Reality-Check
June 1, 2015
A response to Russia Today’s report on Bt cotton in India

By Arun Gopalakrishnan

A recent report by Russia Today titled, “GMO that kills: GM-cotton problems drive Indian farmers to suicide” has been making the rounds in various social media platforms. While it aims to showcase nothing less than complete devastation in India’s cotton fields, the reality is completely different.

If ever there was a ready example of how technology directly translates into improved standards of living for farmers, it would be India’s success story in cotton. Since the introduction of hybrid Bt cotton seeds in 2002 and farmers choosing to plant them widely since, farmers have turned India into the world’s largest producer of cotton. Studies have also documented the effect of increased returns from hybrid Bt cotton seeds on the livelihood and status of farmers and landless labourers. The improving status of farmers and their contribution using farm technologies (seed, irrigation, mobile, or harvesting) are what every developing and developed nation wants.

While the benefits of biotechnology are undeniable, misconceptions not only thrive, but are actively propagated. This latest article by Russia Today is an example of how certain activists thrive in spreading incorrect information. These allegations are so far from the truth that they deserve to be refuted unequivocally.

Bt cotton is NOT responsible for Indian farmer suicides

DSC_3105Farmer suicides are a tragic result of socio-economic factors, not because of biotechnology. Suicides take place for a variety of complex social and economic reasons which long pre-date the introduction of insect-protected Bt cotton technologies in India.

Several reputed organisations including the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) have conducted comprehensive socio-economic investigations into the farmer suicide issue and most agreed that indebtedness is one of the main factors. Other causes include repeated crop failures due to climatic conditions like untimely rain and unusually either heavy rain or drought, social and family obligations, breakdown of formal credit structures, lack of irrigation, lack of alternative source of income from occupations allied to agriculture, and little value addition to agriculture produce.

A recent study titled ‘Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of Bt Cotton in India’ by the Council for Social Development (CSD) analyzed the key reasons leading to farmer suicides as lack of irrigation facilities, unavailability of timely credit and fluctuating cotton prices over the years.

Increased irrigation needs are NOT the result of Bt seeds

Much has been alleged about how Bt seeds require more irrigation, and how the lack of irrigation facilities coupled with a shortfall in the monsoons has resulted in poor crop yields.

Bt is merely a trait that helps the cotton crop develop resistance against the Bollworm pest.

All hybrid seeds, irrespective of whether they utilise Bt crop protection technology or not, require increased irrigation assistance.  This requirement for more irrigation has thus existed ever since farmers adopted hybrid seeds and pre-dates the use of Bt crop protection technologies.

There are a variety of reasons for the failure of crops, from unfavorable climatic conditions, to improper techniques of farming, and there has to be a concerted effort to educate the farmer to mitigate these causes.

Bt Cotton has NOT created increased crises for India’s cotton farmers

From 54,000 farmers in India who grew officially approved Bt cotton hybrids on 50,000 hectares of land in 2002, currently over 7 million farmers grow Bt cotton on more than 12 million acres, about 95% of the total cotton growing acreage in the country. The continued use of Bt cotton is a testament to the benefits farmers have got from it and their faith in the technology.

DSC_3109Research among Bt cotton farmers indicated that 87 per cent are enjoying higher standards of living, 72 per cent invested in life insurance and 67 per cent repaid their long pending debts.  Women from Bt cotton households have shown higher access to maternal care services, and children have higher level of immunisation and higher school enrolment. Moreover, female earners witnessed a 55 per cent gain in average income and an additional 42.4 crore (1 crore = 10 million) days of employment generated across the total cotton area sown with hybrid Bt cotton seeds. (CSD Study)

On average 85 per cent of farmers and landless labourers invested in better quality education for their children, 77 per cent reported increased intake of high-value and nutritious food, 70 per cent in recreation and social functions, 75 per cent in the health of their family members and 64 per cent in health of their livestock.  (CSD Study)

The benefit of Bt cotton technology’s built-in plant protection in high-yielding hybrid cotton seeds, along with improving farming inputs and favourable conditions, has helped create more than US$ 10 billion additional value for more than 6 million (60 lakh) cotton farmers by significantly reducing insecticide usage and increasing yield (ISAAA 2013)

According to The International Cotton Advisory Council, Indian farmers have experienced the greatest benefit from Bt cotton technologies compared with their peers anywhere in the world. The increased cotton production has had a positive cascading impact on the ginning and textile industry, exporters, and the domestic seed industry.

Bt cotton is NOT expensive

To share perspective, Monsanto develops and markets its own hybrid seeds with biotech traits as well as broadly licenses seed company competitors to use our biotech traits (for example, in-the-seed insect protection Bt cotton technology) in their competing cotton seed germplasm.

Broad Licensing accomplishes two things. Firstly, it makes the market more competitive because our competitors are able to offer biotech traits to their customers. Secondly, farmers get to choose from a wider variety of seed germplasm suited to their local agronomic conditions, but still have the option of using Monsanto biotech traits.

Farmers are intelligent and choose seeds that provide them with optimal yield, income and convenience in cultivation. Monsanto’s Broad Licensing Model ensures Indian farmers have the choice of our cotton trait technologies in the hybrid cotton seeds of their choice.

As a Company, we want farmers to be successful, and have the widest choice. We welcome competition as it drives innovation and wider choice, to the long-term benefit of farmers, the industry and the economy. Farmers are our customers. When farmers succeed, we succeed. For perspective, Indian cotton farmers have the widest choice of seeds in the world – over 800+ hybrid seed varieties.

According to the International Cotton Advisory Council (ICAC), Washington “The technology fee charged in India is the lowest in the world and benefits are the highest”

Today, farm labour constitutes 52% of cotton farmers’ cost of cultivation, i.e. picking is 28%; weeding is 21%; sowing is 3%. This is followed by nutrient/ fertilizers 19%, sprays for sucking pests 10% and seed costs are only 10-12% of the total cost of cultivation.

Most countries have NOT rejected GMOs

Crop biotechnology has been accepted by countries around the world. 55 countries globally have granted regulatory approvals for biotech crops for farmer planting and/or import of produce from biotech-enhanced seeds since 1996. These countries include USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Philippines, Mexico, Japan, Korea, the European Union, New Zealand, and others.

Farmers worldwide, including small scale farmers and large farmers, are rapidly adopting biotech crops due to the benefits of the technology. Adoption has increased year-on-year every year since biotech crops first were introduced in 1996, especially with resource poor farmers in the developing world. Biotech crops are being successfully cultivated globally for the past 18 years (ISAAA 2014).

According to the ISAAA 2014 report, the number of hectares of biotech crops increased by more than 100-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996, to over 181 million hectares in 2014. Of the 27 countries which planted biotech crops in 2013, 19 were developing and 8 were industrial countries. In 2014, a record 18 million farmers, up 0.7 million from 2012, grew biotech crops – remarkably over 90%, or over 16.5 million, were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

 

In sum, it is highly unfortunate and regrettable when a so-called media organisation, particularly one which relies heavily on the support of a government, deviates from depicting an objective picture of reality and prefers to promote one-sided journalism. Such action not only harms the industry, it also spreads misconceptions about biotechnology and prevents farmers and others from exercising a well informed choice when it comes to adopting the latest and best agricultural innovations. It also begs the question of the motivation behind the organisation promoting the misinformation.

India’s experience with Bt cotton has shown that biotechnology can herald a paradigm change in agriculture. Whether it is seeds that need less water, or crops with inbuilt insect protection, to plants that utilize nutrients more efficiently, farmers need access to the latest technology.

Agriculture has moved on from being dependent on age-old inputs and erratic rainfall to as much a scientific occupation as any other. To feed and clothe a growing population, the need of the hour is consistency and predictability in farm output. A failed crop is no longer an option.

 

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