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Rural Indian women benefit from GM crops

(12 August 2010) While a common assumption holds that GMOs primarily benefit multinationals and farmers in industrialised countries, in India it is the poor rural women who profit most from the cultivation of a GM cotton crop. As reported in Nature Biotechnology in May, researchers from the University of Göttingen in Germany and the University of Warwick, UK, have found that cultivation of insect-resistant GM cotton has lead to massive gains for hired female labour.

Rural women in India benefit from higher wage incomes and increased employment rates where a GM cotton crop is grown known as Bt cotton. This gender specific effect is a new aspect in the evaluation of GMOs in agriculture. According to the study by Dr Arjunan Subramanian of Warwick University and Dr Matin Qaim of the University of Göttingen, growing Bt cotton in India can help to increase the quality of life of rural women.

Cotton is a traditional crop plant in India. Since 2002 farmers also grow a GM version of it. Bt cotton is insect-resistant because it is engineered to produce a natural toxin derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that protects the plant from certain insect pests. Compared with the conventional crop, Bt cotton can produce higher average yields per hectare. Therefore, more workers are required for harvesting and farmers can generate higher returns from their fields.

Since cotton production relies heavily on manual labour, which is predominantly carried out by female hired workers in rural India, these women represent the group that benefits most from the additional income from Bt cotton cultivation. Their wages increased by up to 55 per cent and employment rates also went up. For the total Bt cotton area in India of 7.6 million hectares in 2008, the rise of employment opportunities would translate to about 400 million additional days of employment. Overall, additional employment of both men and women in the particular region of the study resulted in an increase of the average wage income of 40 US dollars per hectare. Since 2008 the area of Bt cotton in India has increased to 8.4 million hectares in 2009.

Apart from landless female workers, women in farming families also are positively affected. Higher income through Bt cultivation allows them to withdraw from farming activities and thereby raises their quality of life. Further agriculture-related sectors such as trade and transport also benefit.

These findings are based on data from a comprehensive survey of a village in Maharastra, which is described as a typical example of a community with smallholder cotton production. The study was conducted over a period of one year (2003/2004) and was publically funded. According to an earlier study by the same authors, higher incomes in Bt cotton cultivation are not only due to higher yields but also lower expenses for pesticides. They calculated that the overall gain for all farmers across the whole cotton acreage in India in 2008 is about 1 billion US dollars. The majority of this sum (60 per cent) is gained by Indians living below the poverty line.

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