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Bt Cotton: Story of its Success and Failure.

BY: Geetanjali Murari | Category: Genetics | Submitted: 2013-12-17 12:10:02
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Article Summary: "This article highlights about the genetically modified cotton plants which was engineered to make it resistant against insects. Bt Cotton reached its fame bringing a huge success in the cotton industry. Then it was banned due to its poor quality and toxic nature which started affecting humans and other organisms..."

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The genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not a new approach in the field of genetics. These are meant for the enhancement of the products. The genetically modified tomatoes have a better shelf life and depletes the loss caused by transportation and storage. These inventions lead to the enhancement in the size, color, flavor, shelf life, etc of different organisms. Similarly, cotton industry was facing a setback due to attack of insects (bollworms) which depleted the yield of cotton. The scientists across the globe were trying hard to insert some gene that could make the plant resistant to the attack of these insects. This will decrease the use of insecticides and the harms caused by it to the plant and other organisms.

The company Monsanto looked for the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which naturally produces toxins that are harmful for some of the selected insects. This gene coding for Bt toxin was engineered inside cotton to make the plant free from the attack of insects. This would save the harms caused by insecticides in the environment. The same technique was applied for the efficient growth of brinjal as Bt brinjal.

The adaptation of Bt cotton brought huge commercial profit to the agriculture sector. The farmers in India accepted it as a promising factor. The year 2008-09 witnessed around 7.6 million hectares area comprising approximately 81% of the total cotton area in India which boosted the production up to 4.9 million tones. The extraordinary success of cotton was even comparable to the success of short-height varieties of wheat and rice during the Green Revolution period. The heavy yield loss of cotton for more than 3 decades which is estimated about 300 million US$ led the scientists insert Bt gene (cry1Ac) in the cotton plants to protect it from bollworms.

The Bt-cotton hybrids were first invented in 2002 by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Limited (MMB) in collaboration. This has led to 210 times increased production to report an area of 6.2 million hectare in just 6 years, i.e. 2007. In addition to that, Bt cotton has occupied 66% of the total land occupied for cotton production in India in the same year (2007). The genetically modified cotton has so far been marketed in nine countries i.e., USA, Mexico, Australia, China, Argentina, South Africa, Colombia, India and Brazil. India is the leading producer in terms of 6.2 million hectares area occupied followed by China with 3.8 million hectare.

The significant benefits of Bt-cotton have been appreciated by many scientists before and after commercialization. The higher yield of cotton, effective control of bollworms, drastic depletion in the utility of insecticides sprays for bollworm control, which automatically leads to higher profit to the farmers and land owners and conservation of biological control agents and other beneficial organisms. It was evidenced that the average cotton yields in India which was 308 kg per hectare in 2002, prior to introduction of Bt-cotton, enhanced up to 560 kg per hectare in 2007. This shows a minimum of 50% growth in the cotton industry.

The genetically modified plant was proven to be safe and beneficial for humans and other animals under many regulatory checks. Cry1Ac could harm only bollworms and was harmless on other organisms. This new hybrid of cotton attracted a lot many attention and controversies regarding the safety issues around the globe. It passed all the bioethics and safety tests and proved to be useful by many regulatory authorities in India. Though there are still some obligations regarding the use of Bt Cotton, the farmers are growing this hybrid due to its commercial success.

The tragedy for Bt cotton initiated with the emergence of poor quality seeds being sold by Mayhco which forced the Maharashtra government to cancel their license of production and distribution of Bt cotton. The company Mayhco working in joint venture with Monsanto lost its license of producing Bt cotton under the Maharashtra Cotton Seed Rules in the year 2010. The company was defamed due to its toxic products affecting the environment adversely. It led to a chaos in rural areas of Maharashtra. The farmers who were being benefited earlier started committing suicides due to the huge loss in cotton production. This issue forced the government to put a ban on the supply and distribution of Bt seeds by the company. The bad fame of toxic and inferior quality of cotton, adversely affecting the environment and public health marked an end to the Bt technology in India. The controversies associated with Bt Cotton were initiated when the pests became resistant to the gene Cry1Ac. The same gene was used in the production of Bt brinjal but it failed in the later case as well. With this, the productivity of cotton degraded from 560 kg per hectare in 2007 to 512 kg per hectare in 2009 and the pesticide expenditure has gone up from from Rs.597 crore in 2002 to Rs.791 crore in 2009.

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Geetanjali Murari
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