History of the controversy
The debate over Bt Cotton has been simmering since 1998,
when a private firm Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (or
Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a minority stake) began field
trials under the supervision of the Indian Council for Agricultural
Research (ICAR) and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).
On learning of this, environmental activists burnt down
trial fields in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. But even after
three years of field trials, which did not throw up any
signs of damage to animals or the environment, the government
insisted on more trials, saying the previous field trials
were not conducted properly - that the one-acre plots were
too small for extrapolation and that the crops were sown
late. Hence, the full impact of the pest attack could not
be experienced and the effectiveness of the Bt gene could
not be measured.
Matters came to a head in September 2001 when around 500
farmers in Gujarat were found to have planted an unapproved
variety of Bt Cotton on around 11,000 acres. (Later, it
was discovered that this unapproved variety of Bt Cotton
had also been planted in 480 acres in Andhra Pradesh.) This
unapproved variety of Bt Cotton had apparently been planted
in Gujarat for two years but came to light only when a major
bollworm attack left many fields with conventional cotton
devastated, while the ones using the unapproved Bt Cotton
variety not only survived, but thrived.
Though the illegally sown seeds were far more expensive
- Rs 50 a kg against Rs 7-8 a kg of conventional seed -
the yields were significantly more - 10 quintals an acre
against 1.20 quintals of conventional crop. The fibre was
also finer and stronger. Farmers were, understandably, jubilant.
However, since the seed had not been cleared by the government,
they were asked to burn standing crops, worth a significant
Rs 105 crore. Meanwhile, large stocks of raw cotton had
already found their way to the ginning and waving mills.
Though the flouting of the law by Navbharat Seeds (the
company that sold the seed to the farmers) is regrettable,
the controversy only highlighted the impatience of the farmers
with government dithering on commercialising Bt Cotton.
Plagued by repeated pest attacks, they were looking for
some succour, which the unapproved variety of Bt Cotton
Why is BT Cotton important for India?
Cotton is an important cash crop, covering an estimated
nine million hectares of cultivated area. The lives of approximately
one million farmers are dependent on the fortunes of this
crop. In addition, nearly 60 million people are employed
along the entire cotton value chain, from weaving to textile
and garment exports. Directly and indirectly, it accounts
for 33 per cent of the country's export earnings.
Despite having the largest acreage under cotton - 25 per
cent of the global cotton area - India ranks third among
the world's cotton producing countries, accounting for a
mere 12.3 per cent of global cotton production. This compares
poorly with China with 22 per cent and the United States
with 19.4 per cent. Worse, Indian cotton fields have the
lowest yields - around 300 kg per hectare against the world
average of 580 kg per hectare. Chinese cotton fields, in
contrast, yield 1043 kg a hectare. Pakistan, which has only
three million hectares under cotton, reports an average
yield of 602 kg a hectare and Uzbekistan, with 1.4 million
hectares, yields 685 kg a hectare.
Over the past decade, Indian cotton production has fluctuated,
dipping severely since 1999. See Table:
(million bales of 170 kg each)
Source: Economic Survey, Indian Planning
Experience: A Statistical Profile
For the past few years, cotton production has been severely
affected by attacks of the dreaded American Bollworm. In
the 2000-01 kharif season, 13 per cent of the country's
cotton crop was damaged. The states most affected were Andhra
Pradesh, the country's largest producer of cotton, Punjab,
Rajasthan and Haryana, driving farmers, especially in Andhra
Pradesh and Punjab, to suicide. The high cost of cultivation,
the decline in production due to repeated bollworm attacks
and the lack of crop insurance pushed the farmers deep into
debt. Pesticides are not only expensive but also often spurious,
as are seeds, and the government has done precious little
to address this problem. It is indeed, ironical, that in
a country where 80 per cent of the seeds used by farmers
is unregistered, and the government is unable to check the
sale of spurious seeds, it is insisting on an elaborate
procedure for the clearance of the Bt Cotton seed.
India is the second largest consumer of cotton after China
and imports have been increasing steadily - from 69,500
tonnes in 1995-96 to 212,300 tonnes in 2000-01. This is
both due to declining production as well as the fact that
Bt cotton in global markets is of better quality and cheaper.
So even Indian cotton mills are increasingly importing their
raw cotton requirements. Global cotton prices are at an
all-time low of 51.6 cents per pound. The Indian cotton
farmer is thus getting outpriced in both the domestic market
and the global market.
How will Bt Cotton Help?
What is Bt Cotton?
It is an insect-protected variety of cotton seed into which
a gene from a soil-borne bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis
(Bt) containing a protein that kills certain pests, has
been introduced. In the case of cotton, the Bt protein acts
on three major caterpillar pests - the tobacco budworm,
the American bollworm and the pink bollworm.
Bt has been widely used since the 1950s in the form of an
aerial insecticidal spray. The introduction of Bt into seeds
in the mid-1990s provides a more biologically sustainable
method of managing insect pests.
Incidentally, the Bt technology is not confined to cotton
alone but has also been used successfully in the case of
corn and potatoes. Experiments are also being conducted
on a range of products like brinjals, cauliflower and rice
by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and private
1. The reduced use of conventional broad-spectrum insecticide,
resulting in environmental benefits and a huge saving in
costs:: All countries using Bt Cotton have reported a significant
drop in the use of conventional insecticide sprays, with
the total number of spray reductions per hectare ranging
between 1.0 to 7.7 sprays. In China and Mexico, total insecticide
use has fallen by 60-80 per cent following the introduction
of Bt Cotton.
In India, cotton farmers account for the sale of nearly
50 per cent of broad-spectrum insecticides. They have found
that in the case of pest attacks on conventional crops,
even 12 to 14 sprayings with insecticides could not save
the crop. For farmers reeling under high costs of pesticides,
transgenic cotton can help save as much as Rs 1800/- per
hectare on insecticides. One of the farmers in Gujarat who
planted Bt Cotton says he saved Rs 5,000 an acre on pesticide.
Besides, there are other unexpected benefits.
For each spray eliminated, the farmer reduces spray trips
and other associated costs. In India, the number of sprays
can vary from eight to 15. In severe infestation situations
like 2001, farmers in the North sprayed as many as 20 times.
2. Improved yields: Since insecticides are costly, it may
not make much economic sense for farmers to spray their
fields when the level of infestation is low. Therefore,
they may tend to write off small swathes of infected crop.
With the use of Bt seeds, plants are protected all the time.
So, farmers don't need to forego even small portions of
the crop. Overall yield, thus, improves significantly.
In China, the average gross yields from Bt Cotton increased
by 15 per cent over conventional strains. In Spain, Bt cotton
trial plots offered a 12 per cent yield advantage over conventional
varieties sprayed with insecticides. Even in India, field
trials showed a 14 to 38 per cent increase in cotton yield.
3. Lower risks to farmers' health from sprays and to crop
yields: The use of Bt Cotton more or less eliminates risks
associated with potential crop losses. It reduces chances
of major infestation or problems arising from poorly timed
applications, or applications missing swathes of crops,
washing off of insecticides by rains or development of resistance
The biggest benefit reported by farmers in China, most
of whom have small holdings like Indian farmers, is the
health benefit to themselves and farm labour from the substantially
reduced number of sprays. The danger of health risks from
insecticides is considerably greater in India where adulterated
The reduced costs and higher yields will obviously translate
into improved profitability for farmers.
1. Beneficial insects are not harmed: The in-plant Bt technology
does not harm beneficial insects, which conventional insecticides
2. Runoff of insecticides is reduced: With the use of transgenic
cotton seeds, the possibility of insecticides being washed
away into local water bodies is drastically reduced. Water
contamination chances are minimised and so is danger to
animals and organisms in streams, rivers and ponds.
3. Improved sustainable development: With the need to spray
insecticides drastically reduced, there are major environmental
benefits in terms of considerably less pesticide being added
to air, water and soil. These benefits and the improved
health of farm workers and the local population are incalculable.
How widely used is Bt Cotton?
The resistance to Bt Cotton within India is inexplicable,
given the fact that the seed is being extensively used in
all major cotton producing countries since the mid-1990s
with no perceptible adverse effect on man or beast or the
Apart from the United States, which first commericalised
Bt Cotton in 1996, other countries where Bt Cotton is grown
are Mexico (where one-third of the cotton area is under
Bt Cotton), Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Indonesia
and China. China has close to 3 million hectares under transgenic
cotton, a huge jump from the 60,000 hectares in 1998. Even
Indonesia, an extremely minor player in the world cotton
market and, therefore, with far less at stake than India,
commercialised BT Cotton in 2001 and this variety now covers
around 4,000 hectares.
How safe is it?
1. Opponents of Bt technology have argued that the bollworm
pest can develop resistance to the Bt toxin in genetically
modified cotton. The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
claims there are 26 species of insect pests that have developed
substantial resistance to Bt proteins.
In 1997, scientists in Arizona found the frequency of a
resistance gene in the pink bollworm was about 1 in 10,
which was roughly 100 times higher than estimates for other
pests of BT crops. They, therefore, projected rapid increases
in resistance levels in subsequent years. However, the estimated
frequency of resistance did not increase from 1997 to 1999.
The jury is still out on the question of bollworms developing
resistance to Bt Cotton. In any case, good resistance management
can delay or prevent the onset of resistance. Methods used
to accomplish this include refuge management, developing
new products (with different modes of action) proper monitoring
of performance in the field and optimum dosage in terms
of protein expression in the plant.
Also, this concern applies to conventional insecticides
as well. That is why it is important to continue research
into and experimentation with Bt Cotton so that it is possible
to find solutions to these problems on a continuous basis.
2. The alien gene in Bt cotton seed can be transmitted
to other plants, endangering other plant varieties.
Cotton is predominantly a self-pollinating crop, but can
be cross-pollinated by certain insects. However, outcrossing
of the Bt gene to other species is unlikely because, for
one, cultivated cotton is incompatible with several other
varieties and so cannot produce fertile offspring. Although
outcrossing to wild or untamed species can occur, commercial
cotton production generally does not happen in the same
geographical locations as these varieties. Finally, there
are no identified non-cotton plants that are sexually compatible
with cultivated cotton.
3. The effect of the genetic marker used to insert the
gene in the seed is not known. The Bt protein or toxin used
to kill the bollworm could enter the food chain through
cotton oil and oil cake used to feed cattle.
Tests conducted in the United States show that before cotton
is processed, the Bt protein is present in pollen at levels
just above the limit of detection. After processing, this
was found to be present in non-detectable levels in major
cottonseed processed products like refined oil and cottonseed
Who loses if Bt Cotton gains?
No one but the dreaded bollworm.
Who gains if bollworm loses?
The farmer, whose profitability improves with assured
production of higher and improved quality yields and reduced
input costs. Also, the exposure of farmers and farm labourers
to pesticide sprays is reduced.
The consumer, who gets a better quality product at
a lesser cost.
The environment which continues to be sprayed with
The Indian cotton industry which wants better home-grown
So the use of BT Cotton will be a win-win situation for
Any government is ill-placed to judge the merits and the
potential of any frontier technology. The vetoing power
of the government is susceptible to being misused by vested
interests who concoct pseudo-scientific arguments and often
use unethical means for influencing government's decisions.
Every technology has its advantages and disadvantages and
experience shows that the less savoury aspects of a particular
technology are remedied by further technological advancements
and not by reverting to the imagined world of pristine naturalism.
Closing doors on technology is a recipe for disaster. The
most important thing is to remove all obstacles in the path
of free access and comprehensive trials of a new technology.
"Bollgard Cotton: An assessment of global economic,
environmental and social benefits" by Julie M Edge,
John H Benedict, John P Carroll and H Keith Reding; Journal
of Cotton Science 5:1-8, 2001
Economic Survey, 2001