In 1995 the USA controversially approved Bt cotton for commercial use. Fifteen years on its effect on farming and the rural community have been analysed in a study from the University of Göttingen.
Bt cotton is resistant to many caterpillar and beetle pests, so it reduces the amount of pesticide needed to control these species. The reduction in the amount of pesticide sprayed on the crops has benefits for the environment and for the health of the farmer. More recently, varieties resistant to a wider range of pests have been brought out.
In 2009, Bt cotton was grown on 16 million hectares – nearly half of the total area of cotton grown throughout the world. This rapid spread of the technology suggests that farmers believe it increases profits, and many studies have shown considerable socioeconomic benefits.
A 3 year study in India reported that farmers growing Bt cotton sprayed on average 41% less pesticides than those growing traditional varieties. Not only that, but less damage by pests meant they also got more cotton – yields were 30-40% higher when Bt cotton was grown. Higher yields and less pesticide meant that average profit was increased by a staggering 89%.
The effect of Bt cotton on rural development and was again reported to be very positive. More cotton means more work not just for farmers but also anyone processing the cotton. Transport infrastructures are improved to deal with the extra crop. It was concluded that for every $1 gain in profit for the farmers, there was an additional 83 cents of benefit for the local economy. What was, for me, one of the most important findings was that 60% of the gains were to the moderately or extremely poor.
Some of the worries about GM crops were social rather than environmental – will the poorest farmers be able to afford the seed for example? In India, the government has capped seed prices to ensure more farmers can get hold of it. Also, early issues which meant that some farmers didn’t benefit from the technology have been overcome. For example, some farmers didn’t have enough information to use the technology effectively. Also, there weren’t initially enough varieties to be suitable for all conditions.
The study does warn against extrapolating these benefits to other regions or for other crops. The effect of Bt cotton on pesticide use and on yields also varies considerably between countries – for example, although it halves the pesticide use in Australia, it doesn’t increase yield. There are also great variations between years. The increase in profits varies even more considerably between countries, partly because of variation in the cost of seed. But the fact remains that Bt cotton has produced profit gains around the world.
Too good to be true? Or proof this is one GM crop we should embrace?
Qaim M (2010) Benefits of genetically modified crops for the poor: household income, nutrition, and health New Biotechnology doi:10.1016/j.nbt.2010.07.009