GM crops were first commercialised in the US, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, China and Australia in 1996, and in 2016 more than 1.8 crore farmers in 26 countries planted GM crops. Four-fifths of the world’s soybean crop are GM, as are two-thirds of cotton and a third of maize.
India, the world’s biggest cotton producer, has the fifth largest area under GM crop cultivation, and Bt cotton seeds account for 40% of the Rs 14,000 crore national seeds market. Gujarat grows more cotton than any other state.
Why GM seeds?
They are supposed to provide immunity to the plant from pests like American and pink bollworms. GM seeds are mostly either pest-resistant or herbicide-tolerant, the latter of which is still not legal in India. Despite the wide adoption of Bt cotton, India has been wary of GM food crops, withholding its nod for brinjal and mustard.
How GM seeds are different from traditional hybrid seeds?
Traditional hybrid seeds are a result of cross-pollination of two different but related plants, but GM hybrid seeds involve the artificial insertion of a gene from a different species. For instance, BG-II contains two genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (hence Bt cotton) and BG-I contains only one gene.
BT Cotton and the controversy
Maharashtra is the state with the largest area under cotton cultivation in the country and lakhs of farmers depend on the cash crop. The loss caused by the pink bollworm infestation have raised questions about the sustainability of GM cotton, which accounts for over 90% of all cotton grown in the country.
Bt cotton, as GM cotton is known, is the only commercialised GM crop in the country. Monsanto introduced its first-generation Bt cotton, called Bollgard I (BG-I) in 2002 and Bollgard II (BG-II) in 2006, the latter of which is still the de facto GM cotton variety.
According to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, the adoption of Bt cotton was low till 2005. Between 2005-06 and 2016-17, India’s cotton acreage and yields increased by a fifth. In 2017-18, while the area is bigger than last year, productivity is expected to be 9% lower.