The return of Bt cotton

The return of Bt cotton

A major issue that will come up for debate in the run-up to the general election early next year is the response of the Union government to farmers’ woes. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government can legitimately take credit for reviving agriculture growth—from around 1% per annum at the time of the previous National Democratic Alliance government (1999-2004) to a respectable 2.48% per annum (2003-2007).

Among the various crop groups, a significant increase in output is observed in the case of sugar and fibres subgroup. In foodgrains, cereal output growth has seen a revival from a growth rate of -1.34% per year between 1999-00 and 2004-05 to 1.12% per year since 2003-04. However, the crop groups that have contributed to a large part of growth in agricultural output are sugar and fibres, largely led by cotton.

Output of the fibres sub-group has increased at almost 12% per year since 2003-04. The increase in cotton output is also seen by looking at the yield estimates of major crops. A large part of the increase is attributable to rise in adoption of GM cotton.

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Largely blamed for farmer suicides until recently, Bt cotton is back in favour with the growers. Although there are no official estimates of the percentage of cotton acreage under Bt cotton, seed manufacturers and independent cotton producer groups claim Bt cotton now accounts for 70-85% of the country’s total cotton production. This also seems to be the primary reason for the phenomenal increase in yield rates of cotton in the country that had stagnated through the 1990s.

Yield of cotton in India is still among the lowest in the world. It stayed at around 200kg per ha until the 1980s, increasing marginally to 250kg per ha in the 1990s and stayed there until 1996-97. It again fell to an average of 200kg per ha and remained at that level until 2002-03. However, since 2003-04 yield of cotton has increased steadily to 307kg per ha in 2003-04, 362kg per ha in 2005-06 and 466kg per ha in 2007-08. This phenomenal increase in yield rates in the past five years is proof of the growing importance of Bt cotton in the country. By 2007-08, India became the largest producer of cotton with the largest acreage under Bt cotton in the world, pushing China into second place. Bt cotton now has the largest share of cotton production in the cotton-growing states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.

These states have also seen increase in area under cotton in the past three years. These developments will raise questions on the efficiency of Bt cotton by those opposed to the introduction of GM crops and by civil society groups that have blamed multinational companies for exploiting poor farmers and leading them into a debt trap which was largely responsible for the suicides. Going by the recent research by Guillame Gruere, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt and Debdatta Sengupta, it appears that the opposition from both these groups is not entirely substantiated by the academic literature on the subject.

Largely based on secondary literature on Bt cotton adoption in India and its role in farmer suicides, the authors have rejected the hypothesis that Bt cotton is in any way responsible for farmer suicides. Instead, they have argued that the overall impact of Bt cotton in India has been beneficial to farmers.

The little evidence available suggests it is not Bt cotton per se that is responsible for the worsening farmers’ livelihoods but the context in which it was introduced along with environmental factors.

Of course, their conclusion remains to be verified by the groups opposed to introduction of GM crops. But till then, the evidence is mixed and there is very little information from credible sources on the extent of Bt cotton or its impact on farming.

Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at