Atanu Dey On India's Development

Transgenic Cotton

Technology, in economics jargon, expands the production possibilities frontier (PPF). In simpler terms, you get more stuff by using technology by using resources more efficiently. Which in turn means that you have less waste produced as a by-product of the production of useful stuff.

A recent column by Gurcharan Das titled “Let Biotech Crops Bloom” notes how the introduction of transgenic cotton has doubled India’s cotton production in the last five years and is second largest cotton producing country (after China.) He laments the fact that Indian farmers don’t have access to transgenic rice, soya, corn, etc, because they have not been approved. He puts the blame on “misguided activists, timid bureaucrats, and apathetic politicians.”

I approve of biotechnology in general. Not that it is anything new. Pretty much all that we eat have been the result of human created biotechnology — although not the high-tech biotechnology of today. Today’s biotechnology is technology on steroids. Things happen fast and while the benefits can be large, so can the downside be. It is prudent to be cautious :) . One should not lose sight of the law of unintended consequences.

You want to increase the production of cotton and decrease the production of bollworms. So you introduce transgenic cotton and it does precisely that. But it also does more than that. It increases the supply of cotton. Prices fall and therefore aggregate incomes could fall. So if you don’t at the same time reduce the number of people involved in cotton production, you could have individual incomes fall. It could lead to suicides.

Of course, even if you don’t use transgenic cotton, other countries could use it and increase the world supply of cotton and your cotton farmers would still see depressed prices and fall in income.

My point is that the introduction of technology is good — you get more stuff. But it always means that you have to reduce the number of people that depend on the production of that stuff. Indian agriculture has to become more efficient through the use of technology. And we have to move the labor released from agriculture to manufacturing.

  • Amit

    Atanu, here’s one more piece of information regarding long-term effects of using Bt cotton in China, in addition to the cheer-leading piece by Mr. Das in TOI.

    Seems like any gains by using Bt have been eroded by the emergence of secondary pests which require even more pesticides than before. So is this technology fix really a “solution” to the pest problem, as touted by the companies selling the seeds? Or does it simply place the farmers (and researchers) on a treadmill they can never get off of – all because of the theory of evolution? That pesky Darwin, I tell you. But then again, I wonder if continuing to use pesticides and non-Bt seeds also makes the pests immune over time, and requires even more powerful (or greater quantity of) pesticides.

    I’m also assuming that you’ve considered in your analysis any decrease in the price of cotton due to increased yield (according to your theory of LOSAD) and it will still come out more profitable for the farmers to justify the use of Bt cotton. In the long term.

    BTW, would you know if Bt seeds need to be bought every year, or how does their cost compare to non-Bt seeds?

    I think as long as
    a. the farmers and local community are involved as partners in the technological changes and decisions that affect them
    b. they make informed decisions without pressure (which involves corporations not secretly and illegally planting bio-tech crops in fields next to regular crops – that just leads to mistrust and further ideological divide),
    c. there is enough testing done regarding safety (though when it comes to bio-tech crops – who knows how long it’ll take for any negative effects to manifest? – as shown by the Cornell study),
    d. it benefits the farmers and
    e. the company takes responsibility for any fuck-up related to Bt/bio-tech crops,
    I’d be all for it. :)

    Though given the track record of how corporations act (Bhopal wasn’t that long ago), it’s quite normal for Indian farmers to be suspicious.

    My issue with bio-tech food in the US has more to do with full disclosure by the companies (customer’s right to know what’s in the food) and safety issues, and least to do with any ideological opposition to technology.

    BTW, is it possible to increase the size of the comment window? Thanks.

  • Amit

    Atanu, when you have time, I’d invite you to do some research on food production and malnutrition, and write a post on it – whether lack of food is because of insufficient production, or asymmetrical distribution and inefficient use of crops/food. Because it’s a very popular sentiment that’s paraded out every time a case is made for biotech crops – that it is the solution to world hunger. Would be interesting to read your take on it.