Technology and Agriculture: Messed in India!

India’s average yield is low mainly due to the unsuitability of hybrids for rain-fed regions which constitute 60 per cent of India’s cotton area. The crop duration, too, is longer, at 7-8 months, compared to 5-6 months in other countries.

For the first five years after its introduction in India in 2002, ‘Bollgard’, the genetically-modified Bt cotton developed by Monsanto, effectively controlled bollworm insect pests. Yields increased by 67 percent and use of insecticides — which couldn’t contain the extensive damage from American bollworm prior to that — decreased by 33 percent.

True, yields may have also gone up due to other factors: a 36 percent increase in fertiliser use; doubling of an area under hybrids; increase in irrigated cotton area in Gujarat; and the effects of seed treatment with imidacloprid and introduction of at least six new insecticides to control sap-sucking insects.

The scenario, however, changed after the introduction in 2006 of ‘Bollgard-II’ Bt cotton, containing a second gene, Cry2Ab, derived from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, in addition to the original Cry1Ac gene of ‘Bollgard’. Average seed-cotton yields per hectare in India have stagnated at 1,500-1,700 kg since 2006, despite the share of Bt hybrids in overall acreage rising from 38 per cent to 96 per cent and fertiliser usage rising by 70 per cent. More disturbingly, insecticide usage has gone up by 92 per cent, because of increased sap-sucking insect pest attacks.

The whopping 734 Bollgard-II hybrids — compared to just about 20 in the first five years — being approved to saturate almost the country’s entire cotton area. The bulk of these hybrids were highly susceptible to leafhoppers and whiteflies. Increased insecticide use only accelerated the development of ‘insecticide-resistance’ in these pests. Even more worrisome was the pink bollworm, which was almost forgotten in India after 1980, but made a reappearance to rapidly develop resistance to Bollgard II.

  • The main reason why India has been unable to harness the full potential of Bt cotton technology is that it got caught in the hybrid trap. Strange but true, only India cultivates Bt cotton hybrids, whereas other countries grow only ‘straight varieties’. The general perception is that hybrids give higher yields. With 95 percent of India’s cotton area under Bt hybrids, its yields should have been the highest. The truth is that India’s seed-cotton yields are way below the average 2,700 kg/hectare for the rest of the world, despite these countries predominantly cultivating straight varieties. In fact, Pakistan and China rejected the idea of ‘Bt-cotton hybrids’ and Monsanto doesn’t have a presence there.

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