Science in Society Archive

Transgenic Cotton Offers No Advantage

May decrease income by up to 40 percent or more. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Peter Saunders

The use of transgenic cotton does not provide increased returns to the farmer. This is the conclusion of a 4-year study reported in Agronomy Journal by researchers at the University of Georgia and the US Department of Agriculture [1].

The researchers 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 were

1. Bollgard (B), expressing the Bt toxin Cry1Ac from soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to control the cotton bollworm

2. Bollgard II (B2) expressing two different Bt toxins, Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab, to delay the evolution of pest resistance

3. Roundup Ready (RR), tolerant to glyphosate herbicide;

4. Bollgard/Roundup Ready (BR)

5. BollgardII/Roundup Ready (B2R)

6. Liberty Link (LL), tolerant to herbicide glufosinate

Five different 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, as in 2004 at one of the two locations, when 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.

In some cases, the production costs for transgenic varieties (e.g. the cost of applying pesticides) were lower, but this was only enough to compensate for the higher cost of the seeds and technology fees.  Choosing the right variety was important, which means that many farmers could improve their returns with more appropriate non-transgenic varieties rather than by adopting transgenic cotton. This will, however, be more difficult in future because seed companies are reducing the number of non-transgenic varieties they offer for sale.

The authors remarked that the high investment for transgenic crops before any yield is realised is a predicament for growers. That is true even in the US, and all the more so in the Third World, where farmers typically have no reserves to draw on. They must borrow to buy the seeds in the hope of paying back the loan from the proceeds of the harvest. A poor harvest or a low price can mean disaster. The authors also commented that a benefit often attributed to transgenic crops is that they allow farms to operate with fewer workers; but this is unlikely to be an advantage in the Third World where farms are small and labour costs are much less.

It is a pity that the researchers have not included organically managed cotton in their study, because it is clearly a much better option. Persistent and massive crop failures of transgenic cotton have contributed substantially to the worsening epidemic of suicides among farmers in India, where a timely return to organic cotton growing is saving lives, and turning despair into hope [2-4] (Organic Cotton Beats Bt Cotton in India, SiS 27; Message from Andra Predesh:Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt cotton trap, SiS 29; Stem Farmers’ Suicides with Organic Farming, SiS 32).

Across the world, people are becoming aware that pesticide poisoning and devastation of the natural ecosystem are too high a price to pay for conventional cotton, and are opting, not for transgenic cotton, but for organic cotton [5] (Picking Cotton Carefully, SiS 34). World organic cotton supply has been growing at the average rate of 50 percent over the past 6 years (see Chapter 21 of Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free  [5]). It is not too late for cotton farmers in the US to get out of the transgenic cotton trap.

Article first published 27/03/08


  1. Jost P, Shurley D, Culpepper S, Roberts P, Nichols R, Reeves J and Anthony S. Economic Comparison of transgenic and montransgenic cotton production systems in Georgia. Agronomy Journal 2008, 100, 42-51. (doi:10.2134/agronj2006.0259)
  2. Gala R. Organic cotton beats Bt cotton. Science in Society 27, 49-50, 2005.
  3. Gala R. Return to organic cotton  & avoid the Bt-cotton trap. Science in Society 29, 38-39, 2006.
  4. Burcher S. Stem farmers’ suicides with organic farming, Science in Society 32, 42-43+46, 2007.
  5. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, et al. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS TWN, London & Penang, 2008.

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