Get free shipping on all orders over R950 🚚 | Win tickets to come join us at the SAITC! Enter here

Skip to content

Cotton: from seeds of suicide to fibre of freedom

With the publication of new research showing how the introduction of genetically-modified cotton crops in India has failed, campaigner Dr Vandana Shiva explains how those crops have led to an epidemic of farmer suicides in that country and says that returning to the use of organic seeds - and organic farming - is the only just and safe future for Indian farmers.

About the author: Dr ​Vandana Shiva is an Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, and alter-globalisation author. Watch Dr Shiva speak at the Lush Showcase here.  

When I was a child growing up in Nainital, my mother, who had been active in our freedom movement, used to teach us to spin cotton. The British Empire was an ‘Empire of Cotton’, and Gandhi had pulled out the spinning wheel as the symbol and instrument of freedom, making cotton a “Fibre of Freedom".

In the early 80s, we started the organic movement in India in Gandhi’s Ashram in Sewagram, Vidharba, Maharashtra.

Vidharba was a cotton-growing area back then. We had a rich diversity of open pollinated cotton varieties which were renewable and farmers could save their seeds. The native varieties were also draught- and pest-resistant. Being draught-resistant meant they could grow without irrigation. Cotton was not grown as a monoculture. It grew as a mixed crop with sorghum, pigeon pea, chilli and other crops.

In 1997, Indian news papers carried huge ads of Monsanto announcing the introduction of genetically engineered Bt Cotton under the trade name Bollard. American hybrid cottons had introduced the America bollworm as a cotton pest and Monsanto introduced Bt cotton stating that it was resistant top bollworm, hence the trade name Bollgard.

The primary justification for the genetic engineering of Bt. into crops is that this will reduce the use of insecticides. One of the Monsanto brochures had a picture of a few worms and stated, “You will see these in your cotton and that’s O.K. Don’t spray”.

Bt cotton, therefore, which was introduced with the claim that it controls pests is itself a pest control technology.

But Bt cotton hybrids need irrigation and therefore failed during drought. And just as weeds became superweeds, resistant to Roundup when GMO Roundup Ready crops were introduced in the US, the pink bollworm became resistant to the Bt toxin in Bt cotton.

So, contrary to Monsanto’s claim, pesticide and chemical fertiliser use has increased in India since Bt cotton was introduced.

High seed costs

In India, GMOs need to be approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Ministry of Environment. Monsanto had not gone through the approval process and so an organisation called the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology (which I had set up in 1982, and from which my subsequent seed-saving and organic movement Navdanya emerged) was able to stop them from selling GMO seeds commercially until 2002 through a Supreme Court Case.

Monsanto signed licensing arrangements with Indian companies, increased the price of cotton seed from Rs 5-10 per kg to nearly Rs 4,000 per kg. Seed companies were forced to produce Bt cotton hybrid seeds so farmers could not save seeds. In the licensing agreements, Monsanto falsely claimed it had a patent, and therefore the Indian companies had to pay Monsanto royalties, which, in the final analysis, was collected from farmers through high seed costs.

We knew Monsanto’s claim to having a patent on seed was false because we had worked previously with Indian parliamentarians to introduce a clause 3j in our patent law which states that plants, animals, seeds and their parts are not inventions, and hence cannot be patented.

Very rapidly, and on the false grounds of having a patent, Monsanto established a monopoly in cotton seed as recognised in an investigation by the Competition Commission of India which concluded that there was prima facie evidence of a Monsanto monopoly in Bt Cotton. (Monsanto tried to halt this investigation but that challenge was dismissed by the High Court of Delhi and continues.)

Failure of Bt Cotton

The Bt cotton crop failed frequently due to a combination of draught (it needs irrigation) and the failure of Bt to control pest attacks. This failure is now recognised by Dr M S Swminathan, India’s most eminent agriculture scientist and the father of the Indian Green Revolution.

In a recent article in Current Science, the authors and researchers MS Swaminathan and PC Kesavan state the following:  

1) There is no doubt that GE Bt-cotton has failed in India (see page 4)

2) Both Bt- and herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops are now proven to be unsustainable agricultural technologies. They have not decreased the need for toxic chemical pesticides which was the reason for them in the first place.' (see page 4)

The high costs of seed and chemicals, combined with frequent crop failure, meant farmers were trapped in debt and an epidemic of farmers suicides started in the cotton belt, (which was now a Bt cotton belt).

Farmer suicides and sickness

Of the almost 300,000 farmers who have committed suicide since the 1990s, most are in the cotton belt. First, farmers were trapped in debt. Now they are dying because of pesticide poisoning as a result of being forced to use more pesticides.

According to Kishor Tiwari, Chair of the Vasantrao Naik Shetkari Swavalamban Mission, (VNSSM) - the Maharashtra Government’s task force on the Agrarian Crisis - nine farmers died due to pesticide poisoning in Vidharba in September 2017. Four others have lost their vision and a further 70 are undergoing treatment in a government medical college in Yavatmal after spraying toxic insecticide on Bt cotton, which was not supposed to need pesticides because it was supposed to be a pest control technology which was an alternative to pesticides.

When the epidemic of farmers suicides started in Vidharba in Maharashtra, I undertook a Seed Pilgrimage to understand why farmers were not shifting from Bt cotton in spite of its failure and high cost. That is when I found out how Monsanto’s monopoly works on the ground to destroy all alternatives for farmers. And that is when my organisation Navdanya, which has created 140 community seed banks across the country, started a community seed bank for organic cotton seeds in Vidharba, Maharashtra.

We started working with farmers to spread GMO-free organic cotton seeds and organic farming. In the villages where we work, Bt cotton has now declined by 60%. We are committed to making Vidharba Bt cotton free and suicide free. We are committed to making it organic.

There is a proposal to introduce Bt toxin into native cotton varieties through genetic engineering. While the issue of high costs of non-renewable hybrids might be addressed through GMOs based on native cottons, the two problems that will continue are the Bt toxin in the cotton, and the failure of GMO cotton, native or hybrid, to control pests. This means pesticides will continue to be needed and farmers will continue to be in debt.

Organic seeds and organic cotton are the sustainable and just future.

We are also working with Gandhi’s Ashrams to make hand spun, hand woven, hand-printed fabrics with vegetable dyes.

Seed freedom and organic cotton are once again are emerging as India’s Fibre of Freedom. This is our tribute to Gandhi during the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Homepage - Cotton: from seeds of suicide to fibre of freedom