Commentary: Understanding of GM cotton is lacking in India

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A recent article in The Guardian, a United Kingdom publication, says farmers in India are losing faith in producing genetically modified cotton. The writer contends that farmers blame the manufacturers of the new seed for causing crop losses. They believe this so strongly that a court in the country has ordered Bayer CropScience to pay more than $1.1 million to more than 1,000 farmers for cotton hybrids that “did not deliver the promised yields.”

Bayer claims the yields did not occur because of “inadequate crop management and adverse environmental conditions.” The company plans to appeal the decision.

India is place that seems to want to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to growing GM cotton. Growing cotton in India was incredibly difficult before GM cotton appeared in 2002. Harvests have doubled since Indian farmers adopted the technology. What they seem to forget is that with the GM cotton is that the seed is not a magic bean. The Indians claim they were promised certain yields. However, no yield can truly be promised by any company regardless of whether the seed is genetically modified or not. Growing conditions and management have a direct effect on yield, yet the Indian farmers seem to have forgotten that.

In an example of how misguided their views are about growing GM cotton, the head of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Keshav Raj Kranthi claims GM cotton is more susceptible to bacteria. He claims GM varieties consume more water and nutrients, leading to soil depletion, which means more fertilizer is needed.

Kranthi has it all backwards. To produce higher yields, plants need more water and fertilizer. As plants produce more yields, they do mine nutrients from the soil, but any plant does that, not just genetically modified plants.

The group Coalition for a GM-Free India wants farmers to go back to the way they used to produce cotton before GM cotton was introduced. Why does it seem that anyone anti-GMO seems to be anti-technology? It appears this group wants India to return to half of the cotton yields it produced 10 years ago. They probably want to give up their second largest cotton producer status too.

“Small farmers have no idea what they’re buying and even less idea how to grow these new varieties. Their traditional know-how is disappearing,” said Sridhar Radhakrishnan of the Coalition for a GM-Free India.

It appears that Indian farmers either were not truly educated about how to use GM seeds or simply lacked the understanding of how to change and adapt their production practices to produce the higher yields they believe they were promised. In all likelihood, the government is to blame for failing these farmers by not providing them with the financial and legal help needed.

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Elisa Trimble    
Madrid  |  May, 17, 2012 at 02:11 PM

What a cynical article. When GM goes bad, blame the farmer. And the writer must know that the only reason overall production of cotton increased in India was that huge amounts of land were converted to Bt cotton when it came in. The few lucky farmers who had access to irrigation and fertilisers may have done OK. The rest were sold up the river. Time to invest in proven effective agroecological methods in line with local conditions and culture.

Dominic Glover    
Wageningen, Netherlands  |  May, 21, 2012 at 04:03 AM

I can assure the author that Dr. K. R. Kranthi is an extremely well informed and competent scientist. There are few people in India who have a better grasp on what is happening in India's cotton sector than he does. Kranthi is also broadly in favour of Bt cotton. He is not responsible for the way his views are represented by journalists. The big problem with Bt cotton in India is that the technology has been commercialised in thirsty and fertiliser-dependent hybrids instead of open-pollinated varieties that are robust and locally adapted. Kranthi believes that Bt cotton has made some contribution to improved yields in India but its contribution 'need not be overhyped'. He points out that a whole slew of technological changes in Indian cotton farming have also contributed substantially to yield improvements, including new nicotinoid insecticides, seed treatments, and a large expansion of cotton into irrigated lands. Also, it is undeniable that irresponsible marketing has set up false and unrealistic expectations about the potential of Bt cotton technology. Seed companies should be held responsible for that. Interested readers can find Kranthi's views in his own words here: They are a lot more illuminating than the ill-informed nonsense above. Dominic Glover, Wageningen University, NL.

Teddy Bear Films    
San Francisco  |  May, 30, 2012 at 02:08 PM

We've just completed a documentary film that explores the tragedy of India's cotton farmers by following a season in one Vidarbha village.

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