Bt Cotton....through the back door

by GRAIN | 26 Dec 2001


Seedling December 2001

Despite the absence of commercial approval for genetically engineered Bt cotton in any Asian country outside China, it is spreading fast. Weak or non-existent biosafety legislation and a lack of government concern mean that Bt cotton is finding its way into farmers' fields by deception and default. This article summarises the state of play in Thailand, India and Indonesia, and considers the consequences for small-scale farmers, who have historically been important contributors to the global cotton harvest.

Cotton uses more pesticides than any other crop in the world. More than 10% of the world's pesticides (including some of the most hazardous) and nearly 25% of the world's insecticides are used in cotton farming. Cotton has historically been an important crop for small farmers in the South. India paints a typical picture. Here, more than 17 million people depend on cotton farming, the majority of whom are poor farmers supporting their families on less than 2 hectares of land. Grown on just 5% of agricultural land, more than 55% of all pesticides used in India are used in cotton production. Pest infestation has dramatically increased in recent years, owing to the intensified use of chemicals. Many pests have become resistant to available insecticides. Increasing chemical costs and decreasing cotton prices on the world market (see box) have pushed farmers into increasing spirals of debt. Unable to face the humiliation and pressure that comes with mounting debts and crop failures, many farmers (more than 500 in 1998) are reportedly consuming these same chemicals to end their lives.

Given its high chemical dependence, it is not surprising that cotton was one of the first crops to be genetically engineered by the industry. It has been one of the most rapidly adopted transgenics since its commercial debut in 1996. At that time, only 0.72 million hectares were planted to transgenic cotton in the US, 30,000 hectares in Australia and 2,000 hectares in Mexico. Four years on, transgenic cotton plantings have grown to an estimated 5.3 million hectares in 7 countries, occupying 16% of the land devoted to cotton globally. The most significant increase in usage has been in the US, where an estimated 60% of the total cotton area was planted to transgenic cotton in 2000. In China, transgenic cotton increased from 0.2 in 1999 to 0.5 million hectares in 2000. Modest increases have been reported in Mexico, Australia, Argentina and South Africa. Globally, cotton ranked third in terms of area covered by transgenic crops, lagging way behind soybean and corn. Of the total area planted to transgenic cotton, 28% has been planted to Bt-cotton (see Figure 1).

Source: James, 2000

Bt is short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium used by farmers to control Lepidopteran insects (ie butterflies) because of a toxin it produces. Through genetic engineering, scientists have introduced the gene responsible for making the toxin into a range of crops, including cotton. Bt crops express the insecticidal gene throughout their entire growing cycle. Bt-cotton, with its promise of increased yield and reduced insecticide spraying, is now being pushed in many developing countries (mainly by the Monsanto corporation) as a more environmentally-safe and cost-effective alternative to conventional cotton farming.

But the evidence is not altogether compelling. In the US, the yield performance of Monsanto's Bollgard (Bt) cotton varieties have been erratic and sometimes disappointing, particularly in Southeast Arkansas. In the Mississippi Delta region, seed and pest control costs were significantly higher on Bt acreage than non-Bt acreage, with farmers also having to pay the technology fee to use Bt seeds. A 1997 USDA survey of cotton producers found no yield difference between Bt and non-Bt cotton growers. Chinese researchers have observed that Bollgard cotton only performs in a stable manner under favourable production environments with plastic mulching and irrigation, which is atypical of many farming environments in the South.

The Cry1Ac gene inserted in many of Monsanto's Bollgard cotton varieties is most effective against the tobacco budworm (Helicoverpa virescens). But the main pest in cotton-producing countries, such as India, is the American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera). Unlike the tobacco budworm, the American bollworm is only variably susceptible to Cry1Ac, and it can very quickly evolve resistance under selection. Unless the target Bt-cotton plants consistently express the Cry1Ac toxin at levels that kill the majority of the insects, releasing it is asking for trouble. Bt-resistance in bollworms has already been reported in the field. Chinese scientists observed a 7 to 10 fold increase in Bt-resistance in 1999. In the US, the USDA has documented an increase in tolerance of cotton bollworm in several regions of the Southeast. And in Australia, cases of Bt-cotton failure are being attributed to the variability of CryIAc gene expression. In recognition of the resistance problem in the US, the incorporation of refuges of non-Bt cotton to slow down the development of resistance has been made mandatory.

Another factor affecting the efficacy of Bt cotton is that Bt toxin only affects caterpillars. So the cotton plant will still be susceptible to sucking pests such as mirids, harlequin bugs, cotton stainer bugs and green vegetable bugs. Historically, these were dealt with by the same pesticides used to kill the cotton bollworm, and will therefore require pesticide applications even if Helicoverpa does not, to prevent them from developing into major pests.

Whether or not Bt cotton contributes directly to yield increases is questionable. Global cotton yields have been stuck or declining slightly since the late 1980s. This seems to be a particular problem in the US, where the lack of genetic diversity in commercial varieties has been flagged as a problem. A report from the International Cotton Advisory Committee admits that the problem will be magnified with the use of transgenics. Meanwhile Dr. Meredith of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service acknowledges a connection between the narrowing of the genetic base and a stagnation in enhancement programs, but goes on to say that the present use of transgenics has had no effect on average yields.

Bt-cotton is now finding its way in many cotton producing countries in Asia, albeit slowly. Although no new country has legalised commercial plantings of transgenic cotton this past year, illegal and/or accidental plantings have been taking place. Recent years have seen an escalation of Bt cotton-related controversies in the region. Many groups have questioned the safety and legality of such introductions while others have resorted to direct action, uprooting and burning transgenic cotton crops in the field.

Illegal Bt cotton plantings in Thailand

The introduction of transgenic cotton has faced fierce opposition in Thailand. Bt cottonseeds were first brought into the country by Monsanto in 1995, and were field tested in 1997. Under Thailand's Plant Quarantine Law of 1964 (amended in 1994), Bt cotton requires testing before release to farmers' fields, but at present only voluntary biosafety guidelines exist.

From the start, the process of field testing Bt cotton has generated controversy. Three of the 16-member Biosafety Committee established by the Agriculture Ministry to oversee the testing of Bt cotton were from Monsanto. The presence of members with vested interests on such a committee should automatically invalidate its findings. Farmers, environmental lawyers and NGOs demanded the government to call off tests on transgenic cotton due to procedural irregularities and the lack of biosafety regulations. Opposition escalated in the latter part of 1999 after farmer's groups monitoring plantings of cotton found samples taken from locations outside Monsanto's approved sites testing positive for the presence of the Bt gene. In March 2000, an alliance of 35 farmer groups and NGOs threatened to stage a mass rally unless the government responded to their calls for a stop to the testing and commercial release of genetically engineered crops. The government responded positively by setting up such a ban, has terminated field trials of Monsanto's transgenic corn and cotton and is the first country in Asia to declare itself "GMO-free". But repeated calls for action to be taken over the illegal spread of Bt cotton have fallen on deaf ears.

Commercial ban fails to restrain Bt cotton in India

India is the third largest cotton producer in the world (after China and the US), and Monsanto has been eyeing it up for a long time. Way back in 1990, Monsanto began negotiating a technology transfer arrangement for its Bt cotton technology package with the Indian government. Talks broke down in 1993 after failing to reach an agreement on the financial terms of the transfer. In 1993, negotiations for the Bt technology license between Monsanto and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd (MAHYCO) kicked off. Following government approval, the first Bt-cotton variety (US Cocker-312) was imported into India in 1996. These were backcrossed with "elite" Indian varieties to produce locally-adapted Bt cotton varieties with the Cry1Ac gene.

Monsanto acquired a 26% share in MAHYCO, which later turned into a 50:50 joint venture, forming Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (MMB). With seeds and the joint ventures in place, Monsanto was all set to launch Bollgard cotton in India. By July 2000, MAHYCO had received approval from India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests to conduct countrywide field trials on a total of 85 hectares and to produce seed on 150 hectares. As part of the trial program, MAYCO was required to undertake nutritional assessment of the Bt cotton seeds, meal and oil used in feed for buffaloes and cows; check for any effects on animal health, milk production, and milk quality; study resistance, the impact on non-target organisms, and pollen flow that might affect non-transgenic cotton; obtain official certification that the seeds did not contain the "terminator" gene, and to do market studies to determine how widely Bt cotton might be planted.

The concerted effort of various groups and individuals stalled the commercial release of Monsanto's Bt cotton in June 2001, citing scientific fraud in the conduct of the tests. In the end, GEAC demanded that Monsanto-MAHYCO conduct another year of field trials directly under the supervision of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Campaigners continue to fight Bt cotton's release. Some are calling to disband the GEAC for being party to fraud, and are demanding public disclosure of test results.

In a twist of events, MAHYCO demanded punitive action against another company, Navbharat Seeds. MAHYCO discovered that this company had been openly selling a variant of Bt cotton known as Navbharat 151 for three years, and that it had been planted on more than 10,000 hectares in Gujarat. Navbharat 151 was registered with the Department of Agriculture of Gujarat in 1998. The State Seeds Certification agency cancelled Navbharat's license to sell. State officials are also planning to sue the company if only to force them to pay all the farmers that will be affected by whatever precautionary measures that will be decided on later. But this is not the end of the story. According to Navbharat, the company was not involved in any genetic engineering activity and doesn't have the capacity to do so. The company says it selected and worked on seeds it collected from cotton fields in India to produce the Navbharat 151 hybrids, which is a common practice for many seed companies. If this is proven to be true, then the seed source may have been derived from the seed stocks in the open field trials undertaken by Monsanto or by cross pollination of the Bt cotton being tested by MAHYCO with other cotton varieties.

This case demonstrates the sore lack of capacity in the Indian government to implement and monitor safety measures with regard to transgenic crops. With huge tracts of land already planted to unapproved Bt cottonseeds, the state government now is faced with the enormous task of destroying the illegally planted crops. Already, the state government has procured around 120 tonnes of the illegally planted cotton to prevent farmers from replanting the seeds. The cotton will be ginned and the seeds destroyed. But even with the best effort and intention, it will be impossible to trace each and every Bt cottonseed sold by the company and sown in the field. So the risk of Bt cotton transferring its introduced genes to other cotton varieties through outcrossing is imminent.

Developments in Indonesia

PT Monagro Kimia, a subsidiary of Monsanto (US), started varietal trials of Bt cotton in Indonesia in 1996. Its main objective was to identify suitable varieties for cultivation in the country, specifically in South Sulawesi. But according to the NGO Coalition for Biosafety and Food Safety, a broad coalition representing six Indonesian NGOs and supported by another 72, PT Monagro Kimia has been distributing Bt cottonseeds commercially since 1998 without proper approval. PT Monagro claims that the seeds distributed were for trial purposes only. But, argues the Coalition, involving more than 860 growers buying seeds from and selling the crops back to PT Monagro for distribution to local markets is tantamount to commercialisation. By 2000, at least 5,000 hectares had been planted to Bt cotton in the country.

On February 7, 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture issued a decree allowing the limited release of transgenic cotton Bt DP 5690B under the trade name NuCOTN 35B or Bollgard in seven regencies (districts) in South Sulawesi. The next month, 40 tonnes of Bt cottonseed were flown in to Sulawesi from South Africa. More followed from Australia. On April 17, 2001, some 500 farmers and other anti-genetic engineering advocates from all over Indonesia rallied on the International Day of Farmer's Struggles Against Genetically Modified Organisms, in front of Monsanto's offices and the Ministry of Agriculture in Jakarta. Farmers called for the destruction of the Bt cotton trial and other transgenic trials in the country, a halt to further releases of Bt cottonseeds and the eviction of Monsanto from the country.

According to the Coalition, the decree permitting Bt cotton to be released in South Sulawesi was issued hastily, without due regard to its potential impacts and in violation of existing laws. It violates Indonesia's Environmental Law (23/1997), since no environmental impact assessment was conducted. It also fails to uphold the public's right to information and to be involved in decision-making. In addition, the decree permits "limited" sales of the cotton, but no restriction on the cultivatable area was outlined. The coalition asserts that issuing the decree was merely a move by the Ministry of Agriculture to legitimise past violations by PT Monagro Kimia. The NGO Coalition challenged the decree and on September 27, 2001, the district ruled in favor of the government and PT Mongro Kimia. The Coalition is now taking its case to the high court.

There have been reports of pest infestations (leaf- and boll-damaging pests) destroying more than 180 hectares of the Bt cotton fields in South Sulawesi. Many farmers have complained about the poor performance of Bt cotton and the government has admitted that more than 70% of Bt crop locations failed to produce the promised yields. On September 13, farmers in the village of Kajang, about 230 km south of Sulawesi's capital, Makassar, torched their plantations in protest. At least three hectares were destroyed and two tons of rough cotton were burnt. The farmers also demanded an explanation from the South Sulawesi governor as to why he allowed South Sulawesi to become the testing ground for the controversial technology.

Despite the less-than-impressive performance of Bt cotton and its rejection by local farmers, the Indonesian government is planning to extend PT Monagro Kimia's permit to expand Bt cotton plantings in Southern Sulawesi, and to start planting in East and Central Java in 2002.


The current wave of illegal plantings of Bt cotton has heightened the level of debate on genetically engineered crops in Asia. At the least, the readiness of these countries to monitor, manage and control such products has been called into question. Various government ministries and regulatory bodies responsible for regulating transgenic crops have taken a lot of flak. But the real culprits - the corporations pushing Bt cotton - are sitting back complacently, free from accountability. They continue to act irresponsibly, railroading or ignoring regulations and using farmers as guinea pigs for their products. Dumping an experimental technology on a country, especially where legislation and regulatory infrastructures are lacking or still being questioned, threatens severe and potentially irreversible damage on the natural ecosystems and the health and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farming communities. Monsanto must take responsibility for its actions that breach the laws, farmer's rights, and put the health of the people and natural environment at risk.

This article was largely based on information provided by and personal communications and interviews with Devinder Sharma (India), Riza Tjahjadi of PAN-Indonesia and Witoon Lianchamroon of BIOTHAI (Thailand).

Other Sources:

o Devinder Sharma (2001) "The introduction of transgenic cotton in India'. Biotechnology and Development Monitor. No.44/45.
o International Cotton Advisory Committee (2000). Report of an expert panel on biotechnology in cotton.
o WR Meredith (2000). "Cotton yield progress - why has it reached a plateau?" Better Crops. Vol.84, No.4.
o "Monsanto's Bt Cotton violates Thai plant quarantine laws and farmer's rights". A Call for Action from Biothai, Alternative Agriculture Network, Foundation for Consumers, Greennet, Foundation for Thai Holistic Health, 26 September 1999.
o PANAP (2001). PANAP summary of Bt cotton developments in Indonesia compiled by Sarah Hindmarsh and reviewed by KONPHALINDO and PAN-Indonesia.
o Various issues of Current Science available at
o WWF (2000). Transgenic cotton: Are there benefits for conservation? WWF International, Gland, Switzerland,

Reference for this article: GRAIN, 2001, Bt Cotton through the back door, Seedling, Volume 18, Issue 4, December 2001, GRAIN Publications

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