"Since, the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002, there has been a near doubling of cotton production in the country," Mahesh Sharma, minister of state for environment, forest and climate change, told the Rajya Sabha on February 5, 2018.

However, cotton yields have stagnated in the past decade even as the proportion of Bt Cotton in India's total cotton harvest rose seven times, a FactChecker analysis of government data shows.

Bt Cotton--a genetically modified variant designed to fight the pink bollworm, a pest that affects cotton crop--was officially approved for commercial cultivation on March 26, 2002, in order to increase cotton yield through reduced losses to pests, and to reduce pesticide usage.

However, pesticide use per hectare has doubled in a decade to 2015-16, our analysis found.

Increased fertiliser and pesticide use led to far-reaching health, environment and economic impacts for the country, studies show.

Producing 1 kg of cotton in India requires 22,500 litres of water, compared to the global average of 10,000 litres, Water Footprint Network, a global initiative for promoting fair water use, has estimated in 2015. The high water footprint for India's cotton is due to inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution.

At a time when 100 million Indians do not have access to safe water, the water India consumed to export cotton in 2013 would have been enough to provide an additional 100 litres of water to 85% of India's population.

"Bt Cotton hybrids utilize more nutrients and water for higher yields and profits, therefore the soils are getting progressively depleted and need more nutrient recharging," KR Kranthi, who currently heads the International Cotton Advisory Committee's technical information section, said in April 2012.

In decade to 2015-16, cotton yields rose 2.5%

In 2005-06 when Bt Cotton's proportion in India's cotton harvest was 11.7%, cotton yields were at 472 kg/ha. In 2015-16, as Bt Cotton's proportion rose to 92.17%, the cotton yields were 484 kg/ha--up 2.5%.

In absolute numbers, India's cotton harvests rose 40.2%, from 24.1 million bales (a bale is 170 kg of cotton) in 2005-06 to 33.8 million bales in 2015-16, according to data from the Cotton Advisory Board, a government body.

During the same period, area under cotton cultivation rose 37% from 8.68 million hectares to 11.88 million hectares, while the yield rose only 2.5%, as we said, suggesting that the rise in harvest had little to do with the widespread use of Bt Cotton.

40% Rise In Cotton Harvests, 37% Rise In Area Under Cultivation, 2.5% Rise In Yield In Decade
Year Area (In million hectares) Production (In million bales) Yield (In kg per hectare) Proportion Of Bt Cotton (In %)
2002-03 7.67 13.6 302 0.38%
2003-04 7.63 17.9 399 1.22%
2004-05 8.79 24.3 470 5.67%
2005-06 8.68 24.1 472 11.70%
2006-07 9.14 28 521 41.56%
2007-08 9.41 30.7 554 67.28%
2008-09 9.41 29 524 80.80%
2009-10 10.31 30.5 503 82.44%
2010-11 11.14 33.9 517 90.83%
2011-12 12.18 36.7 512 91.89%
2012-13 11.98 37 525 93%
2013-14 11.96 39.8 566 92.98%
2014-15 12.85 38.6 511 93%
2015-16 11.88 33.8 484 92.17%
2016-17 10.5 35.1 540.8 83.33%

Source: Cotton Association of India Weekly Publication (December 2016), Cotton Corporation of India, News reports in Financial Express, Hindu Business Line (minor differences in data in different publications)

As proportion of Bt Cotton recorded its first significant drop--of nearly 9 percentage points--in 2016-17, the yield rose 11.7% and harvests rose 3.8% even as area under cultivation fell 11.6%. A good monsoon was the main reason for the higher yield, the Cotton Association of India suggested.

"[T]he Government agencies have made attempts to portray a rosy picture with regard to the success of Bt Cotton in the country which actually is not the case," the Parliament Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests said, in its 301st report on 'Genetically Modified Crops and its Impact on Environment'.

"The Committee further learns that India's cotton yields increased by 69% in the 5 years (2000-2005) when Bt cotton was less than 6% of total cotton area, but by only 10% in the ten years from 2005 to 2015 when Bt cotton grew to 94% of total cotton area," the report added.

The most significant increase in India's cotton yields took place in 2003-04 and 2004-05--when the yields went up 32% and 18%, respectively.

"It can safely be said that yield increase in India would not have happened with Bt-cotton alone without enhanced fertilizer usage, without increased irrigation, without seed treatment chemicals, and the absence of drought-free decade," KR Kranthi said in this December 2016 report.

"The alluring promise of higher yield and lower pesticide usage which induced many, including myself as Textile Secretary to the Government of India in the 1990s to welcome Bt cotton have now been belied," former textile secretary TSR Subramanian wrote for the Hindu in May 2017. "Despite increased fertilisers and irrigation, the expectations of enhanced cotton yield have not been realised. Most of the countries that have higher cotton yields than India do not grow GM cotton."

In 2017, India was ranked 32nd on countries in the ranking for highest cotton yield globally. Of the 31 countries ranked above India, only 10 use genetically modified cotton.

Source: Estimates compiled from the United States Department of Agriculture here

"The package of promises sold to us did not reveal all of this," Subramanian wrote. "If I had an inkling of the future at that time, Bt cotton would not have been introduced in India."

Fertiliser use more than doubled, endangering health, soil and increasing costs

Fertiliser use for cotton rose 128% from 118 kg/ha in 2005-06--when Bt Cotton's proportion in overall cotton was 11.7%--to 270 kg/ha in 2015-16 (latest year for which data are available), when Bt Cotton accounted for 83.33% of India's cotton.

Source: Cotton Association of India Weekly Publication (December 2016), EANDS, News reports from Reuters, Financial Express (minor differences in data in different publications)
* Fertilizer usage for 2014 is based on average estimate from Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Govt of India

This increase is in line with the predictions of Charudatta Digambarrao Mayee, ex co-chair of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of India and currently the President of Board of Directors of South Asia Biotechnology Centre. "If the area under advanced transgenic seeds increases to 10 per cent in a few years from the present level of 4 per cent, the country's fertiliser consumption will increase 107 per cent to 220 kgs per hectare from the current levels (the latest available figure 2005-06), at 106 kgs per ha," Mayee had said in 2009.

Increased fertiliser use has implications ranging from negatively impacting human health, degrading soil health, and groundwater pollution and degradation, to increase in cultivation cost for farmers and a huge burden on the taxpayers in the form of fertiliser subsidies.

Effects Of Increased Fertiliser Use

Health impacts: Higher use of nitrogen fertilisers led to higher nitrate pollution in drinking water--up to 601.1 mg of nitrate per litre (mg/l) in one case --this November 2009 investigation in Punjab found. The World Health Organization has set the safe limit at 50 mg/l. Potential health impacts on human health include cancer of the digestive tract and blue-baby syndrome.

Soil health: Fertiliser overuse led to degradation of soil health, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) pointed out. The study also points to soil nutrient imbalances in each of the 15 agro-climatic regions of India, and suggested that taxes be introduced to discourage excessive use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.

Surface water pollution & degradation: Groundwater is being polluted by nitrates as fertilisation of surface water is resulting in explosive growth of algae causing disruptive changes to biological equilibrium including death of fishes in both inland waters (lakes, rivers) and coastal waters, the FAO has pointed out in this 1996 study. This has since been reiterated several times, including by a US study from 2003 and Ecological Society of America publication from 2007.

Increased cultivation cost: The increase in amount spent on fertilizers, insecticides and seeds has contributed to more than four-fold rise in the average cost of cotton cultivation--from Rs 15,961 per hectare in 2001 to Rs 71,115 per hectare in 2011.

Subsidies: Between 2005-06 and 2018-19, budgetary allocation for fertiliser subsidies rose 280%--from Rs 18,460 crore to Rs 70,080 crore. Only 35% of fertiliser subsidies reach small farmers, the Economic Survey 2015-16 noted.

Climate change: "BT cotton is a classic example of new-age technology which is helping speed up the process of climate change and global warming," Devinder Sharma, an agricultural economist told us.

The impact of fertiliser use on climate change has been demonstrated by scientists from University of California Berkeley and Michigan State University through separate studies (here and here). For instance, nitrogen fertilisers have caused an increase in nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is the most potent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane, "trapping heat, contributing to global warming and destroying stratospheric zone, which protects Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays".

Increased insecticide use leading to contamination of cottonseed derivatives

In the decade to 2015-16, insecticide use for cotton rose 79%--from 0.67 kg/ha to 1.2 kg/ha.

Source: KR Kranthi (December 2016), News reports from Reuters, Financial Express

As much as 55% of India's pesticide expenditure is on cotton, which is grown on about 5% of India's cropland.

In early television commercials to promote Bt Cotton seeds, promises of reduced need for pesticides were made.

In another commercial, actor Nana Patekar is shown as a farmer promoting Bt Cotton seeds which allow for 'higher savings, greater yield'.

"Non Bt-Cotton seeds were deliberately removed from the market to ensure favourable conditions for Bt Cotton market capture," Devinder Sharma, the agricultural economist, told us.

Studies have shown insecticides entering the human food chain.

Detectable residues of cotton pesticides ethion, cypermethrin, endosulfan, chlorpyrifos--all rated as moderately hazardous by the WHO--were found in this 2007 analysis of cotton seeds collected from five locations in Punjab published by Environmental Justice Foundation.

Communities in India may also be exposed to hazardous cotton pesticides through the contamination of cottonseed and cottonseed derivatives--an important source of edible oil. Due to the intensive use of hazardous pesticides in cotton cultivation, much of the cottonseed oil entering the Indian food chain may be heavily contaminated (studies here and here found pesticide residue in cottonseed oil).

BT cottonseed oil blending in vegetable oil is illegal in India, according to a right-to-information reply from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), as FirstPost reported in October 2017.

India consumes 1.5 million tonnes of cotton oil produced domestically from Bt Cotton, according to this 2015 report by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a biotech industry lobby body.

"There are bound to be traces and residues (of pesticides), which may not be harmful now, but over time with prolonged consumption may result in harmful effects," MS Kairon, former director, ICAR-CICR (Central Institute for Cotton Research), and a cotton scientist with over 30 years of experience, stated earlier.

"Today, we are not looking for the association between the allergy and the Bt toxin," Sagari R. Ramdas, an Ashoka fellow who has a Masters in Animal Breeding and Genetics from the University of California, Davis, said earlier. "If we begin to institute our mechanisms of our scientific research to look for it, probably we will find a problem. When we do not have a system to locate the problem or to follow it up, naturally we do not have any documented evidence."

Bt Cotton seed was also found to have adverse effects on cows and other animals.

"Requisite number of tests were not done on Bt Cotton in the country, and even those tests that were performed were done either by the company itself or by an accredited laboratory but on the samples provided by the company," PM Bhargava, founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and a Padma Bhushan awardee, was quoted as saying in this 2011-12 report of the Committee on Agriculture of Lok Sabha.

Some 35 farmers in the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra have died of pesticide poisoning in last four months, DownToEarth reported in November 2017. Most of them were working in cotton and soybean fields and had inadvertently inhaled pesticides--including monocrotophos, acephate, profenofos, fipronil, imidacloprid and oxydemetonmethyl--while spraying on crops, the report said.

The Central Insecticides Board & Registration Committee cleared more than 50 pesticides and herbicides to be used for cotton, including some which have been banned in other countries for risk to human life and environment.

Some Insecticides Used In Cotton Cultivation

Monocrotophos: Banned in 60 countries including in European Union countries, China, Australia and Pakistan. The FAO and the WHO have asked India in 2013 to ban monocrotophos after it caused the death of 23 students in Bihar. It was banned in US after it killed large number of birds. Found in various vegetable samples across India tested in 'Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level' study released in 2015 by Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare report.

Acephate: Rated as moderately hazardous by the WHO, acephate is banned in over 30 countries. It has also been rated as a possible human carcinogen by US Environment Protection Authority, and has been observed to cause reduced fertility in male mice. Found in various rice, fruits, pulses and vegetable samples across India tested in 'Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level' study released in 2015 by Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare report.

Profenofos: Banned by Kerala and countries including Malaysia, profenofos has been rated as moderately hazardous by the WHO. Found in fruits, spice, rice, vegetables and soil samples across India tested in 'Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level' study released in 2015 by Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare report.

Fipronil: Banned in eight countries, fipronil was rated as moderately hazardous by the WHO. Found in vegetables and fruit samples across India tested in 'Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level' study released in 2015 by Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare report.

Imidacloprid: Rated as moderately hazardous by the WHO, imidacloprid is widely known for being one of the reasons for decline in bees population, and is being considered for an extended ban in European countries. Found in fruits, spices, cereals, vegetables and soil samples across India tested in 'Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level' study released in 2015 by Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare report.

Oxydemetonmethyl: Banned by 28 countries in European Union, oxydemetonmethyl has been rated as highly hazardous by the WHO.

Glyphosate: Identified as a probable carcinogen by the WHO's cancer body, glyphosate has been found to be used illegally in Vidarbha on cotton farms. In India, glyphosate is approved only for weed control in tea and for non-crop areas.

Chlorpyrifos: 14 out of 17 brands of bottled drinking water studied by CSE (Centre for Science & Environment) in Delhi tested positive for residue of chlorpyrifos (an organophosporous pesticide). Chlorpyrifos is commonly used in cotton cultivation. In a report released in August 2006 released by CSE and Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML), studying pesticide presence in soft drinks found chlorpyrifos in all the 11 Coca Cola and Pepsi Co brands tested. The 2015 central government report on 'Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level' found chlorpyrifos in vegetables, fruits, rice, wheat and soil samples across the country.

In 2015, 7,060 people died due to accidental intake of pesticides/insecticides in India, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau.

Organic (and desi) cotton as an alternative?

In 1947, 97.5% of cotton cultivated in India was desi (indigenous) or organic cotton. Post-Independence, India started its shift away from desi cotton.

However, organic desi cotton is undergoing a small renaissance of sorts. India currently grows two-thirds of the world's organic cotton, even as it accounts for less than 5% of its overall cotton harvest.

Organic desi cotton does not use fertilisers and insecticides. Consequently, its cost of cultivation is less than half that of Bt Cotton.

Desi cotton is known to be cultivable in different soil conditions including saline, sodic, desert, light soils and is tolerant to drought, salinity, diseases and a range of insect pests including bollworms, fireflies and leafhoppers.

"Traditional Indian cotton was grown in a multi-cropping system not as a monoculture cash crop as done primarily today," Anantha Sayanan, co-founder of Tula, a cooperative that works directly with farmers, weavers, dyers and tailors using organic and desi cotton, told us. "This provided them with backup income even in case of failure of one crop. Also monoculture crop systems are less resistant to pest attacks. We don't see much pest attacks seen on Bt Cotton crops on our desi cotton grown through mixed cropping."

"For instance, historically, in some parts of Tamil Nadu, 'karunkanni', a desi cotton variety, was primarily grown with coriander," Sayanan added. "In some areas of Karnataka, Jayadhar was primarily grown with chilli. The farmers whom we work with grow pulses, vegetables, coriander amongst other crops as well."

"The cost of Bt Cotton seeds is at least 10-20 times higher than that of desi cotton," Sayanan said. "The desi cotton seeds need to be purchased only once which can be saved and reused as well."

"Different varieties of desi cotton are suitable for different conditions," Arup Rakshit, founding member, Mahatma Gandhi Gramodyog Sewa Sansthan, who works with desi organic cotton farmers, said. "For instance, kala cotton is suited for hardy areas and resistant to drought and pests as well unlike Bt Cotton. Desi organic cotton is also known to have a much lower water footprint than Bt Cotton."

Using Asiatic (desi) cotton would be more suited for Indian conditions as Bt Cotton requires more water, this November 2014 study by professors at the Oxford University showed.

Compared with conventional chemical farming, organic cotton needs less than 10% water, can reduce soil erosion by 25%, global warming potential by 46% and non-renewable energy demand by 62%, this 2014 study by the Textile Exchange, a group which works on accelerating sustainable practices in textile industry, found.

(Parakh is based out of Mumbai coordinating activities on 'India For Safe Food' and can be reached at

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.


"Liked this story? is a non-profit, and we depend on readers like you to drive our public-interest journalism efforts. Donate Rs 500; Rs 1,000, Rs 2,000."