Bt Cotton in India is Not a Pro-Poor Technology

TWN Info Service on Biosafety
3 June 2022
Third World Network

Dear Friends and Colleagues

Bt Cotton in India is Not a Pro-Poor Technology

Since its commercialization in India in 2002, genetically engineered Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton has been subject to controversial scientific and public debate. This controversy has been reignited by the recent reoccurrence of pink bollworm (PBW) pest infestations in several central and southern Indian cotton-producing states. Controlling the threat associated with these borer insects is considered a primary objective in India where it is cultivated by 7.7 million smallholders.

A recent study provides insights into the political economy of the altered vulnerability context of farming households associated with the recent resistance of the PBW to second-generation Bt cotton (Bollgard II) in Telangana, India. It characterizes Bt cotton as a neoliberal technology that includes an inherent ‘sociobiological obsolescence’ that limits the technology’s life cycle from the start. As such, Bt cotton has a predetermined breaking point inherent to the Bt product itself, that forces adopters to rely on ever-new generations of Bt seed and, thus, increases the risk of succumbing to ‘technology treadmills’.

The findings suggest that this results in vulnerability-related inequalities among farmers. Resource-poor farmers are unable to follow a path to resilience and are led onto a vulnerability path that eventually results in dispossession. As a counterpart of this dispossession, there arises appropriation opportunities for economically advantaged actors, such as money lenders, often businesspeople, landlords, or large-scale farmers, to gain from the current biotechnology-driven cotton regime by means of earnings in the form of interest payments and the sale of arable land. Thus, the sociobiological obsolescence of Bt cotton favours the established power relations that redirect capital from the bottom to the top at the expense of already financially disadvantaged households.

The researchers conclude that Bt cotton has never been a pro-poor technology, as it continuously exacerbates present disparities with each crisis its failure initiates. The authorities should counteract these incongruities by implementing protective mechanisms, such as obligatory compensation schemes to be complied with by seed companies. A long-term solution to ever-adapting target pest pressures cannot be found in yet another generation of Bt technology, as its inherent obsolescence causes recurring livelihood insecurities for Bt cotton-farming households.

With best wishes,
Third World Network



Najork, K., Friedrich, J. & Keck, M.
Agriculture and Human Values
7 Feb 2022


After genetically engineered Bt cotton lost its effectiveness in central and southern Indian states, pink bollworm infestations have recently returned to farmers’ fields and have substantially shifted their vulnerability context. We conceive Bt cotton as a neoliberal technology that is built to protect farmers only temporarily from Lepidopteran pests while ultimately driving the further concentration of capital. Based on data from a representative survey of the three major cotton-producing districts of the state of Telangana (n=457), we find that pink bollworm pest infestations are a shock to farmers that lead to severe losses in yield and income. Using the vulnerability concept as a framework, we embed our findings in a political-economic context by drawing on Harvey’s notion of accumulation by dispossession. We argue that Bt cotton includes an inherent sociobiological obsolescence that results in a systematic dispossession of resource-poor households while providing appropriation opportunities for other actors. Finally, reproduced hegemonic structures facilitate the accumulation of capital through a redistribution of assets from the bottom to the top of the agricultural sector. Claims that considered Bt cotton as a pro-poor technology were thus flawed from the outset.

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