Witnessing India’s GMO cotton revolution

By Justin Cremer

January 18, 2018

Balwinder Kang has a simple message for those who don t think Indian farmers like him should be able to utilize the latest technology: come to my farm and judge for yourself.

“To all the people opposing this technology, I would welcome them to come stay with me, and for one crop cycle see how farmers live and see the difference technology makes,” Kang said.

Kang said that critics of biotechnology, be they government officials or activists who have never been to a farm, fail to realize how much of a positive impact genetically modified (GM) seeds can have on a farmer’s livelihood.

Kang, however, knows this firsthand. He has been farming full-time since 1984 and has seen a revolution when it comes to GMO cotton. Early in his cotton operation, his costs were going up year after year while yields were going down. Due to increased pest attacks, the quality of what did grow was going from bad to worse.

“We were losing money and slowly getting into debt. We saw no way out and every time I would get together with other farmers, the only topic of discussion was how to survive. I thought I d have to give up farming,” he said.

Believing that at heart every farmer is a gambler, Kang decided to sign up to participate in Bt cotton trials. The difference was immediately apparent, although Kang remained skeptical.

“The first year was good, but once could be a fluke,” he recalled.

But when the improved results were repeated the next year, the gambler decided to try his hand with Bt cotton when it was released for commercial cultivation. He invested in a sowing machine and even paid for Bt seeds for some of his fellow farmers.

“Some farmers were convinced, some were not. But the next year, when they saw my yield and the quality of the cotton, and saw that the costs were going down, most of them were convinced,” he said.

Kang said that before turning to Bt cotton, which provides inherent resistance to the devastating bollworm pest, he and his fellow farmers were doing about 36 sprays of insecticide and pesticide in every 160-day crop cycle.

“This was poison in the atmosphere. What had we created for our next generation? We are polluting the environment and our children are growing up on these farms, breathing the same air,” he said.

Having witnessed the success with cotton, Kang grew frustrated that the new seed technology wasn’t expanded to other crops.

“There is still this massive propaganda against the use of GMO seeds. We don’t have Bt brinjal, we don’t have Bt maize or drought-resistant maize or the canola,” he said.

Kang places a lot of the blame on the Indian government, which he says is “not concerned about farmers in our country” and has turned a deaf ear to farmers’ pleas for access to new technologies. Kang is particularly vexed that Bt brinjal already being successfully cultivated in neighboring Bangladesh isn’t being made available to Indian farmers despite successful local field trials and that GM mustard hasn’t been released even after government investments.

“The government spent money on it, tests were conducted and biosafety regulations were followed, yet still it is not being released. Mustard is a crop sown mostly in areas that don t have much irrigation, like Rajasthan where I come from. If the farmers had access to technology that increases yields by up to 20 percent through drought-resistance, at least they d have a source of income,” he said.

As it stands now, the farmers are completely reliant on rains that may or may not come.

“Those farmers are the poorest and they’re depending on rain as their only survival. Every year they need some rain, otherwise they don’t know where the next meal is going to come from,” Kang said.

Kang estimates that more than 97 percent of cotton farmers in India currently use GM varieties and says cotton’s success should provide the roadmap for the adoption of other GM crops.

“One crop has made such an impact. If we had access to all these technologies and different crops, it would make a huge difference to the farmers,” he said.

That’s why he d like to host skeptics on his farm. It’s another bet the self-proclaimed gambler is confident he can win.

“I think I’ll be able to convince them they re were wrong and turn them around,” he said.

Featured photo: Balwinder Kang on an Illinois farm. Photo by Robert Hazen