Two Narratives about Bt Cotton: Technological Triumph or Abject Failure?

Since 2002, there have been two threads of dissent regarding Bt Cotton. One paints it as a triumph for farmers, resulting in higher yields and returns while the other, the “anti-GMO” (genetically modified organism) narrative has claimed that Bt seeds are akin to “suicide seeds,” responsible for debt, despair and suicide. 

This compilation examines these twin narratives and also attempts to trace this the history of Bt Cotton in India including studies examining its economic viability and efficacy. 

Since July this year, Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district in the Vidarbha region has been grappling with multiple cases of farm labourers and small farmers being hospitalised for symptoms of pesticide poisoning, with around 30 deaths being reported until now. Most of the farmers in the region cultivate Bt cotton. When Bt cotton was approved for sale in 2002, it was considered an important variety in protecting crops from bollworm attacks. Has the bollworm begun to develop a resistance to Bt?

While unofficially there is acceptance that Bt cotton has lost its bio-efficacy, the government has not done anything significant to give the farmer alternatives or regulate the sale of this variety. On the contrary, farmers are blamed for not managing insect attacks and not planting refugia around the Bt cotton crop.

Since 2002, there have been two threads of dissent regarding Bt Cotton. One paints it as a triumph for farmers, resulting in higher yields and returns while the other, the “anti-GMO” (genetically modified organism) narrative has claimed that Bt seeds are akin to “suicide seeds,” responsible for debt, despair and suicide. 

This compilation examines these twin narratives and also attempts to trace this the history of Bt Cotton in India including studies examining its economic viability and efficacy. 

 

1)The history of cotton growing in India since 1790, when Bourbon, the first exotic variety was introduced, essentially replaced indigenous varieties of cotton that had been carefully bred over centuries to provide the world’s best woven cotton cloth, by American varieties that suited the emerging mill production of textiles in Lancashire. Written in 1999, before Bt Cotton was legally approved for sale, this article by C Shambu Prasad argues that rather than looking for collaborations with scientists abroad in transgenic cotton and in growing organic cotton, Indian scientists would do well to listen to dissenters who spoke on and worked towards improving Indian cotton.

Arguing that the farmers’ suicides were a failure of agricultural science and that the historical nature of the crisis needs to be appreciated, this paper retraces the route by which the present connections between Indian cotton and the mechanised textile industry were first established. It suggests that this direction has led to the crisis on the fields of cotton farmers.

2) Contrary to popular belief, cultivating Bt cotton does not necessarily reduce the amount of  pesticide used by farmers. This survey carried out by A. Narayanamoorthy and S. S. Kalamkar on the economic viability of Bt cotton, measured pesticide usage.The study was carried out utilising field survey data collected from two districts of the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra, which accounts for about 52 per cent of the total cotton area in the state in 2001-02.  A sample of 150 farmers, 100 Bt cotton growing farmers and 50 non-Bt cotton growing farmers, was selected from two districts for the field survey. The total quantity of pesticides used by Bt cotton farmers was found to be higher as compared to non-Bt cotton cultivators. Moreover, the study shows that the costs of cultivating Bt cotton crop  were substantially higher than for non-Bt crop.

 

 

 

3) According to this 2012 paper by Ronald Herring, one of the possible reasons for a narrative that claims Bt cotton has failed is because demand for Bt cotton exceeded supply, allowing for a “genetic anarchy” of unregulated and illegal Bt hybrids to enter the market. The paper states that it is likely that many reports of Bt failure in specific fields or certain seasons might have come from farmers who thought their cotton has the Bt transgene protection when in reality it might have been illegally purchased spurious hybrids that did not have the transgene.The authors argue that failure to control bollworms on those plants is not a failure of Bt technology, but a failure of information in an unregulated seed market. Moreover, the authors argue that the widespread replication of illegal Bt seeds and the high rates of adoption of Bt seeds possibly point to preference that farmers have for BT cotton. 

 

 

4) While Herring’s paper argues that the farmers who chose Bt cotton assessed its benefits and made an informed decision, Suman Sahai’s 2002 paper challenges that claim.  He writes about how the farmers were told that yields will go up phenomenally and that the higher seed costs will be more than offset by higher volumes of cotton produced per acre. This, they say, is not true and that all these rumours point to an unhappy fact: the perception that the government is adamant about pushing the Mahyco-Monsanto hybrids at all costs. Moreover, it is claimed that the scientific community and the administration has concentrated solely on promoting the new varieties without bothering to educate the farmers about the drawbacks of the technology, its prescribed methodology and the dangers of not following proper procedure, such as leaving a non-Bt refuge for the bollworm to retain susceptibility to Bt varieties.

 

 

5) Glenn Davis Stone writes that a group of researchers and industry writers have constructed a narrative of “technological triumph” for Bt cotton in India, based on an empirical record of superior performance compared to conventional seed and that counter claims of Bt cotton failure are attributed to mutually reinforcing interactions among non-governmental organisations that avoid rigorous research according to the standards of peer-reviewed journals. However, researchers and the biotechnology industry are also engaged in a similar authentication loop for generating, validating, and publicising such facts. With Bt cotton, the convention of routinely ignoring the effects of selection bias and cultivation bias benefits researchers, journals and the industry, but keeps us from drawing meaningful conclusions about the relative performance of the technology. Yet, although the case for isolating the technology impact of Bt cotton in India has been poor, there is a need to understand the social conventions for creating one's "own facts".

 

6) In response to Stone’s paper, Herring claims that Bt Cotton is a remarkably valuable technology. He suggests that Stone’s view that the "triumph narrative" of Bt cotton in India comes mainly from economists, the biotech industry and their academic allies is difficult  to sustain when dozens of studies show the positive effects of insect resistance in Bt cotton. Yields are driven by numerous factors, and there will be variance - field-to-field, season-to-season. Despite this, Bt cotton has been agro-economically successful because of the lower cost of production per unit and thus higher net returns. He points out that Stone’s article does not destabilise the broad consensus on Bt cotton’s usefulness to farmers. In his opinion, doubts about the facts on Bt cotton are not sufficiently compelling or grounded to undermine further research and development in agricultural biotechnology.

7) Stone responds to Herring in this 2013 article, clarifying his position regarding scholarship and studies about Bt Cotton. He concludes that, as the war over GM crops creates a demand for conclusive findings, parties on both sides seize on claims that confirm their antipathies and hold them up as conclusive even when they simply are not. His viewpoint is that we have to evaluate each study on its own merits, including its research design, field methods, analysis,and interpretation – the exact opposite of “levelling the epistemic field” and writing off all facts as “modernist fiction.”

 

 

 

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