Staggering challenges surrounding India’s Bt cotton are undoing initial gains from the genetically-modified crop in the world’s second largest exporter of the fibre, fresh studies suggest.
Although the GM variety, officially allowed in 2002, sharply raised yields initially, productivity is now projected to decline amid signs of diminishing returns, according to a flagship paper presented by KR Kranthi, the director of the Central Cotton Research Institute (CICR), India’s “Bt referral lab”.
New pests have emerged, repeated farming of Bt varieties has ravaged soils and farmers have been unable to pick the right variety from among 780 Bt hybrids, Kranthi’s points out.
Yields have simply leveled off, despite India’s Bt cotton acreage expanding from 5.6% in 2004 to 85% in 2010.
“The yield was 463 kg per hectare when the Bt cotton area was 5.6% in 2004 and reached a mere 506 kg per hectare when the Bt cotton area reached 9.4 m hectares at 85% of the total 11.1 m hectares.”
The top scientist attributes part of the problem to a surfeit of Bt hybrid variants, which are showing new signs of vulnerability.
“The leaf curl virus started to resurface as a major problem in north India, primarily due to the introduction of more than 270 Bt hybrids,” the CISR head states.
GM crops have been a deeply polarising issue. Farm leader Sharad Joshi said suicides could be not be linked to Bt cotton. “The crisis is because of low prices for raw cotton,” he said.
Yet, just three months ago, a crisis among cotton-growers prompted the Maharashtra government to announce a Rs 2,000-crore assistance.
Widows of those who died on Monday burnt Bt seeds as a symbolic protest in Vidharbha, a suicide hotspot. While the suicides have been attributed to a complex web of factors, the falling yields of Bt cotton are now a reality backed by evidence.