GMO cotton and the Indian farmer

Cotton farmer Warangal district (source: Flickr user Jankie)

Cotton farmer Warangal district (source: Flickr user Jankie)

Cotton is a light and breathable fabric but it sure does get itself into some very contentious debates. It has been a central player in colonialism in India, in the American Civil War, in the practice of slavery, and now, in the GMO wars.

I remember my mother recounting some history from the British Raj days. Can you believe, she would tell me, we grow cotton in India, but we are not allowed to make cloth from it. They ship it to England, it comes back as cloth, and then we have to pay expensive rates to buy it from them. It’s our cotton!

Gandhi at his charkha

Gandhi at his charkha

Mahatma Gandhi championed this viewpoint more than anyone else. He promoted the use of the charkha, the spinning wheel from medieval times. This was his method of thumbing his nose at the Raj. He intended to have every Indian make their own cloth the tedious way, by hand, and thereby collapse England’s profits. He knew what he was doing. Weaving khadi cloth at home became a political act. (Interestingly, today khadi has become a fashion statement.)

One could argue the opposite side as well. As egregious as it seems, England’s business model made sense. The cotton plants (India’s genetic asset) and their growing and picking (India’s manual labor) were only part of the story. Who would pay for the intellectual asset — the invention of the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, and other such picturesquely named devices that made much finer quality cloth, more tightly woven, and many times faster? These are not devices to be sneezed at. These inventions and others like it powered the Industrial Revolution.

A similar debate now rages over genetically modified cotton. The quixotic Gandhi who stands in the way of Progress is Dr. Vandana Shiva. Gandhi spoke up for the imperfect, but diverse, home-weaving industry. Dr. Vandana Shiva speaks up for the unimproved, diverse strains of cotton that haven’t gotten any love from biotech companies like Monsanto.

Is she right? Was Gandhi right? I don’t know, but I want to explore. Let’s talk about Bt Cotton.


I wrote about Roundup Ready crops some time ago. Bt crops work in exactly the opposite way. Roundup Ready crops make it so that you can spray pesticide without concern for your crops — clearly, you can see how they might incentivize more spraying of pesticide. While Bt crops are not immune to pesticide, they come with pesticide in them. So you can see that theoretically they should not need any pesticide sprayed at all. The pest in this case, is the bollworm — the caterpillar of a certain moth.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear a statement like ‘your food contains insecticide’ I start to smell the wonderful aroma of the Flit product from my childhood. There couldn’t be a better way to ruin my appetite for good. Now here we are talking about a plant growing with insecticide in its cells? Are you serious?

It’s not as bad as that. Let me explain.

I adore insects. But one has to admit, sometimes they work at cross-purposes to us — whether it is cockroaches in the kitchen cupboard, mosquitoes buzzing on a summer evening, or bedbugs making lurid bloodstains all over the sheets. Humans have spent a considerable time time trying to control them.

But we are late entrants to the game. Plants have been indulging in their own battle with insect pests for half a billion years. Since they can’t get up and walk over to the store, they need to make their own. And they do. Plants fight pests silently (to us) but with astonishing vigor. No quarters given.

"Who, me, insecticide?!" the Neem tree, looking innocent (source: Wikimedia commons)

The Neem tree, looking innocent (source: Wikimedia commons)

You know those lovely daisies that little girls make daisy chains from and put them around their pretty little heads? They produce pyrethrum, a compound that attacks the insect’s nervous system. Jicama — that recent favorite of Californian foodies (of which I am one, I guess?) — the root that one cuts into sticks and puts in salad — the stems of jicama produce rotenone, a chemical that attacks the energy-production of cells. It is extremely toxic to insects and fish. The Neem tree is famously antisocial, by which I mean it is anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory. Neem’s special contribution is azadirachtin, a chemical that prevents insects from growing, and while they remain stunted, it makes them lose their appetite to the point of starvation. Diabolical. But they actually need to eat the plant tissue to get the poison, so insects that care only about the nectar and pollinate the plant are not affected.

What one looks for in a ‘good’ insecticide is the following: it must not kill indiscriminately — in particular, it must not be toxic to mammals. It should only kill insects pests, not be poisonous to the pollinators, nor to the predators of the insect pests. It must not hang around in the soil for long, i.e. it must biodegrade, but while it is hanging around it must not slosh around and get everywhere.


Bacillus thuringiensis (source:

Bacillus thuringiensis (source:

In these ways, a certain bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis makes pretty much the ideal insecticide. This insecticide protein is called ‘Cry’ and that is probably what the insect does upon ingesting it. It works by perforating the insect gut walls full of holes. It can be very specific, as in, there are strains that will affect only beetles that chomp on some Bt, and others that will only affect moths. It is very, very safe for all other animals including us; this is because it cannot work in an acidic environment, which our bellies are, in general. Any Bt left over on leaves will simply degrade in the sun.

Bt has been known as an insecticide since the 1900’s. But no one understood why it killed only moth larvae sometimes and only beetle larvae other times. No one understood its mechanism. Only in the 1980’s, when consumers were souring on wide-spectrum synthetic poisons like DDT, did industry start to take a look at developing biological insecticides into products. Chemical companies across Europe and the US divided up the Bt strains between them — some focused on killing mosquitoes and flies, some on moths, and some on beetles.

Bt crops

Bt had been a sleeper in the insecticide world but its qualities made it a celebrity. Pretty soon scientists understood it down to the gene level, and at that point, given the advancements in gene modification, it was a matter of course to insert that gene into plants.

I mentioned above that Bt spray, when applied to plants, degrades in the sun or simply washes off. While that is one of its beautiful qualities (that it easily biodegrades), it does mean that one has to keep reapplying it. Wouldn’t it be great if the plant cells actually contained Bt inside, so it wouldn’t just disappear in the sun or wash off? Hello, Bt crops.

Bt Cotton in India — Seeds of Suicide?

Cotton with an inserted gene that produces Cry came into the Indian market in 2002. It protects cotton from its main predator, the bollworm. Before 2002, even though cotton was one of India’s main cash crops, the yield was one of the lowest in the world. Pests were a huge problem, and farmers spent more money on pesticide for cotton than for any other crop.

Bt cotton came with the promise of not needing pesticide at all, because it would inherently fight back the bollworm. Before the government approved it, Bt cotton had already created a buzz and seeds from Monsanto had been smuggled in to sell in the black market. After it was approved, by 2010, more than 90% of cotton growers in India used Bt cotton. But while Bt cotton was being widely adopted, activists raised the alarm. Dr. Vandana Shiva in particular called it the seeds of suicide.

Anyone (like your humble servant, The Odd Pantry) asking a simple question  — ‘so, how is it working out?’ — is immediately assaulted by a battery-pack of confusing assertions. Yields have gone up! No! Farmer suicides have gone up! Spraying of insecticide has reduced! No! The bollworm has developed resistance to Bt and aphids have attacked cotton! What is true? What is not? I did a lot of reading the past week to get answers to some basic questions. I may not find the Truth but I can certainly throw my lasso around some facts.

Q. Has Bt cotton improved yields overall? A. Yes. Overall, so far, from 2002 onward, yields have gone up a lot. Not all of the increase is due to genetically modified seeds — other factors have mattered too. But, 19% of the yield increase is because of Bt cotton.

Q. Has it cut down on the amount of insecticide that needs to be sprayed? A. Overall, yes, the use of Bt cotton reduced insecticide use by half in the ten years after it was introduced. This could change as the bollworm develops resistance to Bt or other insect pests start attacking cotton. But in the meantime, yes, insecticide use did go down. An added benefit here is that farmers have reported many fewer cases of pesticide poisoning.

Q. Has the Bollworm developed resistance to Bt cotton? A. Yes, indeed, it has, in some places. It has been 10 years of Bt cotton use in India and considering that 95% of the cotton grown now has the Bt gene, the bollworm has a big fat bull’s eye to evolutionarily aim at — the target being resistance to Bt, and the enormous benefit being that it doesn’t die. In 2010, Monsanto admitted that they had found bollworms in Gujarat that were resistant to the first generation of Bt cotton crops.

Q. Have other pests attacked Bt cotton? A. Nature seeks balance. If Bt cotton crops have become pretenaturally safe from bollworms, other insects will surely be emboldened to attack it. Have they? Yes. In recent years a new pest of cotton called the mirid bug, rejoicing in the absence of the bollworm, has been feasting on cotton (story from China). This did not happen directly because of Bt cotton, but because the farmers had massively cut down on spraying general insecticides on their crop. The rise of the mirid bug is eroding some of the benefits of Bt cotton by forcing them to run out and purchase insecticides anyway.

Q. Did sheep die after grazing on Bt cotton? A. Starting in 2005 shepherds in Andhra Pradesh reported that sheep that grazed on the remains of Bt cotton for 3-4 days seemed to pick up a disease and die. Surprisingly, no one seems to have gotten to the bottom of this claim; was Bt cotton to blame or not?

Activists claim that this is obviously GMO poisoning, but the case is not as clear-cut as that. There were cases of pneumonia mixed in with the sheep that seem to have been poisoned, which makes it hard to separate. And, some investigations found pesticide on the leaves, so it could have been that.

The authorities on the other hand, claim that this is just hearsay, that the sheep simply could not have died from any Bt cotton toxicity, and the tests they have done prove it. But, there actually haven’t been any tests done on sheep (there have been tests on buffaloes, goats, chickens and cows). Also none of the tests involved fresh plant material, they just involved cotton seed meal. It is also possible that the toxin came from the non-Bt parts of Bt cotton. So far, it seems like the authorities in India have failed to get to the bottom of this.

This article is very detailed but is a good account of the sheep deaths.

Q. Have farmer suicides shot up due to Bt cotton? A. Now we come to the most incendiary claim — that the use of GM crops have led to growing numbers of farmers taking their own lives. There is no way to discuss this that isn’t going to sound callous. But let’s try.

There are two ways to look at this — as statistics, or as anecdotes. This paper looks at the question statistically. They chose to use statistics from the crime bureau rather than the ones collected by the state governments, because the ones from the crime bureau are more accurate (and higher). What they found is that farmer suicides have not increased, overall, since the introduction of Bt cotton, although they found local variation.

This paper on the other hand, looks at the question anecdotally, although it doesn’t choose to word it that way. I don’t say this to knock it. Anecdotal accounts may bring tragedies to light that get elided into a blip on a curve when you look at it as a statistic. It seems clear that some farmers did face GM crop failures; and for some of those it meant digging deeper into debt. People in wealthier countries where one can declare bankruptcy might wonder why unpayable debt is a reason to take one’s own life. In India, among the poor, this can be a disaster. They mostly do not have good, regulated microcredit available. I’ve known loan sharks to send hoodlums out to their delinquents for beatings; having their meager possessions auctioned off is a regular occurrence.

If it was indebtedness, can it be blamed on GMO? Well, perhaps it wasn’t the Bt toxin itself. But the GMO seeds they obtained come with a context — a high price, marketing, regulations followed and not followed. I will explore that in the next section.

GMO in the Indian Context

Look, after my week of reading everything I could lay my cursor on, I think I am free to make a qualified claim: so far, overall, Bt cotton has helped Indian farmers. It has helped them, overall, get better yields and make more money. But, it has not been a uniform success. The Indian context in particular has had a bit of a culture clash with the more modern economy that Monsanto usually operates in. When Indian farmers have crop failures, this is often a life-destroying event.

What kind of culture clash? The rural population in India has high rates of illiteracy. Many farm workers cannot read or write, let alone get on the internet to look up seed laws. In this environment, hearsay will always have more influence than the latest official dispatch. Instructions from Monsanto about planting buffer areas with non-Bt cotton were not well understood, or, the farmers didn’t have the luxury to ‘do things right’, leading to some places where the bollworm developed resistance to it. In Andhra Pradesh, some farmers didn’t understand that they did not need to spray insecticide anymore, therefore cutting into the profit they might have had.

They are not jaded with years of marketing-speak and haven’t learnt to discount it. Farmers believed the most inflated talk about yields that they could expect from Bt cotton, and probably did not have the cynicism needed to know that this was advertisement. They might have taken more risk than they ought to have given the high cost of the seeds based on this marketing-speak.

The concept of intellectual property is not well understood either — I know this first-hand, because when I was in India we pirated software with abandon, not really understanding that there was something wrong with this. When we bought grain in bulk, some of the small-time vendors adulterated it with stones. Piracy, the black market, adulteration, these are ubiquitous, specially for poorer farmers who are price-conscious and have no consumer representation. There are several cases of unauthorized Bt cotton being sold in the black market, which is usually adulterated with cheaper conventional cotton. Clearly this crop is not going to be as resistant to the bollworm as the pure variety.

The practice of buying seed from a catalog for each new season, very familiar for American farmers, is a bit of a culture shock to Indian farmers. Monsanto’s seeds lose their vigor after single growing season; farmers who have become trained in the practice of growing GM crop have a high dependence on the private sector and are subject to their price whims.

It also seems like Monsanto and their Indian collaborators have not always chosen the best varieties of cotton for the Indian situation. Some of the initial hybrids they chose were not drought-tolerant; this is fine for modern societies where irrigation is a given, but in India, most farmers are still heavily dependent on the monsoon. Some of the GM crop failures in Andhra Pradesh were because of this. Other times, the hybrids they chose grew fine but had a shorter staple length and did not bring in as much profit as the farmers had counted on.

The Good, the Bad

On the plus side, Bt cotton has the potential to drastically cut down the use of pesticides. Not only is this a health benefit for farm workers (they can’t afford safety equipment like masks while spraying, or really, even shoes, so some exposure is guaranteed), it is also good for the environment. Recently, natural predators of insect pests have had their numbers increase. Also, if cash crops are less prone to be eaten by pests, this is a benefit in and of itself.

Let’s talk about the bad. With an engineer’s hat on, the problem of a pest on a cash crop has a simple solution: find a good insecticide and have the plant produce it. Done.

With an ecological hat on, one wonders about the system one is tampering with. The simple solution starts to look like a silver bullet. In general the scientists believe that a GM crop like this comes with a natural life until the target pests develop resistance to it. I’m not smart enough to think through this very well, but here is a question. We know that Bacillus thuringiensis produces insecticide, but we don’t quite understand its role in the ecology. What happens when these creatures develop a resistance to it out in the wild — what does that do in the environment? What balance does it wreck? I don’t think anybody understands.

But it doesn’t really matter anyway, because these ineffable concerns will never trump the immediate need for profit and predictability, and that might just be the story of industrial farming.

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15 thoughts on “GMO cotton and the Indian farmer

  1. Very thoughtful series of posts. I was told on my Myanmar trip that farmers are growing GM corn instead of their traditional crops, for export to China. And I wondered about the impact on say, a sustainable livelihood.


  2. This is such complex issue! I feel enraged by the sale of BT hybrid seed which forces poor farmers to purchase seed controlled by multinational companies rather than seed saving. Rather than relieving poverty and debt the opposite is true. Your articles are thoroughly researched and well written Aneela. Congratulations


  3. I have learned so much from your research, Aneela – I used to just think – no – don’t mess with nature but when I read about the farmers, I saw it from another point of view entirely. There is no telling, the harm that is yet to come but now with typical Libran indecisiveness, I am sitting on the fence, weighing up the pros and cons and vacillating between the many facets to this situation. Thank you, for such thought provoking posts.


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