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
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.
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.
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