Hard Lessons from 15 Years of Bt Cotton in India


Dear Friends and Colleagues

Hard Lessons from 15 Years of Bt Cotton in India

In March 2002, Bt cotton was officially approved for commercial cultivation in India. By 2013, 1167 Bt cotton hybrids had been introduced in the Indian market with regulatory approval. Bt cotton had spread to over 93% of the cotton area by 2012 covering 11.2 million hectares. After touching 12.85 million hectares in 2014-15, Bt cotton areas subsequently declined to around 10.5 million hectares by 2016-17, mainly due to pest attacks (whitefly, pink bollworm etc.). To date, Bt cotton remains the only genetically engineered (GE) crop approved for cultivation in farmers’ fields in the country.

By June 2017, therefore, India had reached 15 years of Bt cotton cultivation. The Coalition for a GM-Free India has published a booklet assessing its impact, relying mainly onofficial data, in addition to a few published academic studies. The document cites outcomes such as: stagnation in cotton yields; more than doubling of insecticide usage on cotton from 4600 Mt in 2006 (when expansion of Bt cotton began) to 11598 MT in 2013; and the development of resistance in the targeted bollworm pest.

There are hard lessons to be learnt from the 15 years of Bt cotton. In an ongoing legal wrangle over cotton seed prices and royalties, the Government of India, in its January 2016 affidavit, admitted that the efficacy of GE cotton in resisting pest attacks had declined over the years. Starting from 2015, state governments have been actively urging farmers to switch away from Bt cotton cultivation. There has also been a revived effort at promoting native desi cotton by some state governments as well as the Central Institute for Cotton Research, and improving yields through non-GE methods like high density planting.

The Summary and Conclusion of the report are reproduced below.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang
Email: twn@twnetwork.org
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Coalition for a GM-Free India
June 2017

What Did We Witness/Experience in The Past 15 Years of Bt Cotton Cultivation on India?

  • Cotton yields have stagnated – the best yield growth was in years when Bt cotton had not expanded.
  • Pesticide usage on cotton – overall volumes in the country as well as per hectare intensity – has increased after these 15 years compared to what it was when Bt cotton was first introduced. Insecticide usage has gone up from 0.88 kg/ha in 2002 to 0.97 kg/ha by 2013. Total insecticide usage more than doubled from 4600 Mt in 2006 (when expansion of Bt cotton began) to 11598 MT in 2013.
  • It is estimated that more than 100 million kilos of Bt toxin has been infused into India’s cotton farms with the cultivation of Bt cotton. Implications and effects of this on soil health are unassessed.
  • Targeted pest – bollworm – has developed resistance to Bt cotton. This is particularly so with Pink Bollworm which is creating huge losses even in ‘second generation’ Bt cotton.
  • Fertilizer usage in India’s cotton cultivation has gone up from 96 kg/ha (2006) to 224 kg/ha (2013), while total fertilizer usage in the country, on cotton, increased by 2.2 times.
  • Cost of cultivation is increasing – agro-chemicals are contributing to this, amongst other factors.
  • Evidence points to farm suicides increasing with area under Bt cotton. High variability in performance is noted in Bt cotton.
  • Agro-diversity declined as (Bt) cotton expanded to around 12 million hectares in the country.
  • Cotton (in the form of Khadi) which was a galvanizing successful symbol of India’s freedom struggle had its seed controlled by an American multinational corporation – Monsanto, which has recently been taken over by Bayer – with at least 90-92% of India’s Bt cotton land planted to its proprietary technology. Hundreds of crores of rupees have been collected in the name of licensing/technology fees and royalty.
  • Indian organic cotton which was witnessing impressive growth, and was showing the path to sustainable cotton farming, took a severe beating with the push of Bt cotton.
  • Other adverse impacts seem to be ignored and uninvestigated – these include impacts on livestock, human health and honey production.

It is only in the recent past that Governments in India are admitting to the failure of Bt cotton. There are hard cautionary lessons to be learnt from these 15 years of the bitter harvest of Bt cotton in India, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes. That too at the expense of hapless Indian farmers.


Cotton cultivation in India is coming back a full circle today, with the glory of desi cotton varieties being re-discovered.

Today, it is far more clearer that Bt cotton’s benefit claims and hyped results were unfounded and exaggerated. It is official data and official admissions that pronounce this, and not just civil society voices or voices of suffering farmers.

It is also clear that Bt cotton had always meant a riskier proposition for Indian farmers, with increased cost of cultivation and stagnant yields. Newer pests, resistant pests, increased use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, continuing cotton farmer suicides, increasing cost of cultivation, lack of choices with regard to seeds, seed monopolies built up, conflicts between farmers, farmers and companies, companies and companies, companies and governments, governments and farmers are all an important integral part of the story of fall-outs of Bt cotton these past 15 years.

It is also apparent that the shift back to sustainable cotton farming in India will take a long, arduous and uphill journey, despite the glaring failure of Bt cotton. There is severe shortage of non-Bt cotton seed, even as agriculture departments are encouraging farmers to shift to non-Bt and even desi cotton. It appears that our cotton germ plasm collections are contaminated. What is being sold as non-Bt cotton has presence of Bt toxin.

In a sense, the last 20 years or so of Bt cotton import, development and spread has been actually an expensive experiment at the cost of poor farmers of the country. Tough lessons have been learnt. It is only hoped that these lessons will not be forgotten in a hurry. The Bt Cotton story holds clear precautionary lessons to reject similar hype around other Genetically Modified crops as the inevitable solution.

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