Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Lessons from India’s cotton boom

Farmers prefer Bt cotton despite myths propagated by anti-GM activists

India’s cotton economy has undergone a radical and unheralded transformation over the past decade. From being a net importer of cotton 10 years ago, India is set to become the world’s largest cotton producer, surpassing China this year, according to recent projections of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Cotton production in the country has more than doubled over the past decade, and the surge, led both by rising yields and increased acreage, has lifted farm incomes and profits for millions of farmers living in some of the most resource-poor parts of the country.

There are few crops in which India has achieved such a turnaround in so short a time, and the cotton boom offers important lessons for the future of agriculture in the country.

There have been two key drivers of the cotton boom: improved water management in Gujarat, the leading cotton-producing state, and the introduction of genetically modified (GM) cotton, which has boosted yields and profits of growers. The success story of water harvesting and micro-irrigation projects in the dry regions of Gujarat is well-known. What is less widely acknowledged is the role of India’s first and only genetically modified crop, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton in driving the cotton boom, by preventing pest attacks, reducing costs and making cotton farming more remunerative than earlier.

The dominant narrative on GM crops in India has been shaped by a small band of activists, who have deemed such crops to be unsafe and unsuitable for Indian farmers, disregarding reams of evidence which contradict their claims. An overwhelming majority of cotton growers have made their choice clear over the past decade: they prefer Bt cotton to any other alternative.

But the activists have managed to persuade the world that Indian cultivators are a gullible lot, who have embraced the technology without any rational calculations about safety or profits. Research studies that clearly show lower costs and higher incomes after adoption of the technology have been discredited as “paid research" in this narrative. Research that exposes claims of the activist set are conveniently ignored. Stories about cattle dying after ingesting Bt cotton leaves continue to be circulated and to find credence, years after they have been debunked through careful tests. Worse, such myths also find pride of place in official reports such as the 2012 parliamentary standing committee report on GM crops.

According to Cornell University political scientist Ronald Herringwho has researched the politics of anti-GM groups, careful Internet management strategies allow anti-GM myths to be propagated far more effectively than the findings of well-researched studies on GM crops.

The weight of the organic lobby behind the activist groups provides heft to such campaigns, allowing such myths to dominate the popular discourse on GM crops.

India is not unique in disregarding the weight of scientific evidence on GM crops. But India may have to pay a much steeper price than other countries for its regressive policies inhibiting the testing and use of GM crops, given the dire agrarian situation the country faces. India’s farm sector today is in crying need for technological fixes to boost farm output and to make farms resistant to the vagaries of weather. Rather than blindly opposing GM crops, India needs to be open to all agricultural innovations.

Indian policymakers must focus on building a credible regulatory mechanism for bio-safety but once a technology is approved as safe by a credible scientific authority, there should not be further roadblocks either by politicians or courts. As in the case of cotton, the question of economic viability of any new crop variety should be left to the farmers to decide. Ultimately, the farming community has a far greater stake in these matters than either activists or bureaucrats.

Can India replicate the cotton boom in other crops? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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