*Trigger warning: This article briefly mentions suicide as relevant to this topic*
Bt Cotton. What does that make you think of?
In the event you’re not familiar with it, Bt Cotton is a type of genetically modified crop (Bharathan 2000, Sengupta 2016, Manjunath 2011, Bhagwat 2016). Bt Cotton is your typical cotton plant with one exception; it can produce its own pesticide (Bharathan 2000, Federation of American Scientists 2011). The pesticide that Bt crop varieties produce is a type of organic, bacteria based pesticide that was sprayed on crops for decades before the crop was genetically modified to produce its own pesticide (Federation of American Scientists 2011).
GMO crops have always welcomed controversy (Bharathan 2000, Sengupta 2006, Manjunath 2011, Bhagwat 2016, Parrett 2015, Federation of American Scientists 2011). But GMO crops aren’t all evil; having Bt Cotton produce its own pesticide greatly reduces the amount of pesticide that washes into water ways (Federation of American Scientists 2011, Manjunath 2011). There are two distinct GMO camps: those who see potential in GMOs and those who see fear in the very word (Parrett 2015, Bharathan 2000, Sengupta 2006, Manjunath 2011, Bhagwat 2016, Federation of American Scientists 2011).
Many blame Bt crops for a recent spike in suicide in rural areas of india (Sengupta 2006). However, the issues that lead to the deaths of these farmers stretch far beyond GMO crops (Sengupta 2006). India is a rapidly industrializing country and its agricultural industry has been shifting as a result (Sengupta 2006). Additionally, in the three seasons before the suicide spike, there were two droughts and a large flood which interrupted three seasons of crops (Sengupta 2006). Perhaps that was the true reason for this spike in suicides (Sengupta 2006).
Some even say that Bt crops save farmers money because they don’t have to separately purchase pesticide to spray on their crops (Federation of American Scientists 2011, Manjunath 2011). A report conducted by AgBioWorld concluded that using Bt cotton actually increases farmer profits (Manjunath 2011). Additionally, according to The Times of India as recently as March of 2016, prices for GM seed have been continually dropping year after year which has made farming financially easier for farmers in India (Bhagwat 2016).
After consumer outrage over safety concerns, AgBioWorld (a group of researchers from Tuskegee University in Alabama) set out to research potential safety consequences related to a plant that produces its own pesticide (Manjunath 2011). This report concluded that there is no scientific basis to claims of threats to consumer health and wellbeing from Bt cotton (Manjunath 2011). The author also concluded that Bt cotton has more benefits to offer than most are willing to acknowledge; like less pesticide run-off and increasing farmer profits (Manjunath 2011, Federation of American Scientists 2011). This fact alines with recent news that Bt cotton seed prices have been dropping season after season in India, making life easier for farmers (Bhagwat 2016).
So why are people so critical of GM crops? Bt cotton is cheaper and easier for farmers to use than typical seed (Manjunath 2011, Bhagwat 2016). Bt cotton has passed every safety test and shows no threat to consumer health or safety (Manjunath 2011). Bt pesticide does not bioaccumulate in the environment (Manjunath 2011). Bt is an organic, bacteria based pesticide to begin with (Federation of American Scientists 2016). GM crops also offer some environmental salvation since they help us use fewer resources and grow more crops on less land (Foundation of American Scientists 2011, Manjunath 2016).
So again, why are people still upset?
GMO crops are a little scary and they are the stuff of bad science fiction movies. In reality, one report even goes as far calling risks associated with Bt crops “imaginary” (Manjunath 2011). If anything, some GMO activism has harmed some economies and families (Parrett 2015). Activists in Mexico have banned the growth of GM corn in their country (Parrett 2015). Now corn must be imported into the country at a higher cost to communities (Parrett 2015).
Our planet is at risk of more and more climate events that will disrupt agriculture as we know it (Parrett 2015). These climate events subsequently will effect food availability, especially in the global South (Parrett 2015). To make that problem even more daunting, population continues to grow (Parrett 2015). GMO crops offer a way to resolve this problem because we can grow more food with less (Parrett 2015).
Many are quick to be critical because GM crops are so easy for the media and others to demonize (Parrett 2015). With a growing population and an ever more turbulent environment that could result in more severe food security and hunger issues, we may not have a choice but to embrace GM crops (Parrett 2015).
Bhagwat, Ramu. “Big Relief for Farmers as Bt Cotton Seed Prices Cut.”IndiaTimes. The Times of India City, 12 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2016. <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nagpur/Big-relief-for-farmers-as-Bt-cotton-seed-prices-cut/articleshow/51365457.cms>.
Sengupta, Somini. “On India’s Farms, a Plague of Suicide.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Sept. 2006. Web. 30 Mar. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/19/world/asia/19india.html?_r=1&>.
Manjunath, T. M. “Safety of Bt-Cotton: Facts Allay Fear.” AgBioWorld. AgBioWorld, 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2016. <http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/articles/biotech-art/safety-bt-cotton.html>.
Bharathan, Geeta. “Bt-cotton in India: Anatomy of a controversy.” CURRENT SCIENCE-BANGALORE- 79.8 (2000): 1067-1075.
Federation of American Scientists. “Bt-Corn: The Biggest GE Crop.” Bt-Corn. Federation of American Scientists, 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2016. <http://fas.org/biosecurity/education/dualuse-agriculture/2.-agricultural-biotechnology/bt-corn.html>.
Parrett, Tom. “GMO Scientist Could Save The World From Hunger, If We Let Them.” Newsweek. Newsweek, 21 May 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2016. <http://www.newsweek.com/2015/05/29/gmo-scientists-could-save-world-hunger-if-we-let-them-334119.html>.