The much-touted Bt-cotton leaves the party
India's 2018 cotton harvest was devastated by swarming armies of bollworms
In India, 90 per cent of the land under cotton uses a GM Bt-seed variety cotton supplied by Monsanto. But the main pest it was meant to safeguard against is back, as a virulent pesticide-resistant species.
The bollworm lays thousands of eggs and multiplies into millions of worms within days. Estimates based on surveys by the state revenue and the Maharashtra agriculture departments around November and then again in February-March indicate that the pink-worm infestation affected over 80 per cent of the 4.2 million hectares under cotton in the state. Each farmer reportedly lost 33 per cent to over 50 per cent of their standing crop.
Bt-cotton gets its name from bacillus thuringiensis, a soil-dwelling bacterium. The Bt seed contains cry (crystal) genes derived from the bacterium and inserted into the cotton plant genome (the genetic material of the cell) to provide protection against the bollworm.
Bt-cotton was meant to control the bollworm. But farmers will now find the worms surviving in Bt-cotton fields, Kranthi wrote in a series of essays in industry magazines and on his own CICR blog. Neither the ICAR nor the Union Agriculture Ministry seemed alert to the potential devastation at the time. The state and central government have since been aware of the extent of pink-worm devastation, but have not come up with a solution.
In 2006-7, Monsanto released BG-II hybrids, saying the new technology was more potent, more durable. These slowly replaced BG-I. And by now, BG-II hybrids occupy over 90 per cent of the around 130 million hectares under cotton across India, according to government estimates.
Where to now?
There is no new GM technology in sight now or in the near future that promises to replace BG-II. Neither is any technology available for more effective insecticides. India is in deep trouble on its fields of cotton, a crop that occupies vast stretches of land and creates millions of workdays in rural India.
The Ministry of Agriculture of the government of India acknowledges the problem, but has rejected the demand from Maharashtra and other states to de-notify Bt-cotton – a move that will change its status to regular cotton since Bt’s efficacy has gone.