July 8, 2019

Genetically modified Bt cotton was first commercialised over ten years ago & has been road tested in several countries.  While it has been a commercial success for Monsanto, the benefits for the agricultural community are considerably less clear. One of the countries which saw the adoption of Bt Cotton is Burkina Faso. SOFITEX, the country’s largest cotton grower had used this cotton strain which outwardly displayed the immediate benefits of BT Cotton.  Their Bt cotton fields had had better yields & sustained less pest damage than the conventional crop alternative. This display naturally convinced the present observers and farmers to convert to the use of Bt Cotton. (1)

Today, several years after the introduction and uptake of Bt cotton, the painful & true costly impact of Bt Cotton on the farmers, environment and agricultural community is much clearer. After the initial sales pitch and observations, the long term impact is harvesting  an ocean of farmers’ debt & exponential  pest and disease problems.

The promotion of Bt crops are essentially an avenue of creating ever more reliable income streams, & clients for life. By using Bt Crops Monsanto sells the pesticide already contained by the seeds.  Farmers though, continue to rely on the very specific pesticides made by Monsanto in addition to having to pay  the Bt technology fees resulting in higher costs for farmers.  This neatly cushions the pesticide makers’ bottom line. 


The US  Monsanto corp  dominates the global supply of Bt cotton seed through sales licensed to Monsanto & its subsidiaries. Bt Cotton took root around the globe, in Argentina (2001), India (2002), Indonesia (2001)Australia (1996), Brazil (2005), Egypt (2006), West & Southern Africa (2003-), USA(), Meixco(), and sadly Kenya (2020) too.

In Colombia, Monsanto imported the Bt Cotton without environmental clearance in 2002 and subsequent legal action suspended their authority. In 1997 Thailand abandoned the Bt Cotton variety after severe farmer protests. And in Zimbabwe, Crops planted by Monsanto without official permission were burnt when discovered by authorities in 1998.

In 2000, Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary, Mahyco, were in their first year of country-wide field tests of Bt cotton in India resulting in mass uptake of the seed use. Here is what happened next.  India’s more than 17 million cotton farmers started up on on a vicious treadmill which provided increased yields but did so at he cost of  the exponential increase in the susceptibility of their cotton crops to pests and diseases. (2)

As the problems compounded,  farmers, under the ill advice of “experts” were encouraged to spray even more often using highly toxic pesticide concoctions. This was evidenced by farmers often  spraying their fields more than 20 times in a single season. 

Unsurprisingly, the escalating sprays of pesticides pushed up production costs to unsustainable levels. This then coupled with the falling market price for raw cotton, came to ugly finality of  severe debt and the annual suicide of hundreds if not thousands of Indian cotton farmers. (3)


Bt cotton though, was available in the  Indian market at least a couple of years earlier than its  approval for commercial use in March 2002. This came to be as the Bt gene “escaped” the company’s “contained” field-trials in the form of N-151 Cotton. Consequently it was widely distributed & sold in the state of Gujarat by Navbharat seed company in addition to being spread from farmer to farmer throughout the state and the country.

The N-151 crop which had withstood a significant bollworm outbreak in Gujarat in 2001 & naturally was very popular with farmers. (4) As the  N-151 variety was shown to contain the Bt gene, Monsanto publicly pressed charges against Navbharat. 

In the cacophony of confusion arising from this, the Indian government wildly threatened farmers with the destruction of their  now “illegal” N-151 harvests & Navbharat halted  N-151 seed  production. The N-151 variety was claimed to have biosafety concerns while Monsanto’s other Bt varieties were rushed past regulatory process for commercial cultivation. (5)  

The true determinants of Bt cotton lack of success were to follow. 

In Gujarat,  where  the N-151 crop was first widely used, Mahyco–Monsanto’s Bt  seeds performed very poorly in the first year of planting. The government reported that farmers in  2002 “suffered a huge economic loss in the cultivation of Bt cotton”. This was shown to be due to the crop’s susceptibility to wilt as well as sucking pests. (6)

Scientists Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakhari (7)have studied farmer experiences with Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh since these hybrids were introduced in 2002. In their assessment of Bt cotton’s first three years in the state, they found that, on average, non-Bt farmers earned 60 per cent more than Bt farmers. 

Contrary to Monsanto’s advertisements and the results from its field trials, Qayum and Sakhari report that farmers growing Bt hybrids were unable to reduce their use of pesticides or increase yields. In the subsequent season, 2005–6, following a ban on the Monsanto–Mahyco Bt hybrids, Qayum and Sakhari returned to the fields to see how farmers were faring with other, new Bt cotton hybrids. Once again, they found that the pest management costs were higher for Bt than for non-Bt cotton farmers. 


Their research disturbingly had found Bt cotton susceptible to wilt, and they consequently warned that its widespread cultivation was setting the stage for an epidemic. (7)

In October 2005 an investigation into the Bt varieties was set up. The team included 11 members of concerned farmers & agricultural scientists.  

The investigation revealed that  wilt damage was far more severe in Bt cotton hybrids than say in conventional varieties. They concluded in no uncertain terms that “wilt is a phenomenon affecting Bt cotton”. This conclusion came about after ruling out any possibility of the wilt damage  being a “result of an abiotic stress or a shortcoming in the farmers’ practices with Bt cotton”. (8)

Specifically claimed by this investigation (8) the adversities  were borne out of  “a reflection of the unpredictable results expectable from the transgenic technology used in Bt cotton and the increased vulnerability of transgenic plants to new diseases and pests”.


P.V. Satheesh, Convenor of the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity damning had the following verdict to issue with regards to the introduction & uptake of BT crop varieties in India.  

“In the first year (2002), Bt cotton was a disaster, yielding 35 per cent less than the non-Bt cotton, even while costing four times more than the non- Bt cotton. In the third year, new diseases spread through the soils and the plant. Cattle which grazed Bt cotton plants started dying. And this year [2006], Bt plants have started wilting, forcing farmers to harden their hearts and uproot them. In the village of Mustyalapally, in the Bhongir mandal of Nalgonda, farmers have uprooted Bt cotton from 41 out of the 51 acres planted. The disease has spread to nearby villages, spreading panic among farmers. Farmers complain that the plants are slowly dying one after another because the root system is severely decomposed, without any secondary and tertiary roots on the main root system. Even the bolls formed on these wilted plants did not bear any seeds.” (8)

The response from farmers  was overwhelmingly angry and desolate. With little to no restitution avialable many farmers abandoned their farms or took their own lives. (9) The suicide rate among cotton farmers in Vidarbha reported more than 100 farmer suicides a month in 2006. (9) 

The exquisite failure of BT crops was equally evidenced in Indonesia between 2001 & 2004. (10)

At the very first plantings  of Monsanto’s Bollgard cotton in 2001 were demolished by pests. This while other cotton crops  did not suffer any damage at all. The fury of the enraged farmers who paid significant costs for the seed  culminated in farmers burning their fields thereby forcing the withdrawal of Monsanto’s Bt cotton from  Indonesia after only 2 planting seasons. (11)

In the US,  Cornell researchers concluded that “a majority of the Bt cotton farmers cited the fact that they must spray 15–20 times more than previously to kill secondary pests, Mirids, which did not require any pesticide in the early years of Bt adoption.” (12)

By 2004, Bt cotton farmers were well out of pocket having to spend as much on pesticides as non-Bt farmers and more than 2–3 times on seeds. [12]

Even more verified accounts from the US, continued to report a dramatic increase in damage from secondary pests since the introduction of Bt cotton (Bollgard). [13] 

The debt cycle propagated by. Monsanto Bt crops took root in Southern Africa with devastating consequences. Small scale cotton farmers in Kwazulu Natal’s Makhathini Flats are sadly poorly educated and consequentially poverty has taken root here.  This has compounded their vulnerability to  promoted external technologies and their manipulative policies. (14) 

The promotion of Bt cotton seeds in this area has driven farmers even deeper into poverty so much so  that the local Land Bank fore-closed 1,447 out of the 1,648 farmer loans. (15)

Damningly researchers have concluded that the uptake of Bt cotton was in fact due to a lack of any alternatives.  “In a context in which many farmers feel abandoned by the provincial department of agriculture and by government extension services and credit services, it is only through cotton that farmers gain access to seed, credit and support. Above all else, and repeatedly throughout our discussions, dryland farmers in the Makhathini area made it clear that they had few alternatives to cotton. The absence of alternatives at a crop level is replicated at the level of seed purchasing or seed supply. Choices are already limited by the fact that Cotton South Africa [the cotton farmers’ organization puts forward an annual shortlist of three recommended seed varieties to ensure consistency in the processed fiber. Farmer’s report and employees at the Makhathini Cotton Company (MCC) confirm that conventionally improved cotton seed is not being grown anywhere on the Makhathini Flats. While Delta Opel, an improved non-GM variety, is available for sale at the official Wenkem outlet situated adjacent to the MCC gin, it is only sold in quantities of 25kg, as opposed to the Bollgard™ NuCOTN 37-B seed which is marketed in an ‘Ecombi’ 5kg package, an ideal size for the small acreage farmers that prevail within the Flats. Even more prohibitively, the MCC gin only purchases cotton packed in woolsacks that the MCC provides. These woolsacks are allocated to farmers at the beginning of the season based on information derived from lists provided to MCC by Wenkem of those licensed to grow Bt seed. Thus, MCC excludes the potential of non-GM growers by only allowing Bt cotton to pass through its gin.” [14, 15, 16]

In addition to the multimillion-dollar salaries paid out to Monsanto executives, the company  “paid dividends totaling $174 million in 2005 and $141 million in 2004. (17)


[1] – V La CV-OGM/BF, “Vulgarisation du coton biologique, le Burkina respecte-t-il le principe de précaution?” Sidwaya (Ouagadougou), 23 November 2006: http://tinyurl.com/t8axl

 [2] – R. Ramachandran, “Green signal for Bt-cotton,” Frontline, 18:8, 13–26 April 2002: http://tinyurl.com/w379h

[3] – Esha Shah, “Local and Global Elites Join Hands: Development and Diffusion of Bt Cotton Technology in Gujarat,” Economic and Political Weekly, 22October 2005: http://tinyurl.com/yxreec

[4] – Douglas McGray, “An agricultural mystery in India has set off concerns over a growing underground trade in genetically engineered seeds,” IRP, Spring 2002: http://tinyurl.com/y48gjk

[5] – T.V. Padma, “Indian GM research ‘lacks focus and transparency’,” SciDev.Net, 22 June 2005: http://tinyurl.com/y6ozmt

[6] – Bt cotton performance reports: http://tinyurl.com/y7anj8

[7] – Both studies by Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari, “Did Bt cotton fail AP again in 2003–2004? A season-long study of Bt Cotton in Andhra Pradesh” (AP Coalition In Defence of Diversity, 2003); “False hopes, festering failures: Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh 2005–2006” (AP Coalition In Defence of Diversity, 2006) available at: http://www.grain.org/research/btcotton.cfm?links

[8] – Press release of the AP Coalition In Defence of Diversity, 8 September 2006: http://tinyurl.com/ymtwb5

[9] – “A hundred farm suicides a month in Vidarbha”, RxPG News Service, 29 November 2006: http://tinyurl.com/ynywrg

[10] – Kalyan Ray, “Bt cotton bubble set to burst,” Deccan Herald, 14 November 2006: http://tinyurl.com/ylejmn

[11] – “Bt cotton bubble set to burst”, Deccan Herald, 14 November 2006: http://tinyurl.com/yamxu5

[12] – Shenghui Wang, David R. Just, and Per Pinstrup-Andersen, “Tarnishing Silver Bullets: Bt Technology Adoption, Bounded Rationality and the Outbreak of Secondary Pest Infestations in China,” Selected Paper prepared for presentation at the American Agricultural Economics Association Annual Meeting Long Beach, CA, 22–26 July 2006.

[13] – Paul L. Hollis, “Stink bugs continue to dominate in Southeast cotton,” Southeast Farm Press, 13 March 2006.

[14] – Harald Witt, Rajeev Patel and Matthew Schnurr, “Can the Poor Help GM Crops? Technology, Representation and Cotton in the Makhathini Flats, South Africa,” Review of African Political Economy (109), 2006, pp. 497–513.

[15] – Ibid.

[16] – GRAIN, “GM cotton set to invade West Africa: Time to act!” June 2004. grain.org/briefings/?id=184

[17] – https://bib.kuleuven.be/files/ebib/jaarverslagen/Monsanto_2005.pdf – page 42