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Posted: September 2015

Traditional Non-GMO Cotton Can Yield Economic Benefits Similar to GMO Cotton on Non-Irrigated Small Farms in India

Farmers in India who rely on rain, not irrigation, can earn similar net revenues whether they grow a traditional Asiatic cotton species or Bt cotton, the now far more common variety of an American species that has been genetically engineered to resist certain pests, a new study suggests.

The study, published in June 2015 in Nature Plants, a peer-reviewed journal, examined the experiences of 51 farmers in the Indian state of Maharashtra who each had less than 12 acres of land. For farmers relying on rain, yields were higher for those growing Bt cotton (Bt Gossypium hirsutum, abbreviated as Bt G. hirsutum). But total expenses were lower – including lower spending for fertilizer, pesticide, seeds, and harvesting – for those growing the non-GMO Asiatic cotton (G. arboreum), and they also sold their cotton for a higher price. The higher sales price for G. arboreum cotton may reflect both its scarcity and its continuing to be valued, as G. arboreum is now estimated to be planted on less than three per cent of the cotton fields in India, the study states.

Over all, the study did find that net revenue, under rainfed conditions, was more variable among farmers growing G. arboreum than it was for farmers growing Bt cotton. But there was not a significant difference in the average total net revenues between the two groups. Accordingly, the researchers conclude that, under rainfed conditions, the non-GMO Asiatic species can generate economic benefits for farmers with small land holdings in Maharashtra and perhaps elsewhere that are similar to the economic benefits of growing Bt cotton.

The researchers, from the University of Oxford, were not able to compare the economic returns when both species were grown under irrigation because they could not identify a group of farmers planting the traditional species who irrigated their fields. Most farmers in Maharashtra do not irrigate their fields, and forty per cent of farmers who do irrigate told researchers that planting the traditional species wasn’t even an option for them because of the low availability of the traditional seed. By 2014, about 95 per cent of all the cotton grown in India was Bt G. hirsutum.

Researchers also found that whether farmers who planted Bt cotton relied on rain or irrigation, there were no significant differences in their net revenue. Although crop yields were higher with irrigation, costs per acre were as well. And that was true even though the researchers did not include the actual costs associated with irrigation in the comparison.

The study also suggested a reason why farmers planting the Bt cotton spent more on pesticide, despite the fact that their seed had been genetically engineered to be toxic to lepidopteran insects, such as the pink bollworm. Bt cotton, the researchers stated, is still vulnerable to other insects, whereas G. arboreum is resistant to several lepidopteran and non-lepidopteran pests, including bollworms, spider mites, aphids, leafhoppers, and leaf curl virus.

Researchers also found no significant difference in wealth between farmers planting G. arboreum and Bt cotton, regardless of whether their fields were fed by rain or irrigation. But they did find that farmers who irrigated their Bt cotton were wealthier than those who grew Bt cotton without irrigation. Also, regardless of wealth, farmers who grew Bt cotton, whether they irrigated their crop or relied on rain, spent more on pesticide and fertilizer than farmers who planted G. arboreum.

Based on interviews with the farmers, the researchers concluded that farmers chose to plant G. arboreum because they expected to have to pay less for seeds and other expenses and also expected the seed to do better in rainfed conditions. Farmers who chose to plant Bt cotton, on the other hand, did so expecting higher yields and more resistance to bollworms, and because the traditional non-GMO cotton seed was “hardly available,” the analysis added.

It also concluded that effective management appears to be more of a problem for farmers who plant Bt cotton. Researchers found “no discernible relationship” between net revenue and total expenditures for Bt cotton farms, whether they were irrigated or not. In contrast, the more farmers invested in their G. arboreum crops, in terms of total inputs, the higher their net revenues were.

These findings, the authors noted, show how important it is to incorporate socio-economic data into agro-ecological data when considering what strategies will benefit cotton farmers in India who have small farms.

Source:
Romeu-Dalmau, Carla, Michael B. Bonsall, Katherine J. Willis, and Liam Dolan (2015). “Asiatic Cotton Can Generate Similar Economic Benefits to Bt Cotton Under Rainfed Conditions,” Nature Plants vol. 1, article 15072. doi:10.1038/nplants.2015.72

Copyright 2015 The Nature Institute.

This document: http://natureinstitute.org/nontarget/reports/cotton_009.php

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