Poverty reductions from Bt cotton – 15 years on

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

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About Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website: http://rebeccanesbit.com/
This entry was posted in Advances in technology, Food security, GM crops. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Poverty reductions from Bt cotton – 15 years on

  1. As soon as I wrote this I searched for an image to go with it. However, instead of an image I came across this http://www.i-sis.org.uk/farmersSuicidesBtCottonIndia.php
    It claims that promises that Bt cotton would provide greatly improved harvests led them into debt to buy the seed, and then their harvests failed. I have reason to doubt its validity –
    it’s not from a scientific journal
    I can’t see the references without being a member
    It includes a figure references in the text as from the Mail
    The site claims similar motives to ours (science should be open and accessible, informated decisions shouldn’t just rest with the scientists) but the language is very emotive and not suggestive of an unbiased study

    But it sounds like other points of view may require some investigation

  2. Hmmm, same problem as Trish – I don’t know how to edit comments. By them I mean farmers

  3. Judy says:

    There is a danger of farmers getting into debt to buy seed, but this does not undermine the potential of GM crops such as Bt cotton for improving the lives of some of the poorest people on he planet. Your post shows that a responsible government can minimise the dangers by, for example, capping the price of seed, with asubsidy if necessary. It is also very important that the seed is distributed alongside appropriate training in farming techniques. This is something that aid budgets should prioritise.

  4. Tom Monkhouse says:

    The economics of the situation might be less impressive than the initial figures suggest. If roughly half of the acreage is Bt cotton giving these massive advantages to the farmers that use it, what of the other half? Farmers not yet able to use the new seed face heavily increased competition from others who can produce more for less. Farmers such as these, and their communities, suffer until they can access this cotton.

    Even when there is universal access, the huge jump in supply without a corresponding increase in demand drives the price down. More cotton means more jobs for the industry but a lower price per unit means those jobs might be lower paid. This is good for those not in work and worse for those already working. How that balances out depends on finer local detail.

    They will still be better off, but the greatest benefits might turn out to not be economic. The same goes for many new improvements but it especially important in agriculture. GM crops, properly controlled, are a very good idea on multiple fronts.

  5. emmalouisewright says:

    Well it looks like Lord Sainsbury wants to reopen the GM debate :
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11294165

    Let’s hope it goes better than last time. When most people hear ‘GM’ they think of mutants and ‘Franken-food’ and don’t really have a chance to think logically about it. The last ‘debate’ was all publicity and very little actual science. At least now we have some long term studies like this and more information. Should be interesting…

  6. I’m really glad the debate is being reopened, and it does seem that the social issues are (at least) as important as the environmental ones. And I think you’re right, governments can do things like subsidise seed to reduce inequality and make it available to all farmers.

    Interestingly in the case of Bt cotton it seems to be public opinion that decides where it is grown, so it varies by region. For example, 90% of Indian cotton is Bt.

    Tom’s point about how it affects the market is very interesting. With food crops in particular, I guess we have to ask what demands we are meeting. Globally it’s not just how much we grow but where we grow it. So some people growing more may not be a good thing.

  7. Trish Wells says:

    Impressive statistics above! My concerns are with the shelf life of this technology, if everyone uses it then pressure for the pest insects to evolve resistance is very high and the Bt strains won’t be effective for very long. To address Tom’s point (hello Tom), farmers not using Bt cotton will benifit from neighbours/farmers in the region using this technology, sort of heard imunity. Bt cotton will reduce the number of pests in an area so that non-GM crops may benefit (this is true if the pest dies after eating Bt cotton plants, not if it only deters it in which case it’s to the tasty non-Bt Crop they go!). Half the farmers planting non-Bt crop is beneficial to the shelf life of the technology, if susceptible pests are able to reach maturity then these can mate with resistant pests and dilute the emergence of resistance. Planting GM and non-GM crops side by side is a strategy that should be used to reduce the selection pressure for resistance to the Bt cotton.

    On a tangent, at Uni i learnt a fun fact (can’t trace it’s source, reliable lecturer, don’t think he was being sarcastic). America was the leader in GM technology in the 80’s (i think it was the 80’s), and they imported tobaco from China. When China started to produce GM tabaco America said NO! to imports because they were worried about the health of Americans, only non GM tabaco would do!

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