Three eminent experts have joined forces to debunk claims by a member of two influential think tanks that GM Bt cotton in India has been a resounding success.
The claims were made by Dr Ramesh Chand, a member of the Indian Government think tank Niti Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India), in an interview published by BloombergQuint in July 2020. Dr Chand said that India has three pressing needs: improving farm efficiency, sustainability, and food security. He claimed that a “positive environment" for GM crops was developing in India “as there is no credible study to show any adverse impact of growing Bt cotton in the last 18 years in the country”.
The Chand interview took place at an event publicizing a new book called Socio Economic Impact Assessment of GM crops: Global Implications Based on Case Studies from India, edited by Drs Sachin Chaturvedi and Krishna Ravi Srinivas of the Research and Information System (RIS) for Developing Countries, a policy think tank in the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India. What Niti Aayog and RIS representatives say and write is important because of their close links to Indian policymakers.
In the interview, Dr Chand attempts to explain the widespread opposition to GM technology in India on the supposed basis that “the technology is so powerful that it has created fear in the minds of people”, “the government stayed away from it as the technology was opposed globally”, and “the media relied more on activists than on scientists”.
Taking issue with all of these claims are Andrew Paul Gutierrez, senior emeritus professor at the College of Natural Resources at the University of California at Berkeley and CEO of the Center for the Analysis of Sustainable Agricultural Systems; Hans R. Herren, winner of the World Food Prize and president of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC; and Peter E. Kenmore, MacArthur Fellow (“Genius Award”) for his work on integrated pest management in green revolution rice, former head of FAO/Plant Protection, and former FAO Ambassador to India. These authors have written a fully referenced open letter to Dr Chand and other members of Niti Aayog rebutting their claims. They have given GMWatch permission to publish the letter in full below.
The letter is long and detailed, so here’s a summary of its contents:
GM Bt cotton not responsible for meager increases in yield
• The authors (Gutierrez, Herren, and Kenmore) agree that there is a need to improve farm efficiency, sustainability, and food security, but all credible evidence shows that the meager increases in cotton yield after the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002 were largely due to increases in fertilizer use and not to Bt cotton. Bt cotton did not increase yields, but did contribute to increased cost of production.
• Analysis of the available state wide and national data show that suicides among Indian cotton farmers increase with decreasing yield and net revenues.
Problems of GM Bt cotton
• The Chaturvedi-Srinivas book focuses on promoting the unrestrained development of indigenous GMOs and fails to mention any viable alternatives to the GMO model. Yet in spite of this, and in contrast to statements reported in press articles, the book contains points that contradict the over-simplified enthusiasm of GMO promoters. For example:
o Bt cotton yields were not higher than non-Bt cotton for all farmers
o Average yields for Bt cotton in the same farmers’ fields have declined over recent years.
• Bioeconomic analyses of Bt cotton show:
o Hybrid GM Bt cotton seed is more expensive due to royalty and technology costs
o Plants require more fertilizer and water
o The technology serves as a value capture mechanism requiring annual purchases of seed.
o Indian farmers are planting inappropriate long-season hybrid cotton varieties at inappropriate low planting densities due to high seed costs. This contributes to low yield stagnation.
• Proponents of Bt cotton’s success point to increases in national production, yet the true measures of how well farmers are doing should be based on yield and total net income per hectare. Also, proper accounting of costs of ecosystem and biodiversity losses should be considered. When viewed from an objective perspective, a picture emerges of a failed and unsustainable Bt cotton system based on a dystopic relationship between those who control and sell the inputs and the vast majority of farmers.
Viable and better alternatives
• Many peer-reviewed studies question the success of GM hybrid Bt cotton and show the availability of viable and better alternatives. Examples include studies reporting field trial data on high yielding short-season high-density (SS-HD) non-hybrid non-GMO cotton; bioeconomic studies of Bt cotton in India; and a critique of the ecologically unsustainable basis of the current Indian Bt cotton production system.
• 25-30 peer-reviewed papers from Indian agricultural universities validate the SS-HD concepts in cotton production using non-Bt varieties. In all studies, SS-HD plantings invariably got the highest yields, pointing to the inappropriateness of the current low-density system. (None of these studies were cited in the Chaturvedi–Srinivas book.)
• SS-HD non-GMO rainfed cotton varieties have been developed in India that could double yield (according to data from the Central Institute for Cotton Research, CICR) and triple net income. The obvious question is: Why haven’t these varieties been developed and implemented in the field?
Repeated failure of techno-fixes
• Pre-2002, insecticides were used to control the native pink bollworm, the key pest. Insecticide use caused ecological disruption that in India induced outbreaks of secondary insect pests like the damaging “American” bollworm and others. To solve this problem, GMO Bt cotton was introduced starting in 2002 (and illegally before). While GM Bt technology initially solved the bollworm problem, outbreaks of secondary pests not controlled by Bt toxins began to occur, again increasing insecticide use in Bt cotton that by 2013 surpassed pre-2002 levels. This again caused ecological disruption and induced outbreaks of newer secondary pests and increased resistance to insecticides. By 2013, Indian farmers were solidly on the insecticide and biotechnology treadmills. Yet some still propose that pest issues could be fixed with further biotech fixes – a proposal akin to a dog chasing its own tail.
• By nearly all measures, hybrid GM Bt cotton in India is a failure, or at best suboptimal for farmer welfare. Despite increases, Indian yields are no higher than some of the poorest African countries that do not cultivate hybrid cotton or Bt cotton. Hybrid GM Bt cotton is falsely cited as an example of a grand success and a template for implementing GM technologies (including gene editing) in other crops, especially food crops. Legitimate concerns about the loss of biodiversity and of the irreversible GMO contamination of indigenous crop varieties and wild species have been ignored. The emphasis has been on GMO development even though viable alternatives are available but remain largely unexplored.