The phrase itself is tiring out with wear, but Bt cotton continues to jostle for public debate along with its increasing acreage on Indian fields. In 2005, 3.1 million 450-gm packets of Bt seeds were sold in India, accounting for approximately 1.26 million hectares, or 14 per cent of India's total 9 million hectares of cotton cultivation. This year that figure is estimated to increase to 81,00,000 acres, or approximately 3.28 million hectares, according to the central government.

In the absence of further definitive research and debate, Bt cotton's mixed results could well have more to do with agro-climatic variables, a concern that an FAO study pointed out, than what meets the eye.

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But its increase countrywide has not yet ensured the national, whopping success, both economic and yield-wise, that the GM crop industry has claimed. Instead, what has emerged are 'yo-yo-ing' reports of success and failures, compounded by a harshly-divided 'pro' and 'anti-Bt' stance in India and elsewhere, that has contributed to confusion.

Downs and ups

During 2000-05, there were numerous reports of cotton-crop failures and farmer-suicides in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamilnadu. Running alongside these, were reports of cotton-crop success and increased revenue in some areas of Maharashtra and Gujarat, according to an AC Nielsen survey in 2003-04.

The AC Nielsen study however, which claimed a premium for bollgard cotton in the market, attracted round criticism from NGOs and 'anti GM' activists for having being conducted cursorily. Its credibility also became suspect due to its commissioning by seed corporate Monsanto-Mahyco Biotech Ltd (MMB).

There have other criticisms as well. Earlier, in 2003, a CICR-Nagpur (Central Institute of Cotton Research) study of the then eight commercial Bt cotton hybrids grown in India found that the expression of the Cry1Ac gene inserted to be a repellent to Indian cotton's biggest threat, the bollworm pest, was far below levels needed to actually repel the bollworm, resulting in continuing bollworm attacks. The study also revealed that incorporation of the Cry1Ac gene into local hybrids was far less effective than incorporation into original varieties being used in Australia, US and elsewhere. MMB has since gone into production of a second patented Cry2Ab gene called Bollgard-II which expects to be more effective in targeting both bollworm and sucking aphids.

Amongst reports of success, a 2002-2003 Maharashta survey by Bennet, Ismael et al in AgBioForum, had reviewed two crop seasons from Khandesh, Marathwada and Vidarbha, this last district also the scene of rampant cotton distress. The researchers reported in The Hindu that "since its commercial release in 2002, Bt cotton has had a significant positive impact on yields and on the economic performance of cotton growers in Maharashtra."

Even here, the study did agree that reduced pesticide costs were neutralised by high seed costs and that overall costs for Bt farmers were higher. But the researchers concluded that the real benefit of growing Bt cotton was in higher output. "When costs are taken into account (gross margin = revenue - variable costs), the result is a much higher gross margin for Bt growers compared to growers of non-Bt varieties. It is worth noting that the average gross margin gap between Bt adopters and non-adopters was larger in 2003 (74%) than in 2002 (49%)", the study said.

Nevertheless, Bt cotton crop failures were reported in 2004 and 2005, most notably from Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra, where thousands of farmers reported crop losses, driving large numbers of them to suicide. The local government in AP's Warangal district demanded compensation from Monsanto Biotech Ltd., for farmers who lost their crop. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the central government (GEAC) then banned the use of MMB's MECH-184, MECH 162 and MECH 12 in AP in 2005.

While most recognize of the price-savings of using lower pesticides, with applications reducing from six rounds per crop to fewer than four rounds of sprays, the high cost of seed, according to agriculture specialist Devinder Sharma, outweighs the savings from reduced pesticide sprays. In 2006, in the fields in Karnataka, farmers however, said they still made an overall saving from reduced pesticide spraying-rounds.

Seed costs went up in 2004-05 to Rs.1800 per 450 gm packet with the AP government challenging the company under the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission for hugely overcharging farmers for its seed. The AP government appealed for prices to be fixed at Rs.750 per packet, making it comparable to rates internationally. The Central government has backed the State's appeal and ordered the company to charge Rs.750 per packet. But conversations with cotton farmers in Karnataka in June 2006 reveal that the seed continues to be sold at Rs.1250-1400 per 450 gm packet.

Seed costs apart, central to the issue of crop behaviour, higher yields and yet less revenue, is the variety of Bt cottonseed that has been used by farmers till 2005. MMB's short-stapled MECH 162, MECH 184 in Karnataka had given average results in irrigated areas, with a very poor rate of success in non-irrigated areas in AP, giving small farmers in AP, as well as in Maharashtra, no buffer at the failure.

In Karnataka, farmers reported middling yields and lesser revenue earnings from Bt than from non-Bt varieties till 2004. In 2005, the State has shown good yields in both traditional and non-traditional cotton-growing belts but has earned lesser revenue from Bt than non-Bt varieties like DCH-32 and DHH-11.

This was in spite of reduced use of pesticides in Bt fields and happened more due to demand of the long-stapled varieties existing within non-Bt varieties. But in 2005, at least one Bt long-stapled variety, MECH 6918 was introduced which has reported good results in Karnataka, making the economics of long-stapled Bt comparable to long-stapled non-Bt.

It is the economics of short-stapled varieties like MECH 162 and similar others that have been criticised by academics, NGOs and agricultural consultants like Sharma. In 2003 - 04, an FAO report from Karnataka showed that nearly 45% of all Bt-growing farmers had bought the seeds at an expensive Rs.1600 for a 450 gm packet on the expectation of high yields promised by seed agents and were then disappointed at the low market price.

Farmers in Karnataka in 2006, however, say they still make a savings of Rs.1500 per acre. This, despite irrigation costs for farmers growing only Bt cotton being significantly higher than for farmers using both Bt and non Bt varieties. (See first article in this series: 'Bt cotton farmers are alert this year.')

Behind the downs and ups

The FAO had also shown, as a 'major conclusion' that irrigation for higher productivity seemed to be more important than Bt or non Bt cotton varieties. Under rainfed conditions, Bt cotton showed no advantage at all. The FAO study has asked for a careful consideration of agro-climatic factors before using Bt seeds. "Economic performance of a cotton crop is not only determined by its genetic makeup, but also by the agro-ecological conditions under which it is grown," states the study.

Indeed, in the absence of any further definitive research and debate, Bt cotton's mixed results could well have more to do with the FAO study's concern on agro-climatic variables, than what meets the eye at present.

Some agree. Professor Ronald Herring of Cornell University points to the MECH 184 variety as an example, which wilts if not watered early; a point that not many farmers either knew of or understood until they learnt it the hard way.

"This is why three hundred or so varieties of cotton are planted in India; this number is necessary to adapt to different regions with different agro-ecological conditions," says Herring. (India Together: Understanding the Bt cotton maze, June 2006.)

If this be true, then India's small-holder farmer (61% of total farmers, at last count by the government) has unfortunately borne the brunt of these poor and inadequate varieties.

Coming back to the present, Bt cotton did well in traditional and now-extended cotton-growing areas in Karnataka in 2005-6, adding even more weight to the need to discuss this unpredictability.

But unpredictability and confusion notwithstanding, the GEAC has approved six new Bt cotton hybrids for commercial cultivation in northern India with more varieties shortly being commissioned.

Whilst new varieties might be what is needed, as per Herring's argument, it is the silence on these poor results by the seed corporates themselves, and the GEAC's lack of acknowledgement of Bt cotton's erratic performance that is disturbing.

The existing varieties that have had such disastrous results in the southern Indian region however are still allowed in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharastra till 2007. It remains to be seen whether the varieties are suited to these states' conditions.

The patterns

While there appears to be little that can be categorically stated about Bt cotton's success/failure in India itself, a few aspects stand out.

One, the determined approach to extend and increase Bt cotton shown by Indian government's political and scientific administration along with private scientists is matched by their seemingly equal inability to discuss Bt cotton's mixed results so far. Instead, the authorities appear to be pinning their hopes on transgenic crops with Bt cotton as the flagship and as the only way forward for cotton cultivation.

Two, and in line with this, the Bt seed industry meanwhile has found easy coincidence between their commercial interests and the government's professed national interests. Marketing of Bt cotton seeds has taken on the aggression of a race with reports of unapproved, trial-run seeds being deliberately distributed to spread awareness on them.

Three, as noted earlier, India's small farmers have borne the brunt of the experimentation of Bt cotton, shouldering, in addition, more failures due to spurious seeds, and having less agricultural resources to bolster the crop. The current transgenic seed scene appears more to favour 'rich' farmers, with better resources and more lands for alternative support. The poor farmer will hopefully fare well in a good monsoon year; how he manages in lesser rains is anybody's guess.

Even though good monsoons are good for cotton just as they are for other crops, seed corporates are holding out a banner on food and livelihood security over Bt cotton and other transgenic crops as if they are special. The reality is that three years ago, the government acknowledged falling farm incomes and growing inequities amongst farmers in the Situation Assessment of Farmers (2003). This makes me circumspect about transgenic crops as a livelihood security measure for the majority of India's small-holder farmers.

The only decision by the government that appeared reasonable was in 2003, when the GEAC decided to extend Bt-trial runs for 3 years till March 2006, in the face of protests at poor trials. Also in 2003, the Ministry of Environment and Forests setup a commission to formulate a mechanism for the evaluation, monitoring and control of Bt cotton in India. Despite the situation being ripe for debate, the website of the Ministry of Environment is silent on what the commission has to say.