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Sent: 19 June 2009 13:31
To: '[email protected]'
Subject: 51: Bt cotton in developing countries and measures of success and failure
My name is Dominic Glover. I am a Post-doctoral Fellow with the Technology and Agrarian Development Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. I am also a member of the steering committee for the ABDC-09.
Several contributors in this e-mail conference have referred to the cultivation of transgenic Bt cotton as a 'huge success' among smallholder farmers, for example in countries like India [Messages 2, 15, 28, 33].
It is important to be careful what we mean by 'success' (or 'failure') in the context of this conference. The case of Bt cotton provides an excellent illustration of the reasons why it matters so much.
As Jose Falck-Zepeda [Message 20] has already mentioned, the empirical record on Bt cotton's impacts is not uniform. As his colleagues at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have shown (Smale et al. 2006a, 2006b, 2009), and as I have also argued in a recent working paper (Glover 2009), the overall picture is of broadly beneficial impacts, but that general overview masks considerable variation between farms, farmers, regions and seasons. Below, I will summarise some of the key points. I encourage participants in this conference to refer to those papers for the full analysis and evidence base.
On a purely technical level, Bt cotton could indeed be termed a success. The technology 'works' in the specific sense that transgenic cotton plants produce the Bt toxin, which confers some degree of protection against some of the pests that feed on cotton. In economic terms, at the aggregate level, there is also good evidence that the overall productivity of cotton has increased following the introduction of Bt technology.
However, at the micro scale, the picture is much more complicated. The variation in the outcomes means that, while some farmers have certainly benefited (though not always consistently), others have not. The performance of Bt cotton depends heavily on favourable growing conditions, especially good soils and reliable water. Farmer skill also plays a key role. The impacts also depend heavily on the presence or absence of supportive institutional frameworks.
Bt cotton does not necessarily lead to reduced pesticide use. Some researchers found that Bt-adopters sometimes still spray excessive amounts of pesticides. Others found that Bt technology had a rather marginal impact when compared with the effect of training farmers in integrated pest management (IPM) methods. We know that farmers' decision-making on pesticides is not always guided by careful observation of pest pressure or calculation of the economic costs and benefits of spraying. Even where reductions in pesticide use have been observed, we do not know whether the performance of the technology itself was the driving factor. Based on the available evidence, therefore, it would be a mistake to conclude that Bt cotton has 'caused' a reduction in pesticide use.
In summary, the picture is complex and differentiated. It is always important to ask: 'Success (or failure) for whom? Under what circumstances?'. To label Bt cotton as a great success would be just as crude as to dismiss it as a disastrous failure. We also cannot assume that Bt cotton must be a success merely because it has spread rapidly. The comment in the background document to this conference is very well-made: just because a technology is being used does not necessarily mean it is a social, environmental or developmental 'success'.
The Bt cotton picture is changing all the time. In India, for example, the newly released Bt cotton varieties produced by the public sector may make a tremendous difference to the market and could help to make the technology more accessible to poor farmers. If that were to happen, it would serve as a good illustration of why the institutional context really matters.
Technology and Agrarian Development Group
PO Box 8130
6700 EW Wageningen
Tel: +31 (0)317 48 40 18
Email: dominic.glover (at) wur.nl