The introduction of transgenic cotton in India
DEvinder Sharma
Keywords:  India, Cotton, Bt plants, Bacillus thuringiensis.
Correct citation: Sharma, D.(2001), "The inrroduction of transgenic cotton in India." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 44, p. 10-13.

For a country that consumes over US$ 235 million of pesticides every year to control the dreaded bollworm pests, any technology that reduces dependence upon chemicals is obviously welcome. More so in a country where hundreds of cotton farmers have preferred to commit suicide in the past two decades to escape the humiliation that comes with mounting debt resulting from crop failures.

Although it has the world's largest acreage of 8.9 million hectares under cotton, India is only the third largest global cotton producer, with about 2.86 million tonnes of cotton lint a year. The average productivity of cotton lint at 320 kilograms per hectare is amongst the lowest in the world. The productivity ranges from 200 kg per hectare to 600 kg for hybrid varieties. Since many of the land holdings are characterized by small-scale and resource-poor farming, a sudden and high increase in productivity using present methods is unlikely.

Cotton is essentially grown in the kharif, the rainy season and treated as a perennial crop. Nearly 70 per cent of the crop is cultivated under rainfed conditions in the central and southern regions of the country: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The sowing dates in Southern India differ according to the specific regions. Only in the northern regions of the country, mainly the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, is cotton predominantly irrigated. Here, the plantings are homogenous and the emphasis is on planting high yield varieties.

Pests and Pesticides

About 162 species of insects are known to devour cotton at various stages of growth, of which 15 are considered to be key pests. Among these are jassids (Amarasca bigutulla), aphids (Aphis gossypii), white fly (Bemesia tabaci), spotted bollworm (Earias vitella), pink bollworm (Pectiniphora gossypiella) and American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera). Important diseases are bacterial blight, fusarium wilt, Alternaria leaf spot and grey mildew. Together these pests and diseases result in an estimated loss of 50 to 60 per cent of the potential yield. This is similar to losses in other countries.

Pests appear in quick succession at various stages of the growth of the cotton plant. First to infest are sucking pests like aphids and jassids, followed by white flies. It is then the turn of bollworms and by the time the crop enters the flowering stage, bugs have taken over. Farmers therefore use a combination of expensive chemical pesticides to control pest infestation. Currently, pesticides account for one-third of the total cultivation costs. Increasing reliance on pesticides over the years have replaced traditional methods that included a variety of labour-intensive practices like hand picking to remove pests and cultural practices like intercropping, crop rotation, and the burning or removal of cotton residues from the soil.

Intensive cultivation practices and indiscriminate use of conventional as well as fourth generation pesticides like synthetic pyrethroids have created resistance among some of key pests, including the American bollworm. Monocropping and favourable climatic conditions in certain years have further accentuated the problem. In the early 1990s, the outbreak of leaf curl virus reached epidemic proportions in the northern plains. The reasons for the outbreak of leaf curl virus are not fully known, but based on the experience of other countries, it is reasonable to assume that excessive use and abuse of pesticides is a major contributing factor. Dependence on chemicals has, in some cases, been so heavy that farmers often resort to a mix of several pesticides, so-called pesticide cocktails, and it is not uncommon to spray more than 30 times per season.

In India, an estimated US$ 620 million (Rupees 28 billion) of pesticides is used in agriculture, with US$ 344 million (Rs 16 billion) worth on cotton. Bollworm control alone takes a heavy toll, costing the farmers an annual US$ 235 million (Rs 11 billion), and accounting for more than a third of current pesticides sales in India.

If the crop fails because of weather conditions and/or pest resistance, a rising number of farmers have been known to consume the same chemicals to end their lives and escape the humiliation that comes with mounting debts. According to the official records, more than 500 cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab committed suicide in 1998.

Bt cotton – trials and safety regulations

To find possible ways of minimizing pest-linked damage to cotton and to effectively reduce the dependence on chemicals whilst keeping the environment and human health and safety in mind, the Indian government has begun experimenting with genetically modified (GM) cotton. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of the Ministry of Science and Technology also plans to examine whether GM cotton is environmentally safe, contributes to an increase in yield and at the same time results in a substantial reduction in chemical pesticide usage.

For this purpose, the Indian seed company, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd., (Mahyco) was permitted to undertake experiments on Bt cotton and investigate how the Bt varieties perform in different agroclimatic regions. Twenty-six per cent of the Mahyco shares are held by the seed giant Monsanto Enterprise (USA), itself a 100 per cent subsidiary of Monsanto Inc. (USA).

In March 1995, the DBT had approved the import of 100 grams of cotton plantlets (by Mahyco) of the GM variety Cocker-312, a cotton variety cultivated in the USA. This variety is modified by the insertion of the Cry 1 Ac gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Mahyco crossed the transgenic trait into elite Indian cotton varieties for six generations under controlled greenhouse conditions and then generated stable lines to breed hybrids. At least eight Indian Bt cotton hybrids containing the Cry 1 Ac gene have so far been developed. DBT has subsequently given permission for their field evaluation.

In November 1997, the first limited field trials on plots of 200 square meters were conducted in the provinces of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Haryana. In 1998, experiments were permitted at 40 locations throughout the cotton growing areas of India, followed by an additional 11 field trials in 1999. From 1996 to 1999, Mahyco had also conducted toxicity and allergenic studies with back-crossed Indian varieties. All field trials were monitored by a Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) constituted by the DBT.

As early as 1989, in order to contain possible risks to the environment from the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products, the Ministry of Environment and Forests drew up rules for the manufacture, use, export, import and storage of hazardous microorganisms/genetically modified organisms. These rules became effective in 1993 under the Indian Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EPA). They provided for the setting up of the Institutional Specific Biosafety Committee (ISBC) for monitoring institutional research on genetically engineered organisms/products. Only less risky experiments are authorized by the IBSC, which subsequently sends its proposals to a central committee, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM). The revised guidelines include detailed procedures for conducting contained field experiments using GMOs. They also provide guidance for generating food safety data for transgenic plants. Contained field experiments are designed to account for and to arrest the escape into the open environment of the transgenic plants, plant parts, or seeds set in the plants. They are also designed to create a reasonably effective barrier to prevent the escape of the transgenic pollen into the open environment.

Large-scale trials

In mid-2000, the RCGM approved the controversial GM cotton after Mahyco made a presentation on the basis of data collected from more than 50 field trials. The safety claims of the company were challenged by environmentalists who argued that the data were not correct since the crop was reportedly sown two months late in 1999. They were also intrigued by DBT's undue haste in pushing the technology onto the Indian farmers. GM cotton has to be considered as more risky in India than in the USA, because India has a much higher cotton variability and much smaller holdings (often less than two hectares), allowing for higher incidences of pollen transfer from one variety to the other. Nevertheless, during the last three years while the research trials were still in progress, the DBT already praised the Bt plants and stated that Bt cottonseed would be available before the end of 2001.

Within a few months of the approval being granted by the RCGM, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, gave Mahyco permission to conduct large-scale field trials for seed production and demonstration and to generate environmental safety data on transgenic Bt cotton in various agro-climatic regions in India. However, by the end of 2000 Mahyco had not been given permission to market any seed produced in these trials commercially.

Safety claims

Mahyco claims that the results of the environmental safety studies, including gene flow studies, did not indicate any substantial difference between GM and non-GM plants. Outcrossing was recorded with a ratio varying between 0.42 and 2.1 per cent up to a distance of 2 metres only. These results are consistent with studies conducted earlier in the United States and considered as too low to result in outcrossing with other cotton plants growing in the near vicinity.

Moreover, experimental Bt cotton plots required fewer pesticide treatments. In some plots, no sprays were required while in others a maximum of two sprays was enough. In comparison, plots with non-GM cotton required as many as nine to twelve sprays to control the pests effectively. These experiments were done in successive years, but the data is not sufficient to come to a conclusion about the development of resistance.

With regard to its compatibility for cross-pollination with wild relatives, the tetrapoloid Bt cotton pollens, grown in 80 per cent of India, had only travelled short distances at five locations to outcross with the non-transgenic tetrapoloid controls. The possibility of cotton pollens being compatible for outcrossing with any near relative under Indian conditions was therefore considered to be remote.

Bt cotton was also evaluated for human and animal food safety in seeds, oil and cake. Studies conducted at the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre at Lucknow (India) demonstrated its safety for ruminants. The company used the data provided by Monsanto to establish that the GM seed was safe for mammals, birds and fish. It also quoted similar allergenicity studies on brown Norway rats to ascertain its safety.

Based on these studies and field trials, the DBT is convinced of the economic benefits and environmental safety of introducing transgenic Bt cotton and has therefore moved onto the next phase of large-scale field experiments and seed production.

ICAR's objections

The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the country's leading umbrella organization for agricultural research is, however, not convinced by the results so far presented. In a presentation to the GEAC it suggested further detailed studies should include:

ICAR's objections have certainly put a damper on the DBT's excitement about the possibility of introducing transgenic cotton by 2001. After all, additional studies that examine the toxicity on animals, nutritional intake by animals and insect-resistance of other plant species outside the profile of cotton will require analysis based on the data that covers a period of at least three years before any effective scientific claims can be made.


Transgenic cotton is being hastily pushed in India as a viable alternative to the chemical-intensive cotton farming systems. However, its human and environmental safety implications are being pushed into the background. Nevertheless, in a country that is considered to be a mega-diversity area with small land holdings and an increasingly large number of resource-poor farmers, the introduction of transgenic crops has to be carefully evaluated.

Over the past few decades, the excessive application of pesticides on cotton has resulted in a “pesticide treadmill” whereby ever higher doses of pesticides are required to control the cotton pests because of the development of resistance and the elimination of predators. However, we should be aware that the introduction of Bt cotton can trigger off a “biological treadmill”, the implications of which could be very severe for the farmers and further damage the ecological balance between pests and their natural enemies.

There is sufficient evidence to show that technological alternatives do exist which promise that a switch can be made from conventional cotton production systems to more sustainable methods. But unfortunately, the focus of research priorities is not on rediscovering the mechanisms through which farmers can convert to green alternatives. In the absence of such mechanisms, more and more farmers will be forced to take the fatal route to escape the humiliation that comes with increasing indebtedness from a commercial farming system that relies solely on creating treadmills.

DEvinder Sharma

The ecological Foundation, 7 Triveni Apartement,A-6 Pscim Vihar, New Delhi - 110 063, India
Phone (+91) 11 656 2326; E-mail dsharma@ndf.vsnl.net.in

Puri, S.N. et al. (2000), Integrated Pest Management in Cotton. New Delhi, India: National Centre for Integrated Pest Management.

Ghosh, P.K. (2000), Genetically modified crops in India. Silver Jubilee Lecture Series, Mumbai, India: Indian Society for Cotton Improvement, Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology.

"The dangerous Fallout" (2000) Hindu Business Line, 17 June 2000, New Delhi, India.

Government of India(2000), PLarge-scale field trial for transgenci cotton allowed. Press Information Bureau, Government of India, New Delhi.

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with  acknowledgement of source.


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