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August 2009



India Poised to Become World's Top Cotton Producer By 2015
Bhagirath Choudhary & Kadambini Gaur, BioSpectrum Asia,


Bangalore, Aug 20, 2009: Bt cotton was approved for release in India by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India, on March 26, 2002. Over the last seven years, it has revolutionized cotton production in the country, doubling it from 13.6 million bales in 2002-03 to 31.5 million bales in 2007-08. The yield per hectare, which was hovering around 300 kg per hectare for more than a decade until 2002, touched an all time high figure of 560 kg per hectare in 2007-08. In fact, India emerged as the world's second largest cotton producer in 2006-07, edging past the US, which held the second rank till then.

The increased availability of raw cotton at the domestic level has transformed India from being an importer of cotton to becoming a major exporter of raw cotton. A cursory analysis of global cotton outlook indicates that India's share in the world cotton production has substantially increased from 12.5 percent in 2001-02 to 20.6 percent in 2007-08 - an indication that India is poised to become the number one cotton producer in the world by 2015.

Bt cotton was the first biotech crop to be approved in India despite fierce resistance and criticism from select anti-biotech groups. The approval came after six years of successful commercial cultivation in the US, Australia, Argentina and Mexico, and it corroborated the fact that Bt technology offers enormous benefits to cotton growers, especially small and resource-poor cotton farmers. In India, more than 5 million farmers have benefited from Bt cotton, with an additional Rs 12,800 crore ($3.2 billion) farm income generated from Bt cotton technology during the period 2002-07. This has been a real farm bonanza for poor farmers who otherwise had to depend on government-sponsored waivers and loans.

The large-scale adoption of Bt cotton technology has proved that there is no substitute for the timely introduction of cutting-edge technology in agriculture to tackle constraints in farm production. It is more so for small and resource-poor farmers who have limited means and resources at their disposal. Bt technology stands to offer equitable benefits to both small and big farmers; but when coupled with efficient weed management technology it can deliver more benefits to small farmers because they face greater constraints in production. Interestingly, one of the key features of biotechnology is that it can incorporate new traits in seeds in such a way that they can be easily made available to farmers irrespective of farm size, location and category. Bt cotton is one such example that has brought startling changes in the attitude of farmers about what biotechnology can do.

The adoption of Bt cotton in India has coincided with more than a doubling of yield and production at the national level. On an average, Bt cotton increases yield up to 31 percent due to effective control of bollworm insect, and also reduces insecticide sprays by 39 percent or more, depending on infestation levels. The income of farmers growing Bt cotton has increased on an average by Rs 10,000 ($250) or more per hectare. In addition to the substantial economic benefits from Bt cotton, there have been other benefits including environmental benefits, through reduction of insecticide requirements by half, resulting in significantly less exposure with positive health implications for farmers. In fact, the adoption of Bt cotton technology has led to a significant reduction in insecticide usage for the control of cotton bollworm.

In India, the area under Bt cotton hybrids in 2002, the first year, was 50,000 hectares and only a few thousand farmers in select states planted Bt cotton. In 2008, a record 50 lakh small and resource-poor farmers planted Bt cotton in more than 76 lakh hectares, or 82% of the total area used for cotton cultivation, making India the fourth largest adopter of biotech crops in the world. It is noteworthy that for the seven-year period, 2002-08, there was a 150-fold increase in Bt cotton in India, which is more than twice the 74-fold increase in global biotech crops during the 13-year period 1996-08. Early Bt cotton adopter states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, have already been planting Bt cotton in more than 90% of the total cotton area in the respective states.

Notably, the rapid adoption of Bt cotton by farmers in different states was in sync with the fast approval of location-specific Bt cotton hybrids by the regulatory authorities in India. Over the last seven years, India has greatly diversified deployment of Bt genes and genotypes, which are well-adapted to the different agro-ecological zones to ensure equitable distribution to small and resource-poor cotton farmers. The number of Bt cotton hybrids approved in 2002 was only three, developed by a single company; by 2008, 30 indigenous seed companies were engaged in the production of Bt cotton, with 274 Bt cotton hybrids.

One of the distinguishable outcomes of Bt technology is the significant increase in cotton yield during the last seven years, which is said to be higher than the cumulative increase in the last five decades. Given the trend in cotton production, the Ministry of Environment and Forests' Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) should expedite approval of second generation biotech traits in improved cotton hybrids, including efficient weed management technology (herbicide-tolerant cotton), improved fiber quality, and development of drought tolerant cotton that will help the Indian cotton sector to double cotton yields between 2010-15 and enable India to pip China to become the number one cotton producer in the world.

Besides fiber crops like Bt cotton, biotechnology also offers solutions for food crops. As the use of pesticides sprays and pesticide residues remain a daunting challenge, especially in fruit and vegetable cultivation, extending the proven benefits of Bt from a fiber crop to a food crop is obviously the next step. The development of Bt brinjal is an appropriate and timely step in that direction because brinjal is an important crop for small resource-poor farmers, consumers and Indian society at large.
Bhagirath Choudhary is the National Coordinator and Kadambini Gaur is the Scientific Officer at the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), New Delhi, India.