Despite growing evidence that Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton is increasing yields and reducing the use of insecticides and thus farmers' production costs in the USA (Perlak et al., 2001), China (Pray et al., 2001; Huang et al., 2002a), South Africa (Ismael et al., 2001) and Mexico (Traxler et al., 2001), the critics of biotechnology continue to doubt its usefulness, particularly for small farmers in developing countries. GRAIN (2001) argues that Bt cotton does not have any positive impact on yield, and suggests that bollworms resistant to Bt are already becoming a problem in China.
This article documents the impact of Bt cotton in China using 3 years of farm-level surveys. In our earlier work we examined the impact of Bt cotton in China using data from a study of 283 farmers in Hebei and Shandong Provinces in 1999 (Huang et al., 2002b; Pray et al., 2001). These articles demonstrated that Bt cotton adoption led to positive and significant economic and health benefits for poor, small-scale farmers.
However, China's rural economy is evolving quickly and it may be that the environment has changed so much in the past several years that the benefits and costs of Bt cotton to farmers in China have also changed. Although the commercialization of cotton markets began in the late 1990s, most cotton was still purchased by the state Cotton & Jute Corporation in 1999 at a price fixed by the government. Since 2000, the government has allowed the price of cotton to fluctuate with market conditions. Cotton mills are now allowed to buy cotton directly from growers. On the input side, the New Seed Law passed in 2000 gave legitimacy to private seed companies and allowed them to operate in many provinces. These changes led to sharp changes in the price of cotton; increased Bt cotton seed availability; and changes in the pricing strategy of Bt cotton seed.
In the context of China's changing agricultural economy, the overall goal of this paper is to review the findings of our earlier papers which analysed the effects of Bt cotton adoption in 1999, along with the results of two follow-up surveys conducted in 2000 and 2001. Reports from government officials indicate that Bt cotton is spreading rapidly in the major cotton-growing regions of China. Our survey data on yields indicate that the adoption of Bt cotton continued to increase output per hectare in 2000 and 2001, and that the yield gains extend to all provinces in our sample. More importantly, Bt cotton farmers also increased their income by reducing the use of pesticides and labour. However, Bt cotton's success has attenuated its benefits. Rising yields and expanding area have begun to push cotton prices down. As a result, some of the gains that previously accrued to producers are now being enjoyed by consumers. Finally, data from the survey show that Bt cotton continues to have a positive environmental impact by reducing pesticide use. We provide evidence that farmers have fewer health problems because of reduced pesticide use. We conclude with evidence that China is not unique, and that there are lessons for other developing countries in China's experience.
History of development and adoption of Bt cotton in China
China has made a major investment in biotechnology research (Huang et al., 2002b). These investments began in the mid-1980s and were accelerated in the late 1980s by the Ministry of Science and Technologies' 863 Project. (The 863 Plan, also called the High-Tech Plan, was initiated in March 1986 to promote high technology R&D in China. Biotechnology is one of seven supporting areas of the 863 Plan.) Unlike biotechnology research in most other countries of the world, the private sector has not played a major role in biotechnology research in China.
Insect pests, particularly the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), have been a major problem for cotton production in northern China. China's farmers have learned to combat these pests using pesticides. Initially, farmers used chlorinated hydrocarbons (such as DDT) until they were banned for environmental and health reasons in the early 1980s (Stone, 1988). In the mid-1980s, farmers began to use organophosphates, but in the case of cotton, pests developed resistance. In the early 1990s, farmers began to use pyrethroids, which were more effective and safer than organophosphates. However, as in the case of other pesticides, China's bollworms rapidly began to develop resistance to pyrethroids in the mid-1990s. At this time, farmers resorted to cocktails of organophosphates, pyrethroids and whatever else they could obtain (including DDT, although the use of cholorinated hydrocarbons is illegal) – with less and less impact on the pests.
With rising pest pressure and increasingly ineffective pesticides, the use of pesticides by cotton farmers in China has risen sharply. Farmers use more pesticide per hectare on cotton than on any other field crop in China (Huang et al., 2002a). In aggregate, cotton farmers use more pesticide than farmers of any other crop except rice (as the sown area of rice is many times more than that of cotton). Per hectare pesticide cost reached US$101 in 1995 for cotton, much higher than that for rice, wheat or maize, and many times more than the level applied by most other farmers in the world. Cotton production consumes nearly US$500 million in pesticides annually (Huang et al., 2002b).
China's pest problems have led the nation's scientists to seek new pesticides, to breed cotton varieties for resistance to pests, and to develop integrated pest management programmes to control the pests. Consequently, when the possibility of incorporating genes for resistance to the pests came closer to reality, China's scientists started working on the problem. With funding primarily from government research sources, a group of public research institutes led by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) developed Bt cotton varieties using a modified Bt fusion gene (Cry1ab and Cry 1Ac). The gene was transformed into major Chinese cotton varieties using China's own methods (pollen-tube pathways). Researchers tested the varieties for their impact on the environment and then released them for commercial use in 1997 (Pray et al., 2001).
Monsanto, in collaboration with the cotton seed company Delta and Pineland, developed Bt cotton varieties for the USA which were approved for commercial use there in 1996. They began to collaborate with the Chinese National Cotton Research Institute of CAAS at Anyang, Henan in the mid-1990s. Several of their varieties worked quite well in China. In 1997, several varieties were approved by the Chinese Biosafety Committee for commercialization. At the same time, scientists in the Cotton Research Institute were working on their own varieties, and the research team began to release their varieties in the late 1990s.
As Bt cotton has spread, government research institutes at province and prefecture levels have also produced new Bt varieties by back-crossing the Monsanto and CAAS varieties into their own local varieties. These varieties are now spreading in Henan, Shandong and elsewhere. Interviews with officials from local seed companies in July 2001 confirmed that such practices were widespread in almost every province in North China.
At present, CAAS has permission from the Biosafety Committee to sell 22 Bt cotton varieties in all provinces of China. The Biosafety Committee has approved the sale of five Delta and Pineland Bt varieties in four provinces (Hebei, Shandong, Henan and Anhui; Len Hawkins, Delta and Pineland, Beijing, personal communication). Many other varieties from national institutes (such as the Cotton Research Institute, Anyang) and from provincial institutes are being grown, but some of these local varieties do not go through the official approval procedure set by the Chinese Biosafety Committee.
In the wake of the commercialization of these approved and non-approved varieties, the spread of Bt cotton has been very rapid. From nothing in 1996, provincial officials, research administrators and seed company managers estimate that farmers are planting nearly 1.5 million ha of Bt cotton (Figure 1). This means that approximately 31% of China's cotton area was planted to Bt cotton in 2001.
While the spread of Bt cotton has relied on the varieties introduced by the public research system and seeds sold (at least initially) by the state-run seed network, the adoption of Bt varieties has been the result of decisions by millions of small-scale farmers. Our survey indicates that, on average, each farmer growing Bt cotton in 1999 grew it on 0.42 ha. This suggests that about 3.5 million farms had adopted Bt cotton in 2001.
Figure 2 shows the spread of varieties by province. A few thousand hectares were planted in Hebei for seed production in 1997. Commercial production by farmers began in 1998 in the Yellow River cotton region of Hebei, Shandong and Henan. It spread rapidly to 97% of the cotton area in Hebei by 2000, and to 80% of Shandong by 2001. In Henan it appears to be levelling off at about a third of the cotton area. In the southern provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu, Bt cotton was adopted a year later than the other provinces; it is spreading fairly rapidly in Anhui. There are small amounts of Bt cotton planted elsewhere, including Xinjiang in the west.