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Insights into Editorial: The twisted trajectory of Bt cotton



Cotton has been woven and used in India for thousands of years.

Cotton fabric from around 3,000 BCE has been excavated from the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, and archaeological findings in Mehrgarh, Pakistan, show that cotton was used in the subcontinent as far back as 5,000 BCE.

Indian cotton fabrics dominated the world trade during the succeeding millennia and were exported to many places, including Greece, Rome, Persia, Egypt, Assyria and parts of Asia.

Much of the cotton cultivated until the 20th century was of the indigenous ‘desi’ variety, Gossypium arboreum.

Hybrid varieties of Cotton in India:

  1. India is the only country that grows cotton in the form of hybrids. Also, India was the first to develop hybrid cotton back in 1970.
  2. From the 1990s, hybrid varieties of G. hirsutum were promoted. These hybrids cannot resist a variety of local pests and require more fertilizers and pesticides.
  3. However, India’s productivity (yield per unit area) is much lower (around one-third) than other major cotton-producing countries. This implies that in order to be the largest producer, a much larger area is used for cotton production in India.
  4. Rising debts and reducing yields, coupled with increasing insect resistance, worsened the plight of cotton farmers. It was in this setting that Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002.
  5. With increasing pressure to buy hybrid seeds, the indigenous varieties have lost out over the years. But recently, there has been some resurgence of interest.
  6. Resistant Pink and minor pest in the past, began increasing, leading to a growing use of a variety of pesticides.

Growing conditions of Cotton in India:

  1. Cotton- fibre, oil and protein yielding crop of global significance.
  2. Temperature: Between 21-30°C
  3. Rainfall: Around 50-100cm.
  4. Soil Type: Well-drained black cotton soil of Deccan Plateau.

Top Cotton Producing States: Gujarat > Maharashtra > Telangana > Andhra Pradesh > Rajasthan.

Hybrid Cotton: Cotton made by crossing two parent strains that have different genetic characters.

Hybrids are often spontaneously and randomly created in nature when open-pollinated plants naturally cross-pollinate with other related varieties.

GM cotton covers 95% of the area under cotton:

  1. The fact is that Indian farmers have voted for choice of seeds with biotechnologies by planting hybrid cotton biotech seeds on over 90% of the country’s cotton acreage.
  2. They want seeds and technologies that provide optimal yield, income and convenience in cultivation.
  3. Today, they choose from over 800 hybrid Bt cotton seed brands from over 40 Indian and global seed companies, with five approved ‘in-the-seed’ insect protection Bt cotton technologies and non-Bt varietal cotton seeds.
  4. Farmers have not shown any preference for planting non-Bt cotton seeds including the quantity supplied along with the Bt cotton seed by seed companies as per regulatory guidelines.
  5. Due to the combination of high input and high risk, agricultural distress is extremely high among hybrid cotton cultivating farmers.
  6. Compact varieties would have significantly reduced this distress as well as increased yield.

Need to review of GM cotton in India:

  1. Genetically modified (GM) cotton, the plant containing the pesticide gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), has been grown in India for about twenty years.
  2. This pesticide, now produced in each Bt plant cell, ought to protect the plant from bollworm, thereby increasing yields and reducing insecticide spraying on the cotton plant.
  3. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, from 2005, adoption of Bt cotton rose to 81% in 2007, and up to 93% in 2011.
  4. Many short-duration studies examining Bt cotton, in the early years, pronounced that Bt was a panacea for dwindling yields and pesticide expenses.
  5. The two-decade mark now provides an opportunity to review GM cotton in India more comprehensively.

Real-world challenges with usage of hybrid varieties:

  1. It is tough to isolate one particular aspect of a technology and evaluate it properly.
  2. A technology that works in the lab may fail in fields since real-world success hinges on multiple factors, such as different kinds of pests and local soil and irrigation conditions. The benefits of Bt cotton have been modest and short-lived.
  3. Changes to the agricultural systems correlate better with positive yields, and countrywide yields have not improved in thirteen years.
  4. India’s global rank for cotton production is 36 despite heavy fertilizer use, irrigation, chemicals and Bt cotton usage.
  5. This is below the national average of some resource-poor African countries that don’t have Bt, hybrids or good access to inputs.
  6. There is a strong correlation between the rise in use of fertilizers in individual States and yields, and this bias increase when it is combined with improvements in irrigation.
  7. The total insecticide expenditure per hectare reduced in 2006, and Lepidopteran spraying expenditures continued to fall until 2011.
  8. By 2018, farmers were spending an average of $23.58 per hectare on insecticide 37% more than the pre-Bt levels.

Therefore, there is a need for better consultation in policy, be it agriculture as a whole or crop-wise.

The policy-framers in India could have deliberated upon the inclusion of socio-economic considerations being a signatory to international treaties on GMO regulation.

These treaties specifically provide for such considerations in GMO risk assessment.


The cost of ignoring ‘desi’ varieties for decades has been high for India. These varieties resist many pests and don’t present the problems faced with hybrids.

Research suggests that with pure-line cotton varieties, high density planting, and short season plants, cotton yields in India can be good and stand a better chance at withstanding the vagaries of climate change.

But government backing for resources, infrastructure and seeds is essential to scale up ‘desi’ varieties.

It is time to pay attention to science and acknowledge that Bt cotton has failed in India, and not enter into further misadventures with other Bt crops such as brinjal or herbicide resistance.