India is now overwhelmingly a Bt Cotton country.
The agriculture ministry said on Tuesday that almost 90% of the cotton cultivation area is under Bt Cotton. The data, based on estimates for the year 2010-11, shows that out of total area of 111.42 lakh hectares under cotton cultivation, 98.54 lakh hectares are under Bt Cotton, of which Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are the top producers of cotton with 105, 88 and 53 lakh bales cotton respectively, and 81%, 92% and 98% of their total cotton cultivation area under Bt cotton.
Since 2002, Bt cotton has steadily prevailed over India’s cotton fields. Before being legally approved, farmers in Gujarat and Maharashtra were already against this new kind of cotton seed, which, for a higher price, promised pest resistance against a particularly belligerent pest called the white bollworm, and reduced spraying of cotton pesticides.
Bt cotton dramatically changed the relationship between farmer and seed. Before Bt, less than 40% seeds used were hybrids. Now it’s over 90%. Making hybrid seeds is a laborious, technical process and costly, whereas varieties are a result of generations of selective breeding. They can be reused, have lower yields, and are pretty much given away for free by state agriculture departments. Hybrids have higher yields, can’t be reused and are costlier.
On the surface, anti GM activists usually stress the toxicity and the ‘contaminative’ aspects of Bt seeds to push for its ban, but it is really this corporatisation of seed that is at the heart of most friction between activists and crop companies who are now pushing for Bt to be introduced in other plants such as brinjal.
It isn’t clear whether paying for hybrid seeds with the Bt gene in it will be as remunerative in brinjal or tomatoes as it is said to be in cotton. Given Moore’s law, having a costlier, faster laptop may not always be a wiser investment than having a cheaper one if you aren’t running several, memory intensive tasks.
Nevertheless, there is overwhelming empirical data—built up over the years-- to be rest assured that the Bt toxin doesn’t in anyway impact human health. Or at least, the risks it poses aren’t yet detectable by current scientific risk assessment techniques and therefore beyond the realm of rational debate.
Bt cotton in India has now reached the saturation limit. There is very little available cultivable cotton area for it to expand and being a slave to the laws of genetics and natural selection, will need more tweaks, fixes and upgraded avatars to maintain its market acceptability. Even as corporate participation in this sector increases, there is a need for an independent regulator. Such a body, the Biotech Regulatory Authority of India, has been in the anvil for over five years but has yet to placed for discussion in Parliament.