Posted: July, 2015
GM Cotton and Suicide Rates
Annual suicide rates for farmers in areas of India where cotton fields are
fed by rain, not irrigation, are directly correlated with increases in the
adoption of genetically engineered insecticidal Bt cotton,
according to an unusually holistic new analysis by researchers in the U.S.
Authors of the analysis – published in June, 2015 in the journal
Environmental Sciences Europe – include Hans Herren, a leading
scientist in global efforts to end poverty and hunger through agroecology.
The study concludes that for areas in India with rainfed cotton fields,
planting Bt cotton increases the risk of farmer bankruptcy because
of the costs of Bt seed and insecticide. (Bt cotton has been
engineered to be toxic to pink bollworms and other lepidopteran insects.
Farmers, however, often not only continue using insecticide but may
eventually increase such use, due to a tendency for a surge in pests over
time). Most cotton in India is rainfed, adds the study.
The authors also urge the use of more holistic methods of analysis before
policymakers adopt new technologies for agricultural development. They
suggest that Bt cotton “may be economic” in irrigated cotton
fields, where infestations of pink bollworms are more likely to occur, but
that using Bt cotton and insecticide on rainfed fields is
“questionable.” Their analysis notes ecological reasons why pink-bollworm
infestations are not a problem in rainfed areas unless irrigated fields
with infestations are nearby and the infestations spread to the rainfed
fields. The analysis also concludes that planting high-density,
short-season cottons – the seeds of which are cheaper than genetically
engineered seeds – could increase yields and reduce farmers’ costs in both
irrigated and rainfed cotton fields.
Native varieties of cotton in India coevolved with pests for 5,000 years,
the authors note, and for almost all of that time were grown with methods
that can be described as functionally organic. In the 1970s, however,
hybrid cottons were introduced and the use of both synthetic fertilizers
and pesticides, especially insecticide against the pink bollworm,
increased dramatically. Pesticide use upset the ecological balance,
leading to outbreaks of other pests, an eventual resurgence of the pink
bollworm, and other ecological and health impacts, according to the
analysis. Then, in 2002, transgenic F1 Bt hybrid cotton (Bt
cotton) was first planted in India. “The inescapable conclusion,” the
researchers add, “is that Bt cotton was introduced to India to
solve a bollworm problem created by insecticide use.” Bt cotton is
now planted on 92 per cent of the fields devoted to cotton in India.
Insecticide use did decline initially but by 2013 was at the level it was
in 2000, before Bt cotton was first planted, the study states.
The authors add: “The need for Bt cotton in India must be
reevaluated on biological and economic grounds using properly unbiased
field experiment unfettered by onerous corporate intellectual property
Gutierrez, A. P., L. Ponti, H. R. Herren et al (2015). “Deconstructing
Indian Cotton: Weather, Yields, and Suicides,” Environmental Sciences
Europe vol. 27, no. 12.
Read the study.
Copyright 2015 The Nature