximise profit, as consistent with practices
recommended by the University of Georgia.
The results showed that “no
transgenic technology system produced significantly greater returns than a
non-transgenic system in any year or location.” The returns are dominated by
yields, and could be reduced by 30-40 percent. In 2004 at one of the two
locations, the non-transgenic variety produced a return of $1274.81 per ha
compared with $858.73 for BR, $737.41 for B2R, and $876.14 for LL.
The researchers remarked that the
high investment for transgenic crops before any yield is realised is a
predicament for growers, one shared by farmers in India and elsewhere.
It is a pity
that the researchers have not included organically managed cotton in their
study, because it is clearly a much better option.
Bt cotton does not protect
against cotton bollworms as intended and worse
Bt cotton is supposed to protect against cotton
bollworms on account of one or more genes coding for a family of proteins from
the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that are specifically toxic to
However, farmers have found that Bt cotton
did not always live up to expectations. In the first year of its introduction
in India, Bt cotton crops in the Bhavanagar, Surendranagar, and Rajkot districts of Gujarat were reported to be attacked by bollworm .
By 2005, scientific studies from several
countries backed up farmers’ experience. Scientists in India, China and the United States found that the levels of Bt toxin produced by Bt crops vary
substantially in different parts of the plant and in the course of the growing
season, and are often insufficient to kill the targeted pests. This could lead
to greater use of pesticides, and accelerate the evolution of pest resistance
to the Bt toxin  (Scientists
Confirm Failures of Bt-Crops, SiS 28).
Scientists at the Central Institute
of Cotton Research found that the amount of Cry1Ac protein varied across the Bt
varieties and between different plant parts . The leaves had the highest
levels; whereas the levels in the boll-rind, square bud and ovary of flowers
were clearly inadequate to fully protect the fruiting parts producing the
cotton bolls. Increasing numbers of armyworm (Helicopverpa armigera)
larvae survived as toxin levels dropped below 1.8 mg/g wet weight of the plant parts. Thus, a critical level of
1.9 mg/g was needed to kill all
the pests. Regardless of plant varieties, the level of toxin decreased with the
age of the plant, though the decrease was more rapid in some hybrids than in
others. By 110 days, Cry1Ac expression decreased to less than 0.47mg/g in all Bt hybrids.
In a separate study, scientists at the same
institute tested the susceptibility of an insect pest from different regions in
India to Bt toxin . The LC50
- the concentration killing 50 percent of the larvae – of Cry1Ac ranged from
0.006 to 0.105 mg/ml. There was a 17.5
fold overall variability in susceptibility among the districts. The highest
variability of 17.5 fold was recorded from districts of South India. The variability
in pest susceptibility, like the variable expression of the Cry1A proteins in
Bt crops, will reduce the efficacy of Bt pest control.
At the Institute of Plant Protection, Chinese
Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing researcher found that the toxin
content in the Bt cotton varieties changed significantly over time, depending
on the part of the plant, the growth stage and the variety. Generally, the
toxin protein was expressed at high levels during the early stages of growth,
declined in mid-season, and rebounded late in the season. In line with the
study in India, the scientists found that the toxin content in leaf, square,
petal and stamens were generally much high than those in the ovule and the boll
From the beginning, scientists have
predicted another problem, that the bollworm would develop resistance to Bt
toxin, and hence a general recommendation was that 20 percent of the land
should be set aside for planting non-Bt crops to act as ‘refugia’ to slow the
development of Bt resistance; and the pro-GM lobby has been congratulating
itself at how Bt resistance has not developed . But as pointed out by Prof.
Joe Cummins of ISIS  (No Bt Resistance? SiS 20), the ‘refugia’ were fictitious; as the US Department of
Agriculture had recommended insecticide sprays on both non-Bt crops in the
refugia and Bt crops.
But by 2005, Bt resistance in bollworms
had indeed emerged in Australia . A population of the Australian
cotton bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera – the most important agricultural
pest in Australia as well as China, India and Africa - has developed resistance
to Cry1Ac at 275-times the level that would have killed the non-resistant
insect . Some 70 percent of the resistant larvae were able to survive on Bt
cotton expressing Cry1Ac (Ingard), which has been grown in Australia since 1996.
A new variety of Bt cotton containing both Cry1Ac
and Cry2Ab was commercially released in late 2003. Resistance monitoring in Australia and China had suggested that pest susceptibility to Cry1Ac was declining in the field. In
2001, a strain of cotton bollworm was isolated from the survivors in the New South Wales and Queensland monitoring programme that appeared to be resistant to Cry1Ac.
The researchers have now confirmed the findings [45, 46], and attributed the
high level of resistance to a 3- to 12-fold over-expression of an enzyme,
serine protease, which binds avidly to Cry1Ac toxin, preventing it from acting,
and possibly, detoxifying it by breaking it down.
Another problem more serious than Bt resistance in the
targeted pest is the emergence of secondary pests. And this has happened first
in China and then in India and Pakistan .
China was initially held up as the success story on Bt
cotton . It first granted permission to Monsanto to grow the crop in 1997,
and for the first several years reported great reductions in the use of
pesticides. Early warnings appeared in a study published in 2002 by researchers
at an institute funded by China’s Environmental Protection Agency. It found
that although Bt cotton was effective in controlling bollworm, it had adverse
impacts on the bollworm’s natural enemies and was not effective in controlling
many secondary pests. A second study published in October 2004 found that Bt
cotton did not reduce the total numbers of insecticide sprays because
additional sprays were needed against sucking pests. A study of 481 Chinese
farmers by researchers at the Cornell University released in 2006 reported that
after seven years, populations of other insects such as mirids have increased
so much that farmers have had to spray their crops up to 20 times a growing
One of the researchers, Per Pinstrup-Anderson, well known for
supporting GM and professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell
said: “These results should send a very strong signal to researchers and
government that they need to come up with remedial actions for the Bt-cotton
farmers. Otherwise farmers will stop using Bt cotton, and that would be very
The study found that farmers in the survey who had planted
Bt cotton were doing well initially, and by year three, cut pesticides by 70
percent and earned 36 percent more than farmers planting non-Bt cotton. By 2004,
however, they had to spray just as much, resulting in a net average income
eight percent less than conventional cotton farmers because Bt seed costs three
times as much as conventional seed.
The other researchers were Shenghui Wang, Cornell Ph.D. now
an economist at the World Bank, and Cornell professor David R. Just. They
stress that secondary pest problems could become a major threat in countries
where Bt cotton has been widely planted.
Undaunted, the supporters of GM continue their positive spin.
In the abstract of a paper published in Science in
2008  the authors wrote: “Our data suggest that Bt cotton not only controls
H. armigera on transgenic cotton designed to resist this pest
but also may reduce its presence on other host crops and may
decrease the need for insecticide sprays in general.”
In the full paper, however, the authors reported that mirids,
podsucking bugs that used to be controlled by spraying and by competition with
the bollworm, have now become key pests of cotton in China. They conclude their
paper with the statement: “Therefore, despite its value, Bt cotton should be
considered only one component in the overall management of insect pests in the
diversified cropping systems common throughout China.”
Grassroots researcher Ram Kalaspurker
based in Yavatmal, Maharashtra in India, was among the first to document (with
video and photography) the emergence of secondary pests and even a totally new
exotic pest, giant mealy bugs that have infested Bt cotton plants, and
spreading to near-by plants  (Deadly gift from
Monsanto to India, SiS 38). The problem is so serious that a special
combined session of entomology and pathology groups was convened in the entomology
panel meeting on 10 April 2008. It stated  “All the participant entomologists were
unanimous in expressing their concern on the emergence of new insect pests over
the past 4 years, particularly after the introduction of Bt-cotton. Severe
infestation of mealy bugs, mirid bugs and thrips was recorded in several parts
of the country. Mealy bugs in Gujarat and mirid bugs in Karnataka were reported
to have caused significant economic damage.” An arsenal of deadly
insecticides has been suggested by some entomologists to deal with these
secondary pests as well as with resistant bollworms.
Scientific consensus for organic non-GM agriculture
There is a developing scientific consensus that
organic non-GM agriculture and localized food (and energy) systems are what the
world needs for food security that would also save the climate  (Food Futures
Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS publication).
Prince Charles was so distressed by the
plight of the suicide farmers that he set up a charity, the Bhumi Vardaan
Foundation  to help those affected, and to promote organic Indian crops
instead of GM crops.
Bt cotton has been an unmitigated
disaster for India in exacerbated farmers suicides. But the ecological and
agronomic nightmare is still unfolding, in plagues of secondary and novel
pests, pest resistance, novel diseases, and worst of all, soils so depleted in
nutrients and essential microorganisms that they will no longer support the
growth of any crop.
There is no doubt that those who
insist on promoting GM crops for farmers in India and elsewhere in the
developing world  (Beware the New
"Doubly Green Revolution", SiS 37) are
perpetrating a crime against humanity.
There are 7 comments on this article so far. Add your comment
|anubhav Comment left 29th July 2010 20:08:25|
its a very informative data against monsato's claim that bt cotton has increased the production . can i get more data on it with graphs and photographs
|prem Comment left 19th January 2010 17:05:56|
An very effective argument thrown on people who thrust irresponsible and life threatening technologies in the name of science,by taking advantage of less or no awareness of marginalized people and indirectly exploiting third world countries in the name of ADVANCEMENT.Institutions like this are Beacon of hope to the poor people
|Angana Haridas Comment left 19th January 2011 20:08:37|
it would be nice if u added the actions taken by the indian govenment to stop this unfortunate phenomenal.
|M. Prabhakar Rao Comment left 26th March 2011 07:07:36|
Kindly extend your condolences on the "Death of Indian Farmer!",
|Abhirup Dutta Comment left 31st January 2012 11:11:16|
IFPRI's report was supportive towards MONSANTO.nd thats really hiding the truth.it necessary to know the truth.this article reveals such truth.
|Gauri Nerkar Comment left 28th May 2012 20:08:37|
It is very unfortunate to know effect of the Bt crop on the Agriculture in India. I was under the impression that it has only helped the growth of Agricultural Economy. I myself work on the plant genetic transformation and I have to think now if my research would really benefit the farmers.
|Justin Zalewski Comment left 20th August 2013 14:02:25|
It seems that Monsanto will do anything to sell it deadly and toxic products and always put profits before people.
They don't care how many people die as long as they can keep the money flowing. Monsanto is the most hated corporation in the world and people are finally awakening to this.
Hopefully people will start to realize this and move towards truly sustainable and organic farming...