India’s cotton economy has undergone a radical and unheralded transformation over the past decade. From being a net importer of cotton 10 years ago, India is set to become the world’s largest cotton producer, surpassing China this year, according to recent projections of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Cotton production in the country has more than doubled over the past decade, and the surge, led both by rising yields and increased acreage, has lifted farm incomes and profits for millions of farmers living in some of the most resource-poor parts of the country.
There are few crops in which India has achieved such a turnaround in so short a time, and the cotton boom offers important lessons for the future of agriculture in the country.
There have been two key drivers of the cotton boom: improved water management in Gujarat, the leading cotton-producing state, and the introduction of genetically modified (GM) cotton, which has boosted yields and profits of growers. The success story of water harvesting and micro-irrigation projects in the dry regions of Gujarat is well-known. What is less widely acknowledged is the role of India’s first and only genetically modified crop, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton in driving the cotton boom, by preventing pest attacks, reducing costs and making cotton farming more remunerative than earlier.
The dominant narrative on GM crops in India has been shaped by a small band of activists, who have deemed such crops to be unsafe and unsuitable for Indian farmers, disregarding reams of evidence which contradict their claims. An overwhelming majority of cotton growers have made their choice clear over the past decade: they prefer Bt cotton to any other alternative.
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