In a recent article on 10 years of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton, published in US journal Cotton International, K R Kranti, director general of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, makes a realistic assessment of the impact of the first genetically modified (GM) crop variety to be introduced in India and discusses the issues involved in adopting technology in agriculture. In this interview with Sreelatha Menon, he says it is not Bt technology per se, but the indiscriminate use of Bt hybrids rather than Bt straight (or non-hybrid) varieties that is responsible for distress among cotton farmers in rain-fed areas. Edited excerpts:
Why have cotton yields plateaued over the past five years? Would you blame Bt cotton?
Yield stagnation in India is primarily because of the vast majority of inappropriate hybrids. Bt cotton technology cannot be blamed for this. Bt protects the crop against bollworms and a few caterpillars and does nothing else. But in India, Bt cotton is available only as Bt hybrids available in over 1,000 brands, while in the rest of the world Bt cotton is available only as a few straight varieties. India should also have had Bt technology in straight varieties. Most of the Bt hybrids are of 180-to 200-day duration and are not suited for rain-fed conditions. Hybrid seeds are costly and are generally sown late after ensuring adequate soil moisture to avoid the economic burden of re-sowing. Late sown maturing hybrids suffer from severe moisture stress during the critical period of peak boll formation, which takes place much later after the rains recede. The moisture stress is higher in rain-fed regions in shallow, marginal soils, which do not hold water adequate to support boll formation. This results in low yields.
Hybrids also tend to be input intensive, so they are not suitable for at least half the area in the country, which is under marginal soils in rain-fed regions. Additionally, many hybrids are susceptible to sap-sucking insects, leaf-curl virus and leaf reddening, adding to input costs. Bt cotton in India was approved in 2002. Before 2002, the area under “non-Bt” hybrid-cotton was less than two per cent in north India and about 40 per cent in central and south India. By 2011, more than 96 per cent of the cotton area was under hybrid cotton, more specifically the Bt hybrid. For rain-fed regions, especially with shallow-marginal soils, characterised by low input use, early-maturing straight varieties are the best option. The main advantage with straight varieties is that farmers can reuse farm-saved seeds and can take the liberty of early dry sowing, even before the onset of the monsoon, without having to worry about the risks of poor germination and re-sowing.
You have suggested in your writings that even the current rise in yield has occurred in spite of Bt cotton. That the causes ranged from seed treatment done extensively since 2000 and micro irrigation projects installed in Gujarat?
Though GM Bt cotton technology has brought down pesticide use by about 50 per cent, it is not correct to assume that cotton yields in India doubled because of Bt cotton and also that bollworm infestations declined because of Bt cotton. Cotton Advisory Board data show that cotton yields increased by about 60 per cent in three years between 2002 and 2004 when the area under Bt cotton was a meagre 5.6 per cent and the area under non-Bt cotton was 94.4 per cent. The yields did not increase significantly more than the pre-Bt era even until 2011 when the Bt cotton area touched 96 per cent.
Bollworm infestations declined significantly over the past 12 years mainly because of a significant decline in the use of the insecticide “synthetic-pyrethroid” coupled with enhanced usage of some potent bollworm-controlling insecticides such as Spinosad, Emamectin and Indoxacarb, which were introduced during 2000-2001. Bt cotton has also played a part in the decline of bollworm populations.
There has been concern that farmers are often lost when they are flooded with different kinds of seeds and are unable to make the right choices. Shouldn’t regulators take into account farmers’ needs before approving seed varieties?
Yes. The indiscriminate release of more than 1,000 Bt hybrids is a major concern. Farmers find it impossible to make an informed decision from the randomly available brands. Additionally, there is no discipline in Bt hybrid brands available in the market. There are several cases of spurious and unknown Bt hybrid brands. There are also instances of many Bt hybrid brands sold in regions for which they were not approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Apart from approving the GM event for environmental release, the ministry of environment also approves each of the individual Bt hybrids. The identification of varieties and hybrids suitable for specific regions was always in the domain of the ministry of agriculture, but not in the case of Bt hybrids.
If India were to approve straight varieties of Bt seeds, who would make them? Perhaps India did not want to give Monsanto a monopoly so it allowed other companies to make hybrids using the technology? How have they managed to come out with straight seeds in other countries?
Monsanto preferred Bt hybrids in India as a means of “value capture”, since farmers cannot reuse the seeds. In all other countries where the number of farmers is small, Monsanto transferred the genes into the local straight varieties and a Monsanto agreement form is signed by farmers that they would not reuse the seeds. In China and Pakistan, where the number of farmers is huge, the agreement form system was not acceptable. China’s public sector research system succeeded in developing it own Bt in straight varieties and went ahead with commercialisation. As a result, Monsanto does not have much of a presence in China now. Pakistan refused to take the technology in hybrids and Monsanto does not have a presence there either. Some public sector researchers in India, such as from Central Institute for Cotton Research and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, have developed Bt in straight varieties and are in various stages of regulatory testing. This process may take a couple of years.
You have said the bollworm is all set to make a comeback because it has developed immunity to the Bt gene.
I have never said bollworms have developed resistance or immunity. This is, however, a major concern for the sustainability of Bt cotton technology. What can be done urgently from among the current available options would be to identify only a few straight varieties, and using these, establish long-term sustainable crop-health management ecosystems with the least possible pesticide interventions. Insect-resistant GM cotton with new genes will continue to be one of the viable options for efficient and effective pest management.
Is it true that fertiliser use has almost doubled in a few years, suggesting a loss of fertility of the soil where Bt cotton has been cultivated?
The need for enhanced fertiliser use is not really about Bt cotton. It is about the continuous cultivation of hybrids with excessive vegetative vigour, in the same field, year after year, especially without replenishing the soil. Such practices progressively deplete the soil of nutrients.
Do you agree that Bt cotton has failed in rain-fed areas? Has Bt technology anything to do with requirement of water and fertilisers?
It would not be correct to say Bt cotton has failed in rain-fed areas. Bt technology is not connected with farmer suicides or with enhanced requirement of fertilisers or water. The problem is with late maturing hybrids that do not perform well owing to the late-season moisture deficit in shallow soils, especially when they are sown late. Farmers in rain-fed regions are compelled to choose from a long list of Bt hybrids, most of which are late maturing, sucking pest-susceptible hybrids, that are unsuitable for rain-fed regions.
What are the lessons from the 10 years of Bt cotton?
Indiscriminate use of any technology becomes rate-limiting and counter-productive. This was the lesson we refused to learn with the misuse and overuse of synthetic pyrethroids in India between 1980 and 1995, and now we are repeating the mistakes with Bt cotton.