Transgenic cotton and farmers’ health in Pakistan


October 2, 2019

Despite substantial research on the economic effects of transgenic insect-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton, there is still limited work on this technology’s impacts on human health. Due to the inbuilt insect resistance, Bt cotton requires fewer pesticide sprays than conventional cotton, which is not only advantageous from economic and environmental perspectives, but may also result in health benefits for farmers.

Using socioeconomic and biophysical data from Pakistan, the new study just published in PLOS ONE provides the first evidence of a direct association between Bt gene expression in the plant and health benefits. A key feature of this study is that Bt cotton cultivation in Pakistan occurs in a poorly regulated market: farmers are often mistaken in their beliefs about whether they have planted Bt cotton or conventional cotton, which may affect their pesticide-use strategies and thus their pesticide exposure. The authors employ a cost-of-illness approach and variations in the measurement of Bt adoption to estimate the relationship between Bt cotton and farmers’ health. Bt adoption based on farmers’ beliefs does not reduce the pesticide-induced cost of illness. However, adoption based on measuring Bt gene expression is associated with significant health cost savings. Extrapolating the estimates for true Bt seeds to Pakistan’s entire Bt cotton area results in annual health cost savings of around US$ 7 million. These findings have important implications for the regulation of seed markets in Pakistan and beyond: improved regulations that ensure claimed crop traits are really expressed can increase the benefits for farmers and society at large.



Kouser S, Spielman DJ, Qaim M (2019) Transgenic cotton and farmers’ health in Pakistan. PLOS ONE 14(10): e0222617.

This research was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID-391-IO-00002) to DS; and by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and carried out with support from the CGIAR Fund contributors.

Photo: Kimberly Vardeman (Flickr)