Genetically Modified (GM) crops – cotton, mustards, etc.

[op-ed of the day] The flawed spin to India’s cotton story


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 3-Introduction of Bt cotton, and various cropping patterns


This year, India is expected to be the world’s largest cotton producer, surpassing China in output. However, India’s productivity (yield per unit area), is much lower than other major cotton-producing countries.

India’s experience with cotton

  • India is the only country growing hybrids: India is the only country that grows cotton as hybrids and the first to develop hybrid cotton back in 1970.
    • What are hybrids: Hybrids are made by crossing two parent strains having different genetic characters.
    • Greater yields: These plants have more biomass than both parents, and capacity for greater yields.
    • Require more inputs: They also require more inputs, including fertilizer and water.
    • Expensive seed production: Though hybrid cottonseed production is expensive, requiring manual crossing, India’s low cost of manual labour makes it economically viable.
    • Rest of the countries: All other cotton-producing countries grow cotton, not as hybrids but varieties for which seeds are produced by self-fertilization.
  • Key issues with the use of hybrids
    • Hybrid seed cannot be propagated over generations: A key difference between hybrids and varieties is that varieties can be propagated over successive generations by collecting seeds from one planting and using them for the next planting.
    • Purchasing the seeds is must: Hybrid seeds have to be remade for each planting by crossing the parents. So for hybrids, farmers must purchase seed for each planting, but not for varieties.
    • Pricing control to the companies: Using hybrids gives pricing control to the seed company and also ensures a continuous market.
    • Increased yield used as justification for high prices: Increased yield from a hybrid is supposed to justify the high cost of hybrid seeds.
    • However, for cotton, a different strategy using high-density planting (HDP) of compact varieties has been found to outperform hybrids at the field level.

Cotton planting strategies

  • What other countries do?
    • Compact and short-duration varieties: For over three decades, most countries have been growing cotton varieties that are compact and short duration.
    • 5kg seeds/acre: These varieties are planted at high density (5 kg seeds/acre).
    • These varieties have 5-10 bolls per plant.
  • What is done in India?
    • Low density and long duration: Hybrids in India are bushy, long duration and planted at a ten-fold lower density.
    • 0.5 kg seeds/acre: Hybrids are planted at a lower density of 0.5kg/acre.
  • Which strategy is more beneficial?
    • The lower boll production by compact varieties (5-10 bolls per plant) compared to hybrids (20-100 bolls/plant) is more than compensated by the ten-fold greater planting density.
    • Experience of Brazil: The steep increase in productivity for Brazil, from 400 to 1,000 kg/hectare lint between 1994 and 2000 coincides with the large-scale shift to a non-GM compact variety.

Why should India opt for short duration variety?

  • Cotton being a dryland crop: Cotton is a dryland crop and 65% of the area under cotton in India is rain-fed.
    • Advantage of short duration variety in the rain-fed area: Farmers with insufficient access to groundwater in these areas are entirely dependent on rain. Here, the shorter duration variety has a major advantage as it reduces dependence on irrigation and risk.
    • Particularly late in the growing season when soil moisture drops following the monsoon’s withdrawal.
    • This period is when bolls develop and water requirement is the highest.
  • Productivity and input costs of the varieties: It has more than twice the productivity.
    • Half the fertilizer (200 kg/ha for hybrids versus 100 kg/ha for varieties).
    • Reduced water requirement.
    • And less vulnerability to damage from insect pests due to a shorter field duration.

Impact of Policy

  • Why India persisted with hybrids during 1980-2002
    • Two phases of policy have contributed to this situation.
    • The first phase- Before GM cotton: The answers lie with the agricultural research establishment.
    • The second phase: The phase where the question of hybrids versus compact varieties could have been considered, was at the stage of GM regulation when Bt cotton was being evaluated for introduction into India.
    • International experience not taken into account: It would not have been out of place to have evaluated the international experience, including the context of the introduction of this new technology.
    • Agro-economic conditions were not taken into account: Importantly, agro-economic conditions where it would be used should have been a guiding factor.
    • The narrow scope of evaluation: The scope of evaluation by the GM regulatory process in India was narrow, and did not take this into account.
    • Consequently, commercial Bt hybrids have completely taken over the market, accompanied by the withdrawal of public sector cottonseed production.

Key takeaways

    • FristOutcome of technology depends upon the context: Outcome of using a technology such as Bt is determined by the context in which it is deployed, and not just by the technology itself.
      • Negative fallout: If the context is suboptimal and does not prioritise the needs of the principal stakeholders (farmers), it can have significant negative fallouts, especially in India with a high proportion being marginal and subsistence farmers.
    • SecondBetter consultation in policy: There is a need for better consultation in policy, be it agriculture as a whole or crop-wise.
      • Socioeconomic consideration in GMO risk assessment: India is a signatory to international treaties on GMO regulation (the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety), which specifically provide for the inclusion of socio-economic considerations in GMO risk assessment.
      • However, socioeconomic and need-based considerations have not been a part of the GMO regulatory process in India.


Given the distress, the cotton-growing farmers are facing this is the right time to review the grounds on which Bt cotton was introduced in India.

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