Monsanto, Government of India, and the Bt Cotton Conundrum: An Extract from “A Frayed History”

12 October 2017

The newspaper Mint reported yesterday that the US-based agriculture giant Monsanto has settled its disputes with three prominent Indian seed companies. The companies were battling Monsanto over royalties owed for the use of the seed giant’s gene-based technology to modify cotton seeds. In 1996, Monsanto introduced the Bollgard technology, which modified cotton seeds to be resistant to the feared crop-eating bollworms. In 1998, Monsanto tied up with the India-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) to launch Bollgard seeds in India.

Since then, Bt cotton—a commonly used name for the modified seeds—has been at the heart of a protracted battle over the benefits of genetically modified crops in farming in India. While the yields seemingly increased with Bt cotton seeds, the rising prices of the modified seed pushed the already-poor farmers further into debt, causing them to oppose the seed giant. Meanwhile, for several years, Monsanto and the Indian seed companies—who often appear to be backed by the central government—have been involved in a tussle over the regulation of the price of using the proprietary technology, a battle that cost the US seed giant nearly $83 million in business in 2016. Despite the recent settlement, Monsanto remains at loggerheads with several other Indian companies as well as the central government.

In their book A Frayed History: The Journey of Cotton in India, the journalist and writer Meena Menon and the activist and researcher Uzramma trace the growth of cotton in India from the pre-colonial era to present day, when cotton “hand-weavers are reduced to penury,” while its growers battle “rising costs of cultivation … and the spectre of suicide.” In the following extract from the book, Menon and Uzramma tackle the “Bt cotton conundrum.” They describe how Monsanto encouraged farmers in India to start using Bollgard seeds, its run-ins with the government, and whether the tussle over GM crops directly impacted farm-related suicides.

Monsanto has had an aggressive media campaign and has, in interactions with farmers asked them to increase the number of cotton plants per acre. In a video recorded by US journalist Trevor Aaronson, who travelled with a Monsanto team in Vidarbha in June 2009, Monsanto officials can be seen interacting with small groups of farmers, promoting Bollgard 2 [the second generation Bollgard technology]. Farmers usually plant cotton at intervals of three feet by three feet in an acre, i.e., about 4,800 plants per acre. The Monsanto official said now there is improved seed in the form of Bollgard 2 (and no one asked what happened to Bollgard 1), it was time to increase the number of plants per acre in deep soils to about 7,500 to 8,000 per acre and in lighter soil to 6,500 to 7,000 per acre. They asked farmers to plant seeds closer and reduce the distance between plants. They did not mention the fact that the seeds would do better in irrigated conditions, only that early maturing varieties would do better in dryland conditions. Bollgard 2 would protect against four types of caterpillars, as against the three in Bollgard 1, save the use of pesticides, and increase yields. Next came the advice on how to grow cotton. Fertilisers are needed at the time of sowing—not 20 days later. Urea was to be added at regular intervals and it was important to spray soluble chemicals for plant growth and also fungicides to prevent leaf reddening, a sign of poor nutrition. The officials kept telling the farmers to get a copy of the bill—it was their right! And they were told to look after the plants well.

In other villages farmers said they were getting ten quintals or more per acre due to good management even before Bt cotton, but now they sprayed less (note that spraying had not stopped) and yields were more. Earlier, farmers sprayed 10 to 15 rounds of pesticides, or 25 percent of the cost of production. Farmers planting Bollgard 2 in some places got from a minimum 10 quintals to even 30 quintals per acre, in a few cases. They also spoke of pests like thripps, and in any case, they sprayed for secondary pests. Farmers said that earlier Bt cotton yields were three to five quintals per hectare but now it was much more—so much so that it was difficult to get labour to pick it. Some were considering a mechanised means of harvest and were ready to invest lakhs of rupees. A few farmers said the yield increase was three to five quintals per acre after planting Bollgard. Their initial fears of Bt cotton changed after they started planting it and also the media helped them understand Bt cotton.

Meena Menon is the former deputy editor of The Hindu and has written extensively on socio-political issues, including environment, development, and politics.

Uzramma is the director of the Malkha Trust and has been associated with India’s artisinal cotton textile industry since 1989.

Keywords: Monsanto genetically modified crops Bt cotton Mahyco