Bt Cotton is Failing; Blame the Farmers

Of all the GMO controversies around the world, the saga of Bt cotton in India continues to be one of the most interesting and important. In the latest chapter, reported by the Business Standard, cotton yields have dropped to a 5-year low, setting off a fascinating round of finger pointing.

Feb-2013-graph

Data from the India Ministry of Textiles.

India approved Bt cotton in 2002 and within a few years yields were up dramatically. There are different sets of data out there, but let’s use the India Ministry of Textiles data since it’s this weeks news story. This chart shows the national trends in cotton yield (kg per hectare).

If you follow GMO debates you will have heard several years of kennel barking about how these figures show a “remarkable success.” But as I have pointed out (in my blog and in EPW), most of the rise in productivity had nothing to do with Bt cotton; in fact it happened before Bt cotton became popular.

Check it out: the biggest rises were from 2002/3 to 2004/5, when yields rose 56% from 302 to 470 kg. But by 2004/5, only 5.6% of India’s cotton farmers had adopted Bt. Do the math: if those 5.6% of planters were really responsible for a 56% rise in yields, then they must have been harvesting 3,288 kg/ha.

So Bt didn’t explain the big rise in yields, and since Bt has taken over, yields have been steadily worsening. What are we to make of this? Well, two things, according to the Business Standard and the Monsanto spokesperson who was their main informant. One has to do with what has gone wrong, the other with what we need to get out of this mess.

1. What Went Wrong? (the farmers screwed up?)

It seems the bollworms — the voracious pests that that Bt cotton is designed to kill — are developing resistance. But resistance, according to Monsanto, is “natural and expected.”

Whoa — that’s not what the farmers were told to expect. I was there when Bt cotton was being rolled out and they were told repeatedly and confidently that they wouldn’t have to spray any more. In fact we were all being told that “genetic farming is the easiest way to cultivate crops. All that farmers have to do is to plant the seeds and water them regularly. The genetically modified seeds are insect resistant, so there is no need to use huge amounts of pesticides.”

All the farmer has to do is plant and water the seeds… and then wait around for resistance, which is natural and expected. But wait there’s more: when it does appear, it’s the Indian farmers’ fault. Monsanto’s spokesman explains:

Among the factors that may have contributed to pink bollworm resistance to the Cry1Ac protein in Gujarat are limited refuge planting and early use of unapproved Bt cotton seed, planted prior to GEAC approval of Cry1Ac cotton, which may have had lower Bt protein expression levels, he added.

A “refuge” is a strip of non-Bt seeds farmers are asked to plant around their Bt fields, basically to raise bollworms that aren’t resistant to Bt, so they can hopefully breed with any resistant bollworms.[1] Very few Indian farmers actually do this, because it’s a lot of extra work for no return. Here’s an insight from 30 years of research on farming: if you’re pushing a technology that is only sustainable if farmers follow practices that require extra work for no return, you are pushing an unsustainable technology.

The other Monsanto suggestion is that the farmers are to blame for planting unapproved seeds. Sorry, that dog don’t hunt. Those unapproved seeds were Navbharat-151 and they have been much written about; they were better than the approved seeds, and their Bt levels were apparently sky high. Gujarat, where they were planted, has had India’s biggest rises in yields.

But while we’re blaming Indian farmers, why stop there? Monsanto also explains that

farmers have been constantly educated to adopt measures such as need-based application of insecticide sprays during the crop season and adoption of cultural practices like keeping the field clean of cotton stubble and crop-leftovers, ploughing of land after harvest so that the resting stages of the insects in the soil could be destroyed.

I have yet to bump into the educators who are giving farmers constant remediation on spraying, plowing, and field clearing. But I do bump into a lot of biotechnology people who pontificate on the wisdom of the Indian farmer. The farmer has long been seen as backward, tradition-bound, and inept. “We need to teach proper tillage,” a Monsanto executive explained to me years ago. But farmers are obstinate, and in fact this was one of the arguments for GM seeds:

ryot

It’s his fault.

for years people have tried to change cultural practices of these farmers, and it just hasn’t worked. It has been a complete failure, because you have to modify infrastructure, you have to re-educate them as to how to modify their farming practices themselves. But with biotech, the technology is in a seed. All you have to do is give them the seed. (-biotechnologist Martina McGloughlin)

But as soon as Indian farmers adopted GM seeds, we were told that “we should leave the choice of selecting modern agricultural technologies to the wisdom of Indian farmers” and that “farmers are excellent businessmen who aren’t persuaded by anything or anybody that doesn’t make their job easier or more profitable.” [2]

So don’t question the wisdom of the farmer! He is a genius — at least when he is buying GM seeds. But otherwise, he has to be told how to plant, spray, plow, and clear fields!

2. Now What? (More innovation?)

So despite all the GM seeds, India’s cotton yields keep on dropping. (In some states, they are now lower than they were before Bt seeds became popular.) So what’s the way forward?

To me this is a very hard question, but not to the Business Standard, which simply reports the news that

continuous R&D and innovation to develop new value-added technologies is imperative to stay ahead of insect resistance. To support such innovation, Monsanto demanded government policies’ support to encourage investment in R&D which will result in Indian farmers having a wider choice of better and advanced technologies translating thereby, higher yield.

No kidding — innovation from Monsanto is going to keep us ahead of the insects and guarantee higher yields. But lets take a look at the facts, at least as reported by the industry-friendly ISAAA. Yields started dropping after 2007/8. But that was just after new genetic constructs started appearing: a new 2-gene technology in 2006/7, and by 2009, six different constructs were approved. And these rapidly proliferating technologies were appearing in dizzying numbers of seed products. After 2006/7, the number of Bt hybrid seeds being offered to farmers jumped from 62 to 131 to 274; by 2009/10 there were 522.

There you have it: Indian cotton farmers today are being pelted with a hailstorm of new gene technologies and seed products, their yields steadily dropping, and the way forward is clear to the Business Standard: invest in Monsanto innovation.

————————————————————————————————-

[1]Further explanation: A field full of Bt plants puts selective pressure on bollworm populations favoring worms with natural resistance to Bt. The resistant bollworms would thrive and spread the resistance trait, while the Bt-vulnerable bollworms die off. The plants in the refuge are non-Bt, so Bt-sensitive worms are supposed to thrive there; they are supposed to mate with the Bt-resistant worms and water down the resistance trait.
[2] Pinstrup-Andersen, P., and E. Schioler 2000 Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press; Fumento, M. 2003 BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World. San Francisco: Encounter Books.
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40 Responses to Bt Cotton is Failing; Blame the Farmers

  1. Thanks for the level-headed articles about Monsanto & GMOs. Kind of unfortunate that the US relationship with countries like India is being determined by corporate cultures like Monsanto… the arrogance makes me wince and surely does not speak for me :(

  2. EconGuy says:

    There is a general presumption that “innovation” is always a good thing, but all the pesticides that are killing Indian farmers were an innovation.

  3. Mary says:

    Hmm. I’m confused. You say:

    Those unapproved seeds were Navbharat-151 and they have been much written about; they were better than the approved seeds, and their Bt levels were apparently sky high. Gujarat, where they were planted, has had India’s biggest rises in yields.

    So where they had access to seeds with high Bt, they had the best yields. And this is evidence that the technology is bad?

    You don’t speak to pesticide use at all. Is there any data that pesticide use was reduced?

    • Glenn says:

      Of course I nowhere said the “technology is bad.” The topic was whether planting of unapproved seeds contributed to Bt resistance in bollworms, because the unapproved seeds expressed low levels of cry proteins. My point was that the unapproved seeds did not express low levels of cry proteins. Not sure how to make this any clearer. But you might benefit from the preceding blog entry which examines the “GM good, GM bad” syndrome.

      There are over a dozen refereed studies of pesticide use on Bt cotton fields in India. My own multi-year multi-village study appeared in World Development. Overall pesticide use dropped 54% in the first few years of Bt use as the Bt seeds were moderately effective against bollworms. However there was an increasing problem with sucking pests, which Bt does not help with. The same thing has been reported in China. Where we will be in 5 years no one knows.

      • Mary says:

        Well, I would call a 50% reduction in pesticide use a good thing and an important feature to note.

        Oh, yeah, I totally didn’t get your idea about the low levels. I thought you were using it as an example of overuse of too much Bt without refuge areas, which might be expected to speed up the resistance problem actually.

  4. AG Agro says:

    Thanks for the well informed blog. I found it via Michael Pollan’s twitter feed, which called the Bt cotton failure “colossal.” But based on the data you present, don’t you think that’s a bit of an overstatement?

    • Glenn says:

      Yeah, that’s not the term I would use for the performance of Bt cotton. (Although I would say the hyperbole about Bt cotton has been colossal!)

      I looked at the numbers on Bt cotton’s performance pretty carefully in an earlier blog. The first year that Bt seeds ruled was 2007/8, when 67% of India’s cotton was Bt (up from 38% the year before). If you use the Ministry of Textiles numbers, the average yield that year was 554 kg, and it has now dropped to 493 kg. That’s down 11%, but it’s still higher than the slumping yields before 2007/8.

      Of course farmers are paying a lot more now for their seeds. But then again they are paying less for pesticides. But then again the situation is highly unstable and no one knows how it will look in 5 years. It’s tough to generalize.

  5. Bart Doorneweert says:

    Thanks for the insights Glenn. I really value your stance in the GM debate, considering arguments based on fact, and presenting them in that way too.

    Overall I would say that GM is technology that might work technically. However, the business models that are used for putting them on the market are frightfully broken. An example of this is your observation in this article “if the product doesn’t work, it’s probably the customer’s fault”.

    I would really like to study some of the most commonly applied business models for GM, just to figure out if there is a pattern to where the industry goes astray in offering solutions which apparently create their own problem.

    I might put some time into a blogpost for that

    Bart

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  7. scientist says:

    Because anything with genetic material (living things and viruses) is constantly evolving to adapt to its environment, there will never be a single genetic strain (natural or GMO) that will be good for all time. There are two solutions: 1. Have a genetically diverse population of cotton with varying properties such that the population as a whole can withstand problems but ultimately will have a much lower yield and produces varying qualities of cotton. 2. Use the strain that produces highest yields and highest quality of cotton but keep coming up with and adding new mechanisms to resist pests to that strain. Option #1 is definitely more sustainable but farmers want certain yields and consumers want certain properties…. Note: This is NOT a GMO issue but a mono-culture issue. If one uses a mono-culture of the same type of pest-resistant strain (regardless of how that strain was generated — either as a natural, spontaneous mutation or as a GMO), seeing the appearance and increase of pests that are now resistant to that plant’s defenses IS “natural and expected”. In fact, it’s called “natural selection”. It occurs all the time and would happen regardless of whether the plant was a natural, spontaneous, mutant or a GMO. Finally, using the author’s argument, I suppose we should not use flu vaccines b/c it’s not a “sustainable technology” by his/her definition in that we need to keep creating a new one each year….

    • Glenn says:

      The “author’s argument” was that

      • the sharp post-2002 increases in Indian cotton yield cannot be attributed to Bt cotton, as Bt cotton only became popular after most of the rise had occurred
      • since Bt cotton displaced non-Bt cotton, yields have dropped steadily
      • now biotechnology interests are blaming the continuing drop in cotton yields on the farmers

      How you go from that to not using flu vaccines is baffling.

  8. scientist says:

    The author made the argument that GMO cotton should not be used b/c it was an “unsustainable technology”. The author bolded these words so I thought the author felt this was an important point of his/her article. My point is that ANY solution to protect a mono-culture in the wild will ultimately fail with time because of natural selection. If you use pesticides, you will eventually see the appearance and rise of pesticide resistant pests. If you add the Bt gene to cotton, you will eventually see the appearance and rise of pests that are resistant to the Bt toxin. None of these solutions are permanent fixes. In the case of the pesticides, you will eventually need to find a new pesticide to kill the pests that have become resistant to the former pesticide (and the long-term effects of that pesticide may be unknown as is the long term effects of the Bt cotton). In the case of the GMO, a other genes will eventually need to be identified and added to cotton. In that sense, this issue is very much a mono-culture problem, and not a GMO problem. (Do you agree? You had not commented on this main focus of natural selection in my comment.) If one is committed to maintain the same mono-culture year after year, there is NO one sustainable solution that will protect it. The solution will constantly need to change. As an extension of this idea, I made the final side comment about the flu vaccine, which is an example of a solution that, while effective, requires constant changing to protect people presumably considered by the author as unsustainable b/c one batch of the vaccine will not be good for all time. If you don’t understand the connection, just dismiss that final sentence. My main points are made in the preceding sentences, which you have no yet addressed. I am interested on what you have to say about the science.

    • Glenn says:

      I made no statements on whether GM crops “should” be used. I did say that “if you’re pushing a technology that is only sustainable if farmers follow practices that require extra work for no return, you are pushing an unsustainable technology” which is quite accurate, although it is not specifically about GMO’s. My point wasn’t that I didn’t expect resistant insects; I was talking about the claims made to farmers, who are now being blamed in part for the advent of resistant insects. The blog was not about mechanisms of insect resistance; it was about the recent claims that insect resistance was the fault of farmers who a) failed to follow refuge planting strategies and b) planted unapproved seeds.

      If you want to talk about mechanisms and predictability of insect resistance, I would point out that there is a lot of research being done by scientists who are not as satisfied as you with platitudes like “insects always develop resistance” and “it’s not a GMO problem.” Insect resistance is complex, highly variable, and often surprising. The vast wheat monoculture on the Canadian prairies is “a highly stable habitat with diminished pest problem” [1], while bollworms on Indian hirsutum hybrid cottons were showing resistance within a few years of their spread [2]. Resistance to transgenic Bt varies greatly with the crop [3] and there have been some real surprises, including some good ones: in Arizona Bt cotton has fostered long-term suppression of bollworms [4]. In China there have been serious problems with sucking pests, and some signs of bollworm resistance, but no failures of the cotton crop [5]; in fact a “halo” effect has been documented [6]. What actually happens in the fields is very important, and what people say about it is too — just look at all the press about India.

      1. D. Hill, Pests of Crops in Warmer Climates and Their Control. Springer (2008)
      2. G. Stone, “Field vs. Farm in Warangal:Bt Cotton, Higher Yields, and Larger Questions” World Development 39(3):387-398 (2011)
      3. Shelton, et al. “Field tests on managing resistance to Bt-engineered plants” Nature Biotechnology 18, 339 – 342 (2000)
      4. 13 Y. Carrière et al., “Long-term regional suppression of pink bollworm by Bacillus thuringiensis cotton” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 100, 1519 (2003); M. Cattaneo et al., “Farm-scale evaluation of the impacts of transgenic cotton on biodiversity, pesticide use, and yield” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 103, 7571 (2006).
      5. H Zhang, et al., “Early warning of cotton bollworm resistance associated with intensive planting of Bt cotton in China” PLoS One.;6(8):e22874. (2011); B. Tabashnik et al., “Early detection of field-evolved resistance to Bt cotton in China: cotton bollworm and pink bollworm” J Invertebr Pathol. 110(3):301-6. (2012)
      6. P. Wan et al., “The halo effect: suppression of pink bollworm on non-Bt cotton by Bt cotton in China.” PLoS One 7(7):e42004. (2012).

  9. Rachel Schurman says:

    This is quite an interesting debate between ‘the (anonymous) scientist’ and you, Glenn. One question I have been pondering about innovation using GE tools and genes is whether it is worth what seem to be substantially higher costs. For example, many US and African scientists are keen to use GM tools and technologies in Africa, presumably because they see them as cutting edge and superior to non-GM technologies. But how does one think about the relative costs of doing research using these technologies versus engaging in traditional breeding, especially if one takes the monoculture route that is inevitably going to cause insect resistance (as ‘the scientist’ noted). If farmers don’t go the monoculture route, then I would suspect that using these technologies would be even more expensive, because the fixed costs of research would presumably have to be spread over a lower “n” (where n is the number of seeds planted). I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts.

    • Glenn says:

      Rachel, my first thought is that the whole notion of “fixed cost” is cast into doubt in an enterprise in which so much of the funding is philanthropic. The whole CGIAR enterprise was funded by charity for decades (although now it seems to be getting more profit-oriented). My take (and I’d be interested in yours) is that they have done wonderful things through traditional breeding, but they weren’t able to project an effective narrative after the Green Revolution narrative so watched their revenue dry up. Meanwhile the “GM crops for the 3W” narrative has had enormous backing from industry and academic microbiologists and so it lets the CGIAR garner donations it wouldn’t get otherwise (like the $25m Bill Gates just gave CIMMYT for biotech research).

      In other words I too think that you probably get more bang for the buck with traditional breeding, but traditional breeding is less likely to get you the buck in the first place.

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  16. Carol Knapp says:

    I would be interested to know how this compares with BT Cotton here in the USA. Has there been resistance and has there been a drop in yields ??

    My other thought is would there be resistant bugs if non-GMO cotton was planted and then BT sprayed as a normal crop practice possibly in rotation with another insecticide ? (obviously then not organic but GMO isn’t organic either).

    I ask because the cost of normal seeds should be much lower than GMO and the cost of BT has gotten quite low too. That combo should actually be better for the farmer.

    I ask because I AM a farmer, tho as a northern farmer, not of cotton. But our cost for corn seed has gone sky high and it’s almost impossible to even find non-GMO seed anymore. I would rather do a bit of work myself than have expensive frankenfood.

    • Glenn says:

      Pardon the slow reply; I was waiting for this review to come out. Here is the very latest.

      So there are 3 major crop pests in the US that are largely (>50%) resistant to one of the Bt toxins used in transgenic plants, and one other pest that shows lower levels of resistance to a Bt toxin. There are also cases of resistance in S. Africa, India, China, The Philippines, and a small bit in Australia. The resistance has most emerged just within the last few years.

      I don’t know of any solid studies of impacts on yields.

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  18. Dan says:

    The switch to Bt cotton can have many unintended consequences. The following is a description of what I learned in a village in northern Karnataka in 2011.
    Historically, the village had a diverse subsistence agricultural economy–the local diet was rich in unprocessed country grains and pulses (“country” meaning low status among urban populations, but high in nutrients; “unprocessed” meaning hulled whole grains and pulses). Cotton was also grown in small amounts for local use and as a cash crop. The village had a couple cotton gins, a facility for spinning thread, and some households engaged in weaving, although it was not widely practiced. Bt cotton was introduced (I’m not sure when, but at least six years earlier). Farmers experienced about three or fours years of increased yields, which prompted them to plant more acreage in cotton. As yields began to diminish (which coincided with a decline in cotton prices), farmers began planting “fence to fence,” which decreased the local agricultural diversity.
    So, here’s what else happened–most of which one would not necessarily connect to Bt cotton per se. Since farmers cannot own the seed of the cotton they grow, they did not need their gins–which closed as raw cotton was shipped to larger regional gins. Since the raw cotton for spinning was not there, the spinning facility closed. Since there was no (cheap) local thread, home weaving diminished. Like all plants, cotton produces more seeds than needed to replace the harvested plants. The local cotton farmers used to keep seed for next year’s crop and have the rest pressed for edible seed oil, also producing “seedcake” as the byproduct of this pressing. With Bt cotton, seed cannot be saved, so no cotton seed oil, no seedcake. Seedcake is a highly nutritious, high protein supplemental food for ruminants–cattle and water buffalo. Without seed pressing, villagers have to spend more money on edible oil, and the health of their animals has declined without the seedcake supplement. Without the seedcake supplement, the health and strength of the animals declined, so more farmers are shifting to tractors. Fewer cattle and buffaloes means less fresh milk, less dung (fertilizer, fuel, building material, disinfectant), more soil compaction (tractors are heavier than bovines), and more weeds in the area (fewer cattle grazing and browsing). Cattle also replace themselve–tractors do not. With more agreage devoted to cotton, local food production is down, so more has to bought at markets in nearby towns. Instead of the nutritious local staples, villagers are eating more polished white rice and other more processed foods. There has recently been an increase in diabetes and other diet-related ailments–frequently linked to the sort of diet change occurring in this village.
    So. while Bt cotton has put more cash in the pockets of (some of) these villagers, they need that cash for tractors (plus implements, fuel, lubricants, replacement parts), edible oil, food, new seed, fertilizer, and medicine. With the elimination of local production facilitites, the economy has less diversity and villagers are more dependent upon buying basics.
    So it ends up–in the real world–not just being about cotton.

    • Glenn says:

      Thanks. I am very sensitive to the need to attend to secondary and indirect effects of technological change. But I would have to see some empirical support for this list of claims, and I’m a bit skeptical about some of them. The whole chain of events seems to start with farmers abandoning local gins because they can’t own the Bt seed, but Bt seeds are not patent-protected in India. They may be in the future, but at the present the whole issue of agricultural IP is very unclear.

      Another claim that is hard to believe is that farmers are switching to tractors (which are frightfully expensive) because of lack of feed supplements for their cattle (which is pretty cheap).

      • Dan says:

        Thank you for your comments. I was in the village for only six weeks and based my comments primarily on what was reported to me by people in the village. The relationship between the rise of Bt cotton and decline of cotton-related economic diversity in the village may be coincidental rather than causal. It could be that the increase in Bt cotton acreage makes aggregating cotton for processing more efficient or cost effective. The fact is that small-scale gins existed in the village before Bt cotton and closed as Bt production increased. I am aware that it is easy to make the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy–I’m just going by what the people in the village told me.
        Tractors are indeed expensive, but many of the “bigger” farmers have been leasing and buying acreage from their neighbors, which makes tractors more practical. This trend is coincident with the decrease in health and number of cattle which villagers specifically attributed to less nutritious diet–they pointed out that connection to me; it was not a conclusion I drew independently. There is also a rather intangible sense that these agricultural changes are somehow “modern” and modern is better; it’s an underlying motif in rural areas where I have lived in India, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Subsistence farmers are acutely aware that minor changes in timing or amount of rainfall can have very serious consequences; the promise of better harvests and more cash–which are the marketing points in Bt cotton–can be very attractive. Ag extension agents with whom I have spoken take a cautious approach toward large-scale transition to Bt cotton (and to mono-cropping in general), but they have limited budgets and personnel which makes balancing the enthusiasm of Bt cotton promoters difficult.
        The strongest correlational connection in my comments runs from the decline of local food crop diversity to reliance on commodity foods to changes in health. This trend has been well documented.
        Technological innovation inevitably creates change–that is, after all, the point. Unfortunately, we have no way of anticipating the nature, range or extent of the changes. I am not a Luddite (almost, but not quite), but if technology is to be beneficial and not just profitable, it needs to be disseminated in a way that emphasizes benefit rather than profit.
        If you are really interested in the effects of changing to Bt cotton culture, it might be best to do some field work. When you’re in the field, “empirical” soon becomes a fuzzy concept. Strict linear causality becomes obscured in the complexity of specific contexts.

  19. Amanda MacKenzie-Campbell says:

    BT products are designed to kill bugs. Birds ingest these seeds, they also ingest the poisoned bees. While the birds may not be able to break the seed barrier, the bees are. This poison KILLS things like bees, spiders and other beneficial insects which may feed off of/pollinate off of a farmers crops that are using these. IF the birds can break the seed coat they too are poisoned, so are the droppings they leave behind in another farmers field.

    INSTEAD of blaming the farmers, BLAME THE SEEDS! Round up is known for KILLING things…You use it to weed your yard for goodness sake. How would a seed which is genetically designed to KILL off insects benefit the environment/economy in any way long term?

    This is SIMPLE microbiology. It’s NOT rocket Science! Farmers have been sued by the company that manufactures BT and have had their land taken (it was upheld by the Supreme Court here in the US), because BT seedlings were found in sampled plants in other farmers crops. Not the entire crop, just one. Apparently they didn’t understand that birds poop seeds, that pollen translates from genetically altered seeds…that these impact the entire ecosystem. Stupidity all around in my count (esp because ONE of the judges used to be a lawyer for that company.)

    • Glenn says:

      The short-term studies I know of don’t show clear negative impacts of Bt Cry proteins on bees, but that certainly doesn’t let us conclude they are “safe” for bees. For instance, this article in PLOS found no negative effects, but one of the reviewers asked “whether more subtle effects of Bt proteins on honey bee performance may actually occur.” And I don’t know of any long-term studies. The evidence is much stronger that neonicotonoid insecticides have serious impacts on bees, and in fact almost certainly play a role in colony collapse disorder. Neonicotonoid spraying has risen in Warangal as Bt seeds spread but no one knows what impact this is having on bees. But use of other insecticides has dropped significantly.

  20. As a former CGIAR scientist and center research director beginning in 1974, I was initially enthused by the future prospects for glyphosate resistant cultivars, and with the Bt gene as means to reduce the enormous negative impacts of weeds and insects on world food and fibre crop production, especially for small farmers in the tropics where biological constraints flourish all year round. These new biotechnological paradigms combined with the ongoing CIAT effort in developing conventional genetic disease and insect resistance in small famer crops, seemed to offer an exciting way ahead through reducing the effect of the biological constraints and at the same time reducing the need for other agricultural pesticides. Glyphosate and Bt were both declared as being environmentally innocuous by Monsanto et al.. In the virtual absence of other research to the contrary, we accepted the plethora of results being offered by that company. Now, 20 years since my retirement from CIAT to work independently, I am increasingly shocked by what I read in the literature and correlate with what I see in the field in the tropics. Colombia and other countries in the American tropics have serious productivity problems in oil palm, rice and coffee among others, that all seem related to the use of glyphosate, but local research on the subject has been and is still is very limited.

  21. M. Collins says:

    If you go to PBS I just watched a very informative and interesting doc. on BT seeds and aphids in
    this very region. And information Monsanto gave the farmers which has turned out NOT to be
    true. Aphids are eating the crops and no matter how much they spray it doesn’t help. Suicide
    among farmers is way, way up. Plus BT seeds do NOT produce new seeds so the farmers have
    to buy new seed each year. This usually forces them to go to the money lenders. Their crops
    are down 50% so when they cannot pay the money lenders they off themselves by drinking that
    same pesticide. It is a corporate nightmare for the people of India unless you talk to the Monsanto
    people, who said “the Indian people should be on their knees thanking God for Monsanto”.
    Yeah, so should the Cherokees who were given those warm blankets (sarcasim).

    • Glenn says:

      Aphids are a real problem, it’s true, as are other “sucking pests” on cotton like mirids in parts of China. But the cotton farmer suicides preceded Bt cotton by many years. In fact the worst spike in suicides was in Andhra Pradesh in 1998, 4 years before Bt seeds were even approved for sale and about 7 years before they became popular. Bt plants certainly do produce seeds; I think you mean to say the seeds can’t be replanted. But actually it’s HYBRID seeds that can’t be replanted, whether they have Bt or not. Hybrid cotton seeds became popular in India in the 1990s, and then betweeen 2002-2007 the hybrids became Bt hybrids, but this didn’t change the situation with replanting. Hybrid seeds don’t do well when replanted, Bt or not.

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  23. IW says:

    I just read the Ronald Herring’s piece “Reconstructing Facts in Bt Cotton Why Scepticism Fails” linked from Keith Kloor’s blog. After reading it, I’m left with the impression that the fundamental disagreement between he and you regarding the yield data in relation to the rate of adoption of Bt cotton in India is how much unapproved seed was being grown during the time that the increase in yield was most dramatic. It’s hard from my perspective to know whose data is more reliable. Can you comment on the point he makes that unapproved Bt cotton seeds were widespread from 2002-2004?

    • Glenn says:

      As I pointed out in my reply, the unapproved Bt seed (Navbharat-151) was taken OFF THE MARKET in 2002 and Desai (the breeder) was charged with crimes. 151 was being sold and was doing well in farmers’ fields in 2001-2003. Planting of unapproved seeds didn’t drop to zero but it obviously plummeted since the seeds were taken OFF THE MARKET. But 2001-2003 was a LOW POINT in cotton yields, and yields took off in 2003, two years after 151 was taken of the market.

      This was all just in one state (Gujarat) anyway and it certainly couldn’t drive the huge national surge in yields.

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