The Flawed Spin To India’s Cotton Story

The Flawed Spin To India’s Cotton Story

Updated on 23 January, 2020

GS3 Agriculture Economy
the-flawed-spin-to-indias-cotton-story

Presently, Bt Cotton (Genetically Modified Pest resistant Cotton) has captured more than 95% of the area under cotton cultivation. With a complete monopoly of the private sector over one of the major backward linkages (Seed production), it is turning out to be a socio-economic liability for the intended beneficiary (Farmers) itself.

Bt Cotton: Performance so far

  • It has catapulted India’s position to the world’s largest cotton producer, surpassing China in output. In 2019 it is touted to the highest ever: 354 lakh bales. 
  • Given the largest producer status, it also comes with a rider that India’s productivity (yield per unit area), is much lower than other major cotton-producing countries,  meaning a much larger area is used for cotton production.

Hybrid vs Varieties: Features of Cotton cultivation.

Parameter

Cotton as Hybrid 

Cotton as varieties

Underlying Technology

Produced by crossing two parent strains with each possessing distinct genetic characters.

Produced by self-fertilization of seeds. No need to cross with another strain.

Availability of seeds

Farmers have to purchase seeds for each planting as for each planting, hybrid seeds need to be remade by crossing two parent strains. But not for varieties

No need to purchase seeds for each planting as varieties can be made available over successive generations by a collection of seeds from one planting thereafter reusing it.

Price Control over seeds

The pricing control of seeds shift to the seed company and also ensures a continuous market. 

There lies no concept of pricing control by any seed company.

Yield

Hybrid plants have more biomass than both parents, in turn, capacity for greater yields.

A distinct strategy using high-density planting (HDP) of compact varieties has been found to outperform hybrids at the field level.

Cost 

The high cost of hybrid seeds as it requires manual crossing. But, India’s low-cost manual labor makes it sustainable.

Low-cost solution.

Input Requirements

Fertilizer and water requirements are more.

Fewer requirements for fertilizer and water.

Sowing season

Long duration

Short duration

Implication for Farming

High Input, High Risk

Low Input, Low Risk

Suitability for India: Hybrid vs Varieties

  • Cotton being dryland is mostly cultivated in such areas which are rain-fed with low irrigation facilities, making farmers exclusively dependent on monsoon. So, shorter duration variety holds promise as it reduces dependence on irrigation and risk.
  • Shorter duration ensures that when cotton bolls develop and water requirement is the highest then, the inadequate soil moisture(owing to the withdrawal of Monsoon) doesn’t hinder their growth.
  • Also, other advantages such as nearly double productivity, reduced fertilizer needs, and water requirement, and less vulnerability from insect pests due to a shorter field duration makes Varieties more suitable for India.

Yet, India has persisted with long-duration hybrids, many years after benefits of compact varieties became clear from global experience. The hybrid seed model for cotton that India and India alone has followed for over three decades, has proved inferior to the HDP model.

Critical Analysis of Hybrid Cotton Policy in India:

  • Pre GMO: This phase of the policy ranges from 1980-2002 when India persisted with hybrids while other countries shifted to HDP (High-density Planting). 
  • Public sector institutions and Cotton research centres ignored such a significant innovation in cotton breeding (HDP) ,in turn such varieties couldn’t see the light of the day. 
  • At the time of GMO Introduction: Post 2002, when Bt cotton was being considered for introduction into India, the deliberation of hybrids versus compact varieties could have been undertaken.
  • The International experience could have been evaluated, including the context of the introduction of this new technology along with the form(Hybrid vs. Varieties)
  • Additionally, Agro-economic conditions should have been a guiding factor. 
  • However, the scope of evaluation by the GM regulatory process in India was narrow and did not take this into account.

Impact of Hybrid Policy :

  • Farmer Distress and negative impact on Livelihoods
  • Given the sheer scale of Cottonseed industry vis-a-vis Hybrid Cotton, it springs no surprise that it has constrained the very much larger value of cotton production and the overall cotton industry.
  •  High input and high-risk model of Hybrid Cotton has been a probable factor of agricultural distress in cotton farmers. Low input low-risk model of compact varieties would have significantly reduced distress as well as increased yield.
  • As a result of it, commercial Bt hybrids have overshadowed the market, accompanied by the rollback of public sector cottonseed production
  • So, it has become imperative for Indian farmers to use Bt hybrid seed produced by private seed companies.

High-Density Planting (Compact Varieties)

For over three decades, most countries have been growing cotton varieties that are compact and short duration. These varieties are planted at high density (5 kg seeds/acre), whereas hybrids in India are bushy, and planted at ten-fold lower density (0.5 kg seeds/acre). The lower boll production by compact varieties (5-10 bolls per plant) compared to hybrids (20-100 bolls/plant) is more than compensated by the ten-fold greater planting density. The steep increase in productivity for Brazil, from 400 to 1,000 kg/hectare lint between 1994 and 2000 coincides with the large-scale shift to a non-GM compact variety. 

Lessons learned for further application of Hybrid Technology

Before extending GM technology to increase food crop yield its mandatory to assess its impact on livelihood, agrarian distress, etc.

  • To start with, the outcome of deploying a technology must be evaluated in a particular context.  If the context is suboptimal and does not prioritize the needs of the principal stakeholders (farmers), it can have significant negative fallouts, especially in India with a high proportion being marginal and subsistence farmers.
  •  In addition to that, there is a need for better consultation in policy, be it agriculture as a whole or crop-wise. For e.g., India should have deliberated upon the inclusion of socio-economic considerations during parleys on the GMO regulatory process as a signatory to international treaties on GMO regulation (the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety). These treaties specifically provide for these considerations in GMO risk assessment. 
  • Finally, It is important to recognise that the adoption of any new technology such as Bt is a choice and not an imperative. A leaf can be taken out of Brazil and Turkey for example of high productivity achievement without the use of GM cotton by using alternative pest-management approaches. 

The purpose of risk assessment in GMO regulation is to enable exercising of this choice by comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.

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