February 7, 2015

The Bt Cotton Fraud


Humanity’s struggle against corporate agriculture, especially in the form of GMOs, becomes increasingly fierce around the world. One of the most critical and infamous battlegrounds is India. Here, Bt cotton is the locus of the struggle over commodification, the agronomic performance and socioeconomic character of GMOs, and this false crop’s role in history’s greatest suicide epidemic.
I’ll investigate India’s farmer suicide epidemic in a subsequent post. In this post I want to focus on the fact that Bt cotton is the most clear-cut example of how GMOs and the propaganda campaigns that tout them comprise a massive hoax and fraud on farmers and society. We’ll see why India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture found in its 2012 report that “After the euphoria of a few initial years, Bt cotton cultivation has only added to the miseries of small and marginal farmers”, and why in 2014 this committee followed up with the finding that government claims of rising cotton farm income are false. Only debt and risks have risen, giving “ample proof to show that the miseries of farmers have compounded since the time they started cultivating Bt cotton”.
GMOs are a rich man’s technology. This is true of the corporations which control and distribute them, in the process gaining ever tighter control of agriculture and food. It’s also true for the farmers themselves. The only way GMOs may temporarily work as advertised is in the context of high-input industrial agriculture. To work as well as they can, such as that is, GMOs require lavish external inputs and best case scenarios. They need to be heavily supplemented with irrigation, synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and mechanization. GMO seed sellers are also sellers of agricultural poisons such as herbicides and insecticides. The corporate goal is always to maximize both seed revenue and poison sales. That’s what GMOs are designed to do. They’re very costly to grow, and therefore require either huge cash reserves or that farmers go into debt. Only rich growers who can afford these expensive inputs can have any hope of getting GM crops in the field to perform as advertised so the farmer can turn a profit on these very expensive crops. That’s why GMOs are an abject failure everywhere they’re not propped up with massive government subsidies.
In spite of these facts, corporations and governments have consistently targeted small farmers for GMO marketing. These farmers, who comprise the great majority of food producers worldwide, lack the resources to get the crop to grow as advertised or to be economically viable with it. Across the global South the pattern has always been the same. Corporations and government launch a propaganda blitz targeting small farmers, promising high returns and threatening with economic extinction those who are slow to adopt the technology. The marketing campaigns promise lower pesticide costs, more effective pesticide coverage, and higher yields and revenues. Governments promise subsidies and generous credit. Lacking independent sources of information, often following local leaders in the pay of the cartel, small farmers buy the GM seeds. The GMO corporations use every tactic, from buying seed companies to imposing contracts on seed growers and sellers to having governments offer temporary subsidies, in order to drive non-GM alternatives out of the market.
The farmer pays far more for this seed with its added “technology fee” tax. He quickly finds he must increase fertilizer application. Pesticide savings never materialize. He must go into debt to procure the expensive inputs he now needs. His farming dependent on rainfall, he learns too late that the Bt crop needs artificial irrigation to get enough water. Pests and diseases ravage the GMO crop in a way they hadn’t with conventional crops. The harvest is poor. Meanwhile the same corporate system is dumping globalized commodity crops on the market. The harvest price plummets. The farmer is wiped out. He’s driven off his land and into a shantytown. In India, he may kill himself by drinking his own pesticide. Picture this individual tragedy multiplied over hundreds of thousands, millions of small farmers. Picture this great mass economically destroyed, forcibly subject to a mass expulsion from the land, one-way tickets to the terminal slums thrust into their worn hands. These slums have sprawled out from the fringes of the Southern cities in proportion to the intensifying death grip of corporate agriculture, their inmates the cast-off human destruction of this corporate assault.
This pattern has been unbroken wherever corporate agriculture has gone. Wherever commodification has prevailed, its primary effect has been to destroy community farmers and drive the people off their land. GMOs reinforce and intensify every pathology of corporate industrial agriculture, and are especially evil in how they aggravate this social carnage. Today the goal of corporations and governments in pushing GMOs upon small farmers is to squeeze them for every cent possible, then drive them out. For small farmers and for society as a whole, GMOs are history’s most monumental socioeconomic fraud. That’s why the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the most comprehensive and definitive agricultural survey and analysis ever undertaken, rejected GMOs as unable to play any constructive role in the future of farming and food.
Bt cotton is the best-documented example of this pattern of fraud, failure, and human destruction. In India a human drama unequaled in history has been playing out, with millions of small farmers being economically attacked by globalized agriculture, and then even more viciously duped by by Monsanto and the Indian government. They’ve been subject to a “ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops”. The story begins in the mid 1990s. Under economic pressure and in thrall to commodification propaganda, small cotton farmers began switching from their traditional diversified polycultural practices, which included intercropping with food and other crops for personal use and local sale, to monoculture based on hybrid varieties and destined for global markets. This first put them on the treadmill of rising input costs, pesticide use, and debt. According to government data, 75% of rural debt in India is from the need to purchase inputs. The seed dealers themselves double as moneylenders at usurious rates, thus repeating the 19th century American tragedy of impoverished sharecroppers and “the man”. The suicide epidemic began because of this vicious circle. In Maharashtra state, ground zero of the epidemic, 2.8 millon of 3.6 million farmers were in debt in 2006.
Hybrid varieties are highly vulnerable to insect pests, and every year farmers had to invest more borrowed money, time, sweat, and anguish into applying an ever more prodigious and complex mix of poisons. As if their situation wasn’t parlous enough, in 2001 the US radically stepped up the dumping of its own heavily subsidized cotton on the Indian market, causing the price to collapse. For all its cotton production, third in the world, India became a cotton importer on account of the low global price. India’s small cotton farmers were desperate.
This was the context for the commercialization of Bt cotton. It was first grown illegally in the Gujarat province starting in the late 90s, then launched legally across the whole cotton belt in 2002. The first legal varieties were a joint project of Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary Mahyco. Farmers, trapped on the treadmill paying ever more for pesticides that worked ever more poorly, were desperate for a solution. It’s no surprise that they ardently listened when the massive Mahyco advertising blitz, bolstered with bullish government and media testimonials, promised them a Bt panacea. Bt cotton came from “magic seeds” which would solve all their problems and give them a prolific, profitable crop. It would rout pests once and for all, cost less to grow, yield better, and gross more at harvest time. Bollywood stars toured the countryside exhorting farmers to get on board. The government promised support and lenient credit.
Small farmers faced this marketing offensive with few independent sources of information. “There are no independent expert agencies in this country”, according to a 2014 panel report to the Ministry of Environment and Forests. There’s practically no one but industry and its government flunkeys to advise farmers. Because of this, the adoption of Bt cotton has had little to do with knowledge and experimentation, but was mostly a social response. In a time of agricultural deskilling and economic uncertainty, farmers fell back on following a leader or following their neighbors. This environment was rich to be manipulated by Monsanto/Mahyco’s propaganda blitz.
Most Indian cotton farmers heard about Bt cotton through word of mouth, from neighbors who had been tapped by Mahyco to serve as proselytizers, or from advertising coordinated by seed dealers. In Maharashtra 79% of farmers said they’d heard of it from seed dealers. These Mahyco-licensed dealers are often, as I mentioned above, also peddlers of the expensive inputs needed as accessories to Bt crops and loansharks offering the credit needed to buy this expensive apparatus.
This information problem is aggravated by the fact that Bt seeds have been highly unreliable in germination, Bt expression, and yield. This again is a function of how lavishly expensive external inputs are applied, but is also inherent to the shoddy GMO seed itself. Of course, if small farmers who are unable financially to deploy the whole input apparatus follow the lead of a local bigshot who can afford it, or believe the lies of government and industry, this is a recipe for economic self-destruction.
Throughout its history the private seed business has always been about marketing, destroying farmer choice through enforcing monopoly, and fiercely resisting attempts to enforce transparency and quality control. Jack Kloppenburg’s First the Seed gives an excellent historical account. Just according to this historical record it was easily predictable that GMO seeds would comprise a shoddy,fraudulent product, and so they have. Bt cotton may provide the best case study of how high maintenance GM crops are, how they require a vast, exorbitantly expensive apparatus of inputs and optimal conditions in order to work as advertised, and therefore how absolutely inappropriate they are for small farmers. GMO agriculture and smallholder agriculture are antithetical and cannot “co-exist”, to use the cartel’s favored propaganda term. Any assertion or advertisement to the contrary is perpetrating a hoax and a fraud. It’s a Nuremburg level crime. As is Monsanto’s aggressive campaign to impose a near-monopoly on cotton seed in India.
The lies were aggressive and virulent from the start and remain so to this day. “Bollgard protects you! Less spraying, more profit! Bollgard cotton seed: the power to conquer insects!”, blared an early poster. “Our products provide constant and significant benefits to both large- and small-holder growers. In many cases farmers are able to grow higher quality and better-yielding crops.” This is from Monsanto’s “Pledge Report” for 2006, which was the exact time it was rolling out Bollgard II with two Bt toxins in response to the collapse of the original Bollgard on account of bollworm resistance to its single toxin. Clearly the only “constants” are the ever-escalating pesticide treadmill, the ever-rising Tower of Babel as GMOs have to incorporate more and more stacked poisons, and of course Monsanto’s ever-flourishing revenues from this business model of captive markets and planned obsolescence. The other constants are the vicious circles of farmer struggles, debt, misery, exodus from the land and into slums, and suicide. And the lies march on, as the Advertising Standards Council found when it recently flagged Monsanto-Mahyco’s campaign for falsely claiming “Bollgard boosts Indian cotton farmers’ income by over Rs.31,500 crores” (over 315 billion rupees, which is around $5.1 billion as I’m writing this).
Taking advantage of Indian cotton farmers’ parlous economic circumstance and their lack of information, the propaganda campaigns worked. In spite of the unprecedented high price of the seeds, farmers began planting Bt cotton. By the time they realized the debt and monopoly trap they were in, it was too late.
The result has been a disaster. In part two we’ll survey the performance of Bt cotton in India.




  1. Great piece, Russ. I look forward to Part II. Can you add a Twitter button to your site, so your posts can be shared easily on Twitter?

    Comment by Brooks Anderson — February 7, 2015 @ 11:31 pm

    • Thanks, Brooks. I don’t know how to add a Twitter button, or if that’s even possible here. I think people have sometimes pasted links from here in tweets.

      Comment by Russ — February 8, 2015 @ 3:20 am

      • Hi Russ,
        That’s what I did. If I figure out a way to add a Tweet button to a post, I’ll share it. Thanks for keeping the spotlight on GMOs!

        Comment by Brooks Anderson — February 9, 2015 @ 12:05 am

      • Hi Brooks,

        You’re welcome, and thanks for the work you’re doing.

        Comment by Russ — February 9, 2015 @ 5:43 am

  2. This racket reminds me of so many others. Catch people in a desperate financial situation and offer “help” which results in ultimately destroying them, and taking whatever pitiful crumbs they possess.

    Comment by DualPersonality — February 9, 2015 @ 10:32 am

    • That’s the basic procedure of disaster capitalism: Prey on crisis-induced weakness, in the process exacerbating the crisis and further weakening the prey. It’s especially profitable if the corporations can artificially generate the disaster themselves, as they have with commodity monocrop agriculture. By now disaster capitalism is practically the only capitalism that still functions. At any rate it’s completely in control of the global economy.

      Comment by Russ — February 9, 2015 @ 10:48 am

  3. This very blog is where I first heard the term “disaster capitalism”. Thank you for helping expand my mind, and shining light into the darkness!

    Comment by DualPersonality — February 10, 2015 @ 1:36 am

    • 🙂 I got the term from Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, though I’d thought of the concept on my own beforehand. It first occurred to me while pondering the system response to Katrina.

      Comment by Russ — February 10, 2015 @ 5:25 am

  4. […] the history we explored in Parts One and Two we see how Bt cotton has aggravated the poison/debt agronomic treadmill and economic trap […]

    Pingback by The Bt Cotton Fraud Part Three: The Global Record, and What It All Means | Volatility — February 11, 2015 @ 2:00 am

  5. […] warned this was the only way they could survive. As I described in my Bt cotton fraud series (parts one, two, three), farmers who heeded this government panic-mongering and relinquished their community […]

    Pingback by The Indian Cotton Farmer Suicide Epidemic | Volatility — February 23, 2015 @ 4:38 am

  6. […] for GMO seeds, synthetic fertilizer, and pesticides. The report emphasizes the proven record I’ve recently discussed, that GMOs can partially “work” only on large, heavily capitalized industrial […]

    Pingback by GMO News Report, February 27th 2015 | Volatility — February 27, 2015 @ 3:52 am

  7. […] Nowhere is this more obviously true than in the case of GMOs, a completely failed, worthless, and destructive product which humanity never wanted, for which no natural market ever existed, which could never […]

    Pingback by Glyphosate and Its Advocates Are Cancer | Volatility — April 21, 2015 @ 9:55 am

  8. […] evils; and how industrial agriculture promises to bring the worst evils of famine and disease. GMOs do nothing but intensify and escalate all these pathologies, since they do nothing but intensify and escalate corporate industrial agriculture as such.) . […]

    Pingback by Climate Change Requires Change of Consciousness | Volatility — July 27, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

  9. […] commercialization of GM maize would escalate it further. I’ve written extensively about how GMOs are an impossible technology for small farmers, which for them can never be anything but an assault and an often deadly trap. . Whenever you see […]

    Pingback by Maize in the Labyrinth | Volatility — September 16, 2015 @ 9:41 am

  10. […] agriculture. . So GMOs are a rich man’s technology from the consumer end. They’re also a rich man’s technology from the production end. In order to have any chance of functioning as advertised, these extremely high maintenance products […]

    Pingback by GMOs Are For the Rich Only | Volatility — December 23, 2015 @ 4:55 am

  11. […] cotton may be the most failure-prone and fraudulent (as far as the claims made for it) of all widely deployed GMOs. Even where it works temporarily […]

    Pingback by GMO News Summary, December 25th, 2015 | Volatility — December 25, 2015 @ 4:34 am

  12. […] how any sane farmer would take action to break free of it.) . B. For any GMO to work as advertised requires lavish inputs of every kind. Therefore any insecticidal GMO requires the highest application of herbicide (or some other kind of […]

    Pingback by GMOs Increase Pesticide Use | Volatility — January 7, 2016 @ 7:26 am

  13. […] precarious profession it has become in India. Well over 300,000 farmer suicides can attest to that. Destroying farmers and driving millions off the land was always one of the core goals of the Green Revolution and remains so today. . *The record of Bt […]

    Pingback by GMO News Summary January 15th, 2016 | Volatility — January 15, 2016 @ 9:42 am

  14. […] plantations to grow CAFO feed for Asia, and/or convince enough smallholder farmers to fall for the same scam Monsanto used on cotton farmers in India. (But Bt cotton has already been tried and rejected in three African countries, and the word is […]

    Pingback by Concentration in the Poison Sector (Dow/DuPont; Syngenta; Monsanto) | Volatility — January 19, 2016 @ 1:23 am

  15. […] experience with Bt cotton has paralleled that of other countries, including the crop’s poor performance under anything but optimal conditions. Burkina Faso also experienced low-quality lint production even when the overall boll yield was […]

    Pingback by GMO News Summary, January 29th, 2016 | Volatility — January 29, 2016 @ 9:06 am

  16. […] The government admits that it allowed Monsanto to attain a near-monopoly on cotton seed. (It also actively encouraged this monopoly.) But between the tax and the generally very poor performance of the crop farmers can no longer […]

    Pingback by GMO News Summary, February 5th 2016 | Volatility — February 5, 2016 @ 5:18 am

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