Bt cotton in India : Boon or bane?
Genetically modified organisms are living entities whose genetic material has been altered to selective add or eliminate characteristics to improve their performance. In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen successfully created the first genetically engineered (GE) organism wherein they successfully transferred a gene coding for antibiotic resistance from one bacteria to another . This paved the way for scientists to try and find solutions to the world’s most pertinent questions by tailor made innovations involving alteration of genetic material. This may have led to an plethora of benefits but also has opened an ethical Pandora’s box. One such example is Bt cotton.
Cotton bollworm is a problem in growing cotton in tropical countries where it is grown under irrigation. Bt cotton is a genetically modified organism (GMO) cotton variety, which was introduced to counter this growing menace. Bacillus thuriengensis is a bacteria that naturally produces a protein that acts as an insecticide to bollworm . The type of toxin produced is strain dependent and targets different pest and non pest insects.
In 1996, Monsanto received approval for commercialization for three Bt crops viz. Bt cotton, Bt corn and Bt potato. It took about 14 years of intensive research along with extensive proof its safety and benefits in addition to regulatory requirements. It slowly gained acceptance in Australia (1996), Argentina (1997), China (1997), Mexico (1998), South Africa (1998), Colombia (2002) and India (2002).
Cotton makes up for 30% of total domestic product in terms of agriculture in the country. India has about 20 million acres of land under cotton cultivation today. Improved practices and knowledge sharing have improved yield levels have increased significantly, from around 120 kg of lint per acre in the early 2000s, to more than 200 kg now.
One of the most notable benefits is the reduced harm to crop friendly insects which serve as pollination agents. The benefits also involve reduced land and ground water contamination by excessive insecticide usage. The socio economic benefits include safety for farm workers, and a tremendous decrease in labor and production costs. The Bt cry protein that contributes to this insecticidal activity is non toxic to humans and animals and is rapidly degraded in contact with soil. There is also no cross pollination with the indigenous varieties as the ploidy in these species differ fundamentally. A rise in the overall productivity has been claimed owing to the improved resistance of the crop to the greatest pest threat that drastically reduces yield.
On the flip side, Bt cotton isn’t necessarily effective against all pests. In fact, an article in the Times of India (5th July 2017) has brought into limelight the steady collapse of Bt Cotton’s resistance to the pink bollworm in Maharashtra. Evidence points against the privately run Bt cotton seed industries that have been supplying India’s largest cotton cultivating state. With the Bt cotton seeds being thrice as expensive as regular seeds, farmers are now unable to see any benefits whatsoever in opting for Bt cotton over the desi varieties. Seed companies argue that farmers do not practices good agronomic practices like planting refuge plants across the border of the field to prevent onslaught of pestilence on the main crop. Secondly, there are reports slowing emerging regarding the unjustified correlation of Bt cotton usage in India to the huge boost in cotton production in the past few years.
How the country will resolve these emerging issues, only time will tell.