Farmers in India are having doubts that genetically modified cotton is providing much benefit after a whitefly attack ravaged their fields.
The whitefly attack on the Bt cotton variety in Punjab and Haryana reportedly contributed to the suicides of at least 3 farmers around the city of Bhatinda and tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand state aid. 
Some 10 years ago, these same farmers were thrilled when they harvested the first bumper crop of genetically modified (GM) cotton. GM crops immediately caught on because of their seeming ability to produce high yields and the living standards improved. Since 2002, cotton output as increased fourfold. That was the year that commercial cultivation of GM cotton was first permitted in India, transforming the nation into world’s top producer and second-largest exporter. 
Monsanto “designed” the Bt cotton seeds in the lab to produce their own insecticide to kill bollworms. But even the agribusiness giants scientific tinkering couldn’t protect the crops against 2 years of persistent drought. Whiteflies, desperate for a drink, latch onto the leaves of the cotton plant and suck out the fluid.
“Bt technology is effective only against specific types of bollworms that are known to cause maximum yield loss and economic damage to the cotton crop,” said a spokesman for Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd.
The pests’ raids on cotton fields have many farmers swearing off GM crops.
“We poured all our money into buying pesticides and worked day and night to save the crop. But it failed miserably,” said Thana Singh, 67, whose son died after taking poison during a protest outside a government office in Punjab.
Singh and other farmers plan to abandon cotton for lentils and other crops to rebuild their lives and their finances.
“My son was unable to overcome the stress. We were staring at massive losses caused either by the Bt cotton seeds, or maybe by fake pesticides,” said Singh, who added that he wouldn’t even touch Bt seeds until he was given an explanation as to how the agricultural disaster occurred despite the protection that Monsanto said was built into the cotton seeds.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office is currently reviewing a proposal that would allow farmers to grow mustard. Modi has sought the help of scientists to come alongside farmers and to introduce high-yielding crop strains, but it’s too little too late for many farmers, many of whom now bitterly oppose GM crops and are lobbying senior officials for a ban on the Bt cotton and to block GM mustard.
In trying to save face, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt Ltd (MMB), a joint venture with India’s Mahyco, argue that Monsanto and the licensees only market the seeds as being resistant to bollworms = not whiteflies or other pests.
“This technology is effective only against specific types of bollworms that are known to cause boll damage leading to yield loss and economic damage to the cotton crop and not other sucking pests,” a spokesman said in comments emailed to Reuters.
Featured photo credit: REUTERS/Munish Sharma