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India's Transgenic Cotton Is Not The Super-Crop That Was Promised

Dwindling production, rising costs, new diseases: ten years after genetically-modified cotton was introduced in India with high hopes of boosting the economy, farmers are deeply disappointed with its results and wondering if it was all worth it.

A woman from the Ahir tribe at Chapredi village with cotton husks (Meena Kadri)
A woman from the Ahir tribe at Chapredi village with cotton husks (Meena Kadri)
Julien Bouissou

NEW DELHI - Ten years after its debut, genetically modified cotton is a huge disappointment. Plants are vulnerable to new diseases, yields are far lower than expected.

The Andhra Pradesh state government recently announced that the 2011 harvest was much lower than the 2010 crop. And for the first time, the Maharashtra government and a court from the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh, successfully sued German seed company Crop Science for 850,000 euros on behalf of more than 1,000 farmers for selling them seeds that did not deliver the promised yield.

The German company is denying responsibility and is blaming "bad production control and weather conditions." It is thinking of appealing to get the sentence repealed.

Since gentically-modified (GMO) cotton was introduced in India in 2002, crops have doubled and the country has become the world's No. 2 cotton producer. But the "White Revolution," as it was called, is now generating more suspicion than enthusiasm. Anti-GMO activists believe that the big harvests of the first years were due to better climate and irrigation systems. For the last six years, the average production has stagnated while transgenic cotton cultures have more than quadrupled.

In 2009, GMO giant Monsanto admitted for the first time that its "Bollgard" cotton variety had lost its resistance against worms in the Gujarat fields, in western India. Two years later, the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) director, Keshav Raj Kranthi, warned against GM cotton's growing vulnerability to bacteria.

Calls for a moratorium

"Productivity in northern India should decrease as the production capacity of the seeds is getting smaller. The latest hyrbid seeds have also contracted the ‘leaf curl virus' and are more vulnerable to parasites, whereas non-genetically modified seeds used to be more resistant" a May 2011 CICR report explains. Kranthi adds that transgenic seeds consume more water and nutrients, which lead to soil exhaustion. Fertilizers are needed to maximize production.

All these fertilizers, GMO seeds and insecticides are expensive: farmers have to take out loans from local moneylenders, or directly from their seed and fertilizer suppliers. A minor drop in the cotton rate or bad weather conditions can lead to tragedy. In 2006, in the Vidarbha region, thousands of farmers committed suicide by swallowing pesticide because they couldn't pay off their debts.

GMO cotton is a new technology that needs specific know-how to be put to the best use. Each one of the 780 varieties of transgenic cotton needs a different type of soil and different fertilizers. Local grains also have to be planted in just the right proportions to avoid bacteria and insects from developing resistance to transgenic seeds.

"Small farmers don't have the slightest idea about what they buy and how to grow GMO seeds. Their traditional know-how is about to disappear," worries Sridhar Radhakrishnan from the Coalition for GMO-Free India.

In case of bad crops, there is no legal action that the farmers can take to get compensation. "If anything goes wrong or if the farmers have difficulties, the states need to create laws to force companies to give them financial compensation," Minister of Agriculture Sharad Pawar said recently in Parliament.

Ten years after transgenic cotton was introduced, local Indian seeds have practically disappeared. The GMO seeds market represents 280 million euros. Companies promise to create new sorts of seeds that are more resistant and consumer less water. Meanwhile, anti-GMO activists demand an immediate moratorium on the culture of transgenic cotton in India.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Meena Kadri

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