Since last week, a new study on the benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops is hogging headlines in national and international media. Published in open access journal PLOS ONE, it reported significantly improved calorie consumption among small-scale farmers in India thanks to Bt cotton. The study surveyed 500 small farm households during 2002-08 and found that growing GM cotton crops enabled these families to afford more and better food. In 2002, the study notes, the proportion of GM-cotton growing farms was small, but by 2008, 99 percent of the farmers surveyed had adopted this technology and reduced food insecurity by 15-20 percent.
This is a rather roundabout way to claim that Bt cotton increases farm yield. But to me, this was not unusual on many counts. German researcher Matin Qaim, the lead author of the paper, has conducted several studies on GM crops in the past and come up with similar results. For some reason, he prefers issues such as yield, household income or gender rather than the more pressing concerns of safety, sustainability or monopoly that plague the GM revolution.
Qaim is also a champion of the controversial GM Golden Rice project that seeks to end malnutrition with a punch of Vitamin A alone. The project has been accused of violating the Nuremberg code of ethics by testing the GM rice on unsuspecting adults and children in China, before any animal trial and without the approval of the country’s biosafety committee. A number of US biotech majors, such as Syngenta, have invested in golden rice and the industry hopes the so-called humanitarian appeal of the product will help make the GM bandwagon more acceptable.
These, of course, do not necessarily take away from Qaim’s study. He and co-author Shahzad Kouser, both from the University of Goettingen, Germany, argue that GM crops could impact food security in three ways — by increasing yield, affecting safety and quality, and influencing the socio-economic situations of farmers. They go on to assert that GM technology “could make food crops higher yielding and more robust to biotic and abiotic stresses”, that it “is not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies”, and that food safety risks have to be “assessed and managed case by case”. Focussing on the third aspect, the study finds that “controlling for other factors, the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased incomes”.
Even if one ignores the study’s tiny sample size of 500 farm households in a country where many millions grow cotton and thousands of cotton farmers have committed suicide, its conclusions beg a few questions.
Increased yield obviously leads to increased farm income unless accompanied by a proportionate rise in farm input costs. The same trend was noticed during the first two decades of the Green Revolution when fields were flooded with chemical fertilisers and pesticides and thousands of diesel-guzzling pumps emptied aquifers to water the exotic high-yield crop varieties. Forget food security, big farmers were suddenly rich enough to splurge on fleets of SUVs.
Then, the yield started dropping and farmers spent more and more on fertilisers and pesticides. Eventually, the soil had nothing to give and chemicals were blamed for the tragedy. The same companies that were promoting the chemical revolution now offered new solutions by making plants generate toxins through genetic modification to reduce dependence on pesticides. They also promised bigger harvests and a host of other benefits in GM crops.
So, in the context of Bt cotton, did the new technology really increase yield? The study in question conducted its household surveys during 2002-08 when India indeed reported overall growth in cotton yield. But in 2011-12, Bt cotton productivity was 485 kg of lint per hectare, down from 560 kg in 2007. So why has not the growth been sustainable? Unfortunately, the “other factors” the study brushes aside came into play too soon.
The Bt toxin triggered by the GM cotton plant failed to fight bollworm after a few seasons even as other pests reappeared. The answer was a second-generation Bt cotton. But in 2010, Monsanto accepted that pink bollworm was resistant to Bt toxin. The result has been increased expenditure on insecticide to control cotton pests.
It is estimated that nearly 50 percent of the total spending on pesticides in India goes towards fighting pests in cotton fields that account for just 5 percent of its cropland. The steep pesticide bill, on top of expensive Bt cotton seeds meant for single-season use, broke the back of many farmers, leading to mounting debt and eventually suicide.
While the Bt toxin failed to fight the target pests, nobody was watching its impact on plant-friendly organisms, including millions of soil bacteria. This added to the damage done by chemical farm inputs, leading to soil fatigue and reduced productivity. In any case, Bt cotton demands intensive irrigation and the crop failed repeatedly in rain-fed areas, such as most parts of Andhra Pradesh. Water shortage affects all crops but what is the wisdom in replacing hardy native breeds with those that are high-maintenance and many times more susceptible to water shortage in such arid areas?
Another limiting factor has been monoculture practices, routine for GM crops. During 2009-10, a Central team investigated the cotton crop failure in northern India and recommended a ban on synthetic pyrethroids (a pesticide derived from the oleoresin of chrysanthemum flowers) and intercropping cotton fields with maize and bajra to allow predators and parasitoids to flourish. The rising threat of monoculture moved the Union finance minister to allocate Rs 500 crore in his 2013-14 Budget to launch crop diversification programmes. It is another matter that his government spends a lot more to push GM crops in the country.
Of course, the Qaim study did not let these factors come in the way of its uncomplicated conclusion. Sadly, few in the media distinguish between an authorpaid paper and one that passes a rigorous peer review. Journals that charge readers for access cannot afford to lower the bar. On the other hand, the author-paid, free-access business model must publish as much as two-thirds of submissions to cover its baseline.
The PLOS ONE website, for example, says it publishes all “technically sound” papers — around 70 percent of submissions — and “judgments about the importance of any particular paper are made after publication by the readership”. In effect, the peer review is supposed to take place after, instead of before, the publication. Not all author-paid papers are overenthusiastic, but are these “directories of research reports” guised as journals an easy vehicle for agenda-driven, simplistic studies? In 2010, evolutionary biologist Daniele Fanelli crunched data from the US to show that pressure to publish spikes the frequency of positive results in research and scientists’ bias.
I don’t know if Qaim has an agenda, but he is certainly predictable. At a time when Bt cotton’s 90 percent field penetration in India does not allow for any major expansion, his study concludes that the nutritional benefits could further increase with more GM crops and traits becoming available in the future. In 2007, Qaim was one of the two authors of the paper “Estimating the Adoption of Bt Eggplant in India: Who Benefits from Public-Private Partnership?” You guessed it right. Such a partnership would of course benefit “all parties involved”, the paper concluded.