By: Vidya Venkat

The cultivation of Bt cotton, a genetically modified, insect-resistant cotton variety, is a risky affair for Indian farmers practising rain-fed agriculture, according to a latest study published by California-based agricultural scientists in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe.

Annual suicide rates of farmers in rain-fed areas are directly related to increase in Bt cotton adoption, say the study’s authors Andrew Paul Gutierrez, Luigi Ponti, Hans R. Herren, Johann Baumgärtner and Peter E. Kenmore, who are associated with the University of California, Berkeley, and the Centre for the Analysis of Sustainable Agricultural Systems, California.

Revisiting the raw annual suicide data for Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Maharashtra during the period 2001–2010, the authors found 86,607 of 549,414 suicides were by farmers, and 87 % were males with the numbers peaking in the 30–44 age class. Total suicides per year per state were regressed singly on states averages of proportion of area seeded to rainfed cotton, average farm size, cotton growing area, area of Bt cotton, proportion of area with Bt cotton, and simulated average yield/ha that includes the effects of weather. Excluding the proportion of area seeded to rainfed cotton, linear multiple regression shows suicides decrease with increasing farm size and yield but increase with the area under Bt cotton, the authors note.

The study is significant for two reasons: first, most cotton cultivation in India is rain-fed. Second, between 2002 and 2010, the adoption of Bt cotton hybrid went up significantly to 86 per cent of the total cultivated area of cotton in India, according to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

Though cultivating the Bt cotton variety may be economic in irrigated areas, the costs of Bt seed and insecticide increase the risk of farmer bankruptcy in low-yield rain-fed settings. Further the inability to “use saved seed and inadequate agronomic information trap cotton farmers on biotechnology and insecticide treadmills,” the authors note

The study also challenges the common assumption in economic analyses that cotton pests must be controlled to prevent monetary losses, thus encouraging Bt cotton adoption. The annual emergence of the key cotton pest pink bollworm in spring is poorly timed to attack rain-fed cotton and large populations of the pest fail to develop in non-Bt rain-fed cotton, the authors note. This reduces and usually prevents the need for Bt cotton and disruptive insecticides. The authors recommend that high-density short-season cottons could increase yields and reduce input costs in irrigated and rain-fed cotton.

Bt cotton has been shown to improve cotton yields by past studies, such as the one conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute in 2012. This study, examining the contribution of Bt cotton adoption to long-term average cotton yields in India in nine cotton-producing States from 1975 to 2009, showed that Bt cotton contributed 19 per cent of total yield growth over time, since its introduction in 2002.

However, experts have responded to the new Berkeley study with concern. Former Union Environment and Rural Development Minister and Rajya Sabha member Jairam Ramesh told The Hindu that India, now being the second largest country in the world cultivating Bt cotton, cannot afford to ignore the findings of this new study. “These findings call for serious discussion relating to the GM crop’s long-term sustainability in Indian agriculture,” he said.

Agricultural expert M.S. Swaminathan said the merits of Bt cotton adoption remain debatable as some have approved it for giving better yield, while some question the claim. “However, I support the adoption of higher yielding crop varieties as most of our cotton farmers are small farmers who need better yields to earn profits. Back in 2004, I had advised seed companies selling hybrid cotton to farmers to also sell insurance schemes alongside, so that if crops fail for reasons beyond the farmer’s control, they can recover losses. But these recommendations remain to be adopted widely.”

Originally Published: The Hindu