India’s Bt cotton dream is going terribly wrong. For the first time, farmer suicides, including those in 2011-12, have been linked to the declining performance of the much hyped genetically modified (GM) variety adopted by 90% of the country’s cotton-growers since being allowed a decade ago.
Policymakers have hailed Bt cotton as a success story but a January 9 internal advisory, a copy of which is with HT, sent out to cotton-growing states by the agriculture ministry presents a grim scenario.
“Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers,” says the advisory.
Bt cotton’s success, it appears, lasted merely five years. Since then, yields have been falling and pest attacks going up. India’s only GM crop has been genetically altered to destroy cotton-eating pests.
For farmers, rising costs —in the form of pesticides — have not matched returns, pushing many to the brink, financially and otherwise. Simply put, Bt cotton is no more as profitable as it used to be.
“In fact cost of cotton cultivation has jumped…due to rising costs of pesticides. Total Bt cotton production in the last five years has reduced,” says the advisory.
This could have larger implications for Asia's third-largest economy where rural prosperity has been a key driver of overall growth.
The note is based on observations from the Indian Council of Agricultural Sciences, which administers farm science, and the Central Cotton Research Institute, the country's top cotton research facility.
Yet, officials HT spoke to either denied or downplayed the advisory. Swapan Kumar Dutta, India's deputy director-general of crop science, said he had no knowledge of the note and that Bt cotton continued to drive India's cotton production.
He could neither “confirm nor deny” that such a note had been sent, said Prabeer Kumar Basu, the agriculture secretary.
Of the nine cotton-growing states, Maharashtra has seen the largest number of farmer suicides. In the state's Vidarbha region, a cotton-growing belt comprising six districts, 209 farmers committed suicides in 2011 due to “agrarian causes”.
In February 2010, the environment ministry put an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal, India’s first GM food crop, days after the country’s biotech regulator cleared it for cultivation. Among many reasons, the ministry said it was “necessary to review” the performance of Bt cotton first.