Pesticides in Bt Cotton Cultivation Still A Health Hazard to Farm Workers



Dear Friends and Colleagues

Pesticides in Bt Cotton Cultivation Still A Health Hazard to Farm Workers

An article published in the journal Nature analyses two recent studies on the potential of genetically modified Bt cotton to reduce pesticide usage in the country. The first study wasby Veettil et al. (2016) which found that the use of Btcotton had slowed pesticide exposure by limiting the overall need for pesticide sprays when compared with non-Bt cotton. Theybuilt a model to quantify Bt cotton’s environmental impact during the 2002–2008 period when Bt cotton was adopted in India.

However, Venkata et al. (2016) argue that Bt cotton is still sprayed with pesticides, presenting risks for farmers and wage labourers who weed and pluck the cotton. They found that workers reported significantly greater qualitative health problems, ranging from fatigue to hair loss, and experienced significantly greater DNA and chromosomal damage, as assessed by a micronucleus frequency test of blood and buccal cheek samples, compared to a control group of non-agricultural workers. This study combined molecular and qualitative health analyses and focused on the risks encountered by a sample composed of young female cotton workers, the population who provide the primary manual labour in Indian cotton fields.          

The differing conclusions of the studies can be partly explained by their methodologies. Veettil et al. drew on a large, national sample of 341–380 farmers in 58 villages. Their respondents represented relatively few people in any given village, and their panels did not assess the risks of pesticide use among the farm labourers, the group at highest risk of exposure. Furthermore, they reported that 99% of their respondents were planting Bt cotton by the final year of the survey, so their non-Bt control groups were not representative of normal cotton management practices. As Indian farmers have overwhelmingly adopted Bt cotton, the most accurate assessment of the toxicological risk to the farm ecosystem would come not from a comparison of Bt and virtually non-existent non-Bt farmers, but from an analysis of workers exposed to pesticides in Bt cotton fields, which was what Venkata et al. did by surveying active cotton workers.

They were thus able to capture field conditions that influenced risk factors, including the negligible use of protective garments, exposure to mixtures of pesticides, and the long duration of Indian cotton farming. Therefore, despite reductions in highly toxic pesticide use since 2002, Bt cotton agriculture remains a risky profession for farm workers in India.

The article is available at

With best wishes,

Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang
Websites: and
To subscribe to other TWN information services:

articles post