Biotech cotton - too good to be true?

Posted: 18 July 2002

Author Info: This article was specially commissioned from Peter McGrath, a freelance writer on agriculture and the environment, based in Italy.Related link:Engineered Genes Help Wild Weeds Thrive

Genetically modified (GM) cotton is now being grown in seven countries around the world. Since it was first planted in the United States in 1996, its production has been approved in Argentina, Australia, China, Indonesia and Mexico. Earlier this year, the Indian government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee also approved its commercial release. Here Peter McGrath looks at the benefits and dangers of this 'wonder crop'.

According to a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, between 2000 and 2001 there was a 19 per cent increase in the area of land planted with GM crops. The latest figures show that they were planted on 52.6 million hectares around the world, an area equal almost to the size of France.

Trial plots of cotton varieties, Indian PunjabThirteen percent of this total, or 6.8 million ha, is planted with GM cotton and, according to the ISAAA, over three-quarters of farmers that benefited from GM crops in 2001 were resource-poor farmers planting Bt cotton, mainly in China and also in South Africa.

So is Bt cotton a success story of the biotechnology revolution, or are the multinational seed companies taking advantage of poorer farmers in developing countries for their own commercial gains?

Zapping caterpillars

Bacillus thuringiensis is a soil-dwelling bacterium that happens to produce a protein that is lethal to certain insects. The genes that code for these proteins are slightly different in different strains of the bacterium, and produce slightly different toxins. Scientists have now taken one of these genes, known as Cry1Ac, which works against Lepidopteran insects, and inserted it into the genetic make-up of cotton plants.

By doing so, the plants have been made resistant to several of their major caterpillar pests, including bollworms, pink bollworms and tobacco budworms. Farmers gain, say the scientists, by not having to spray their crops with insecticides against these pests - the chemical is essentially contained within the seed.

Wherever Bt cotton has been grown, it has increased in popularity among farmers. Since its release in China in 1997, for example, its use has risen sharply. Between 2000 and 2001, China's Bt cotton production tripled from 0.5 to 1.5 million ha, and now accounts for 35 per cent of the nation's cotton production. In the United States, Bt varieties now make up more than a third of the nation's cotton crop.

Likewise, the South African Government approved Bt cotton varieties for commercial planting in 1998 and, during the 1998/99 growing season, 19 per cent of the farmers in the Makhathuni area of the Northern Province tried the new seeds. They performed so well that, for the 1999/2000 growing season, 65 per cent of the area's farmers were growing Bt-cotton and, by 2000/2001 this figure had increased to 95 per cent.

Less pesticide

One of the benefits of the introduction of Bt cotton crops has been a dramatic decrease in the use of pesticides. A study on the initial impact of Bt cotton in South Africa by Dr. Y. Ismael of Reading University, for example, showed that instead of spraying up to eight times a season to control the potentially devastating bollworms, most farmers were now spraying only for relatively minor pests such as cotton aphids - with a significant decrease in the cost of spraying.

The reduction in pesticide use in China after the adoption of Bt cotton has been even more dramatic. In a recent report in the journal Science, Jikun Huang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues showed that Chinese farmers had reduced their insecticide treatments by 80 per cent or 13 sprays per season, equivalent to nearly 50 kg of pesticide or $762 per ha. Incidents of insecticide poisoning, such as headaches and nausea, dropped from 22 per cent of those growing cotton to only 4.7 per cent with Bt crops.

Indian farmers

There is the same potential for Bt cotton to reduce pesticide sprays against bollworm in India. Fifteen sprays a season are not uncommon and some farmers have admitted applying as many as 40 - partly explained by the high levels of resistance to various insecticides found in many parts of India.

In fact, perhaps more than anyone, Indian farmers have most to gain from the introduction of Bt cotton. Although India has the largest area in the world down to cotton production, it is only third in the production league table. Indian cotton yields, as Sandhya Tiwari, deputy director of the Confederation of Indian Industry says, are "pathetically low."

For comparison, China (the world's largest producer) manages to achieve an average yield of 943 kg per hectare, and America 769 kg per hectare. India, by contrast, manages just 298 kg per hectare, largely due to bollworm attacks.

The cotton market at Kot Kapurthala,Punjab, India© Wendy CraigCotton yields have been so bad in India that they have had to begin importing cotton to sustain their clothing industry. Many farmers have gone into debt and committed suicide, often because of failed cotton harvests.

The down-side

"These benefits must be set against fears of damage to the environment, the breakdown of resistance, reduction in biodiversity, increased profits for multi-nationals and the impoverishment of small farmers in developing countries," warns Dr. Ismael.The risks of out-crossing to wild relatives seem minimal as cotton is a self-pollinating crop and its pollen does not travel far. Under Indian seed production regulations, for example, a segregation distance of 5 meters is deemed adequate to maintain the purity of crops grown for seed.

The effects of Bt cotton on non-target insects have also been studied but, so far, no conclusive results have emerged.

The breakdown of the resistance of Bt cotton to bollworm attack, however, is a more tangible threat.

Short-term solution "While promoters insist that Bt offers environmental benefits, it is a very short-term solution," says Hope Shand of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), a Canadian-based NGO.

"We know that pests will evolve resistance to Bt genes, and it is only a matter of time before these insecticidal genes are rendered useless. This is particularly troubling because Bt, in non-GM form, has long been used as a natural tool by organic farmers."

Recent Chinese studies have demonstrated that, under laboratory conditions, bollworms fed Bt cotton leaves over successive generations can become resistant to the Bt toxin. After 17 generations, their susceptibility fell by 70 per cent and, within 40 generations the bollworms were 1000 times more resistant to the Bt toxin than they had been. With bollworms undergoing 4 or 5 generations each year, Greenpeace has concluded that the effectiveness of Bt cotton will be undermined within 8 to 10 years of continuous planting.

"If Bt resistance breaks down, then the suppliers need to be adaptable. It is here that dangers may reside," says Dr. Ismael in his report on the South African situation. "A rapid increase in popularity of Bt cotton could result in a decline in the use of other varieties, and a commercial decision throughout the supply chain to concentrate on Bt and carry less pesticide stock. If there is a shortage of pesticide, or even non-GM seed, then the farmers of the area could be highly vulnerable."

Refuge areas

One way to prevent the build-up of resistant bollworm populations is by planting of so-called 'refuge areas' of non-Bt cotton which allow bollworms to grow and reproduce without the same insecticide selection pressure. Refuge areas are compulsory for US farmers growing Bt cotton. In India, GEAC have also stipulated that refuge areas of non-Bt cotton need to be grown. A 2.5m wide strip around each field, or 20 per cent of the cotton area (whichever is the largest) should be planted with non-Bt varieties, they say.

However, Dr Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign reports that, in India, the government and scientists have convinced farmers that Bt cotton will dramatically increase their yields. The GEAC chairman, for example, has said: "About 150,000 hectares will come under Bt cotton in the first year. The increase in productivity will be spectacular, but I can't give you any figures.

Sandhya Tiwari is even more optimistic. He expects that the uptake of Bt cotton will put India in a dominant position in relation to the world's leading cotton producers. Not surprisingly, therefore, many farmers are unwilling to plant the 20 per cent refuge area to non-Bt varieties.

But Dr Sahai warns "The scientific community and the administration have not bothered to educate farmers about the drawbacks of the technology, its prescribed methodology and the dangers of not following proper procedure, for instance, of not leaving a non-Bt refuge for the bollworm to retain susceptibility to Bt varieties," she warns.

Furthermore, the efficacy of refuge areas depends on adult moths emerging from them at the same time as potentially resistant adult moths emerge from the nearby Bt crop. In this way, moths carrying 'susceptible' genes from the refuge areas will mate with those potentially carrying resistance genes from the Bt crop, thus diluting the resistant population. Reports suggest, though, that the emergence of resistant individuals developing on Bt cotton is delayed by several days.

There are also fears that the compulsory planting of refuge areas could adversely affect the profits of the smallest farmers, who often have less than 1 ha, as it would take up a proportionately larger area of their land. In turn, this could lead to the gap between larger, richer farmers and the smaller, poorer ones widening, eventually forcing the smaller ones out of business.

Although this does not appear to be happening in South Africa, where many small farmers have adopted and are profiting from Bt cotton, the opposite could happen in India. Already the state of Andrha Pradesh has indicated its desire to reduce the number of people employed in agriculture from 70 to 40 per cent over the next 20 years.

There is also the argument that such refuge areas are unlikely to be policed well in India where illegal Bt cotton was grown for three years in the state of Gujarat before the government stepped in to order its destruction. By then, some GM cotton had already been harvested and entered the market.

Multinationals

Finally, there are concerns that, because much of the Bt technology is owned by large multinational biotech companies (Monsanto in particular), these companies will profit at the expense of farmers in developing countries.

Monsanto, for example, developed the Bt cotton grown in South Africa, and two-thirds of China's Bt cotton is also derived from Monsanto-owned technology. In India, too, Monsanto has part-ownership of the Mahyco company that produces the three varieties of Bt cotton approved by GEAC. In contrast, the Gujarat farmers who grew illegal crops of Bt cotton were using a variety developed by Navbharat, an Indian company. To date, this variety still does not have approval for commercial release. Naturally, companies such as Monsanto are interested in making profits. According to some sources, sowing 1 ha with conventional seed costs around 400 Rupees (£5.50), whereas the equivalent amount of Bt cotton costs 1600 Rs (£22). Dr. Sahai of Gene Campaign, however, reports that in the cotton-growing belt of Maharashtra, conventional hybrid seed sells for around 1600 Rs for enough to sow 1 ha of land, whilst Mahyco's Bt varieties cost around 6400 RS per ha. Even with pesticide savings of 60 per cent, she says, farmers would need to double their yeild to make the same returns on Bt seed. This is unlikely because Bt varieties are not designed to increase yields, but just to control pests (although efficient bollworm control does have yield benefits).

To complicate the issue, many of the unlicensed Navbharat seeds have entered into a 'black market' and are selling for as little as 400 Rs per ha. Add to this the expected savings on pesticides, and unlicensed seed is an attractive proposition for many farmers.

"For a few seasons at any rate, the farmer will have access to a cotton variety with favourable economics," says Dr. Sahai. "After that, when the variety fails, nobody is responsible and the victim as always, is the farmer... The failure of the GEAC to regulate or to take punitive action against Navbharat has emboldened every fly-by-night seed operator to take the farmer for a ride."

At the moment, in many cases, it seems that Bt cotton is doing the job it was designed for - . controlling bollworms and reducing pesticide inputs. However, as the anti-GM lobby argue, not enough work has done on its potential environmental impacts and its effect on the economics of farming in resource-poor areas. Also, at least in India, not enough effort is being put into policing the release of the biotech varieties.

It is still too early to say, therefore, whether paying four-times more for seed is a high price to pay for the benefits of Bt cotton or not.