A Meal Of Bt cotton
By Bhaskar Goswami
12 September, 2007
InfoChange News & Features
overhearing Hartej Singh on his cell phone would find the conversation
strange. “Dho ditta ji Bt nu safed chichra ne,” (“mealy
bugs have devastated the Bt cotton”) he bellows at the caller.
Standing in his field in the mid-July sun, Hartej is busy fielding numerous
calls of a similar nature. He is an exception -- the sole cotton farmer
in Mehtawali village in Bathinda whose crop has not been affected by
the dreaded mealy bug.
These days, travelling across
the Malwa belt of rural Punjab is a revelation. Mile after mile of unending
Bt cotton fields, which appear healthy from a distance, are facing unprecedented
attack by the mealy bug. Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot and Ferozepur,
Punjab’s four major cotton-growing districts, have all been badly
While Bt cotton made an official
entry into Punjab in 2005, enterprising farmers here began cultivating
bootlegged varieties from Gujarat a year earlier. According to official
statistics, around 60% of farmers in the state are growing Bt cotton
this year. In the four cotton-producing districts, Bt cotton coverage
is almost 100%.
Unlike in Andhra Pradesh,
Bt cotton in Punjab lived up to its promise of protecting against the
dreaded American bollworm, and the number of sprays needed dropped from
a high 30 to less than five. This is the main reason why farmers switched
to these varieties.
However, Bt cotton protects
the crop only against one pest; cotton is attacked by no less than 165
pests. This raises the chances of a resurgence of secondary pests and
farmers end up spraying the same quantity of pesticide (if not more)
on their crop as they did earlier. In Andhra Pradesh, the number of
attacks by aphids, thrips, jassids, etc, has risen since the introduction
of Bt cotton in 2002. Tobacco leaf streak virus, tobacco caterpillars,
etc, have emerged as new diseases and pests of Bt cotton in the state.
This year, reports of fungal root rot in Bt cotton are beginning to
pour in from Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh. The emergence of the
mealy bug as a Bt cotton pest in Punjab also appears to be a case of
secondary pest resurgence, and no amount or type of pesticide has been
able to control it.
Scientists at Punjab Agriculture
University (PAU) are yet to figure out an effective way of tackling
the pest, or, for that matter, what is causing it to assume such epidemic
proportions. On July 9, Dr N S Butter, head of the department of entomology
told the press that the attack was mainly due to a reduction in pesticide
sprays on Bt cotton, and also the proliferation of weeds like Congress
grass (Parthenium hysterophorus), which is a major host of the pest.
This is bizarre, considering
the fact that Congress grass has been growing in the state for decades.
What’s more, the reduced number of sprays was against American
bollworm, not the mealy bug, and the type of pesticide used against
the two is quite different. Also, American bollworm attacks during the
monsoon while the mealy bug is mostly active during summer.
The mealy bug feeds on around
300 crops on the subcontinent. Attacks are generally intense during
summer; they subside when the temperature drops. Bt cotton crop in Punjab
was attacked by the mealy bug last year as well, but the damage was
not substantial as the crop was close to maturity. This year, however,
the attack was intense during the second month of sowing.
Unlike the Doaba and Majha
regions of Punjab, the four cotton-growing districts in the Malwa belt
have poorer soil and fewer irrigation canals. Cotton is the major cash
crop, while wheat is the staple crop that meets the food requirements
of relatively less well-off farmers in this belt. Bathinda district
alone accounts for a quarter of the cotton produced in Punjab. Destruction
of the cotton crop in this district therefore affects thousands of farmers.
According to the state agriculture
department, over 2,000 acres of cotton crop were destroyed by the mealy
bug by July 10. This appears to be a conservative estimate. During my
trip to the region in mid-July, every village reported having uprooted
at least five acres of Bt cotton crop every day. In the village of Raike-Kalan,
in Bathinda, over 100 acres of mealy bug-infested Bt cotton had already
been uprooted when I visited the area. It’s the same story across
hundreds of neighbouring villages.
That pesticides are not working
against this pest is evident from the farmers’ accounts. Balwant
Singh, a farmer in Mehtawali village in Bathinda, consulted scientists
at both the PAU and the state agriculture department. He was advised
to rotate sprays of the carbamate and organophosphate pesticide groups.
Balwant understands how this is done, for he is the insecticide retailer
in the village. Four rounds of sprays later, he has given up.
The same story is being repeated
in Badal village in Muktsar district, the birthplace of Punjab Chief
Minister Prakash Singh Badal. During my visit, pesticides were being
feverishly sprayed on Bt cotton fields in the village, but to no avail.
The bug subsides and re-emerges within a week of spraying.
We used to cuff our children
if they touched even one sapling of cotton. Now we use our own hands
to uproot what we planted,” says Nachhatar Singh of Raike-Kalan.
Nachhatar owns two acres of land and has leased-in five more to grow
Bt cotton. Each leased acre of land costs him Rs 16,000, while the cost
of cultivating Bt cotton on the land is around Rs 5,000. All this is
now lost. Since his land is irrigated and he could also source some
paddy seedlings, Nachhatar uprooted the damaged Bt cotton crop and replaced
it with paddy, thereby incurring an additional expenditure of Rs 5,000
per acre. As a result his total expenditure has now shot up to Rs 26,000
per acre -- for paddy! This is a far cry from the Rs 4,000 per acre
profits promised by Mahyco-Monsanto while marketing Bt cotton seed!
Sharecropping is practised
quite routinely all over the Malwa belt. Since the introduction of Bt
cotton in Punjab, the practice of leasing-in land to cultivate cotton
has increased among marginal and small farmers. Due to the mealy bug
attack, these sharecroppers are now uprooting Bt cotton and replacing
it with paddy. This is being done to somehow reduce the huge losses
arising out of Bt cotton cultivation.
But unless farmers sell their
paddy at a minimum of Rs 1,600 per quintal, they will not recover even
their cultivation costs this year. The minimum support price was a mere
Rs 650 per quintal last year.
The writing on the wall is
therefore quite clear for small farmers. Like neighbouring Sangrur,
the four cotton-growing districts of Punjab may soon begin reporting
increasing numbers of farmer suicides.
While the state agriculture
department and PAU are groping in the dark for a solution, the response
from the Centre is a not-so-surprising dead silence. According to the
International Seed Federation, this year the estimated size of India’s
seed market is around $ 1.3 billion (approximately Rs 5,200 crore) --
the sixth highest in the world. By opening up the seed sector to biotech
seed manufacturers, the Centre had signalled, a long time ago, that
profits to these corporations weigh higher than the concerns of farmers.
When asked by local journalists
about the steps being taken to stem the mealy bug epidemic in Punjab,
the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) passed the buck back saying that agriculture
was a state subject.
This is ironical. After all,
it wasn’t the Punjab government that approved 135 varieties of
Bt cotton in the last five years but the Genetic Engineering Approval
Committee (GEAC) of the Union government, of which the MoA is a member.
The fact remains that the GEAC has permitted cultivation of Bt cotton
varieties without carrying out adequate testing for the resurgence of
secondary pests and diseases. As has now become the established norm
with respect to genetically modified crops, farmers are being made to
pay a steep price for the incompetence of the regulatory body and the
greed of biotech companies.
Not only has the introduction
of Bt cotton brought disaster in the form of the mealy bug, it is also
affecting yields of the subsequent crop -- wheat. Farmers reported an
up to 30% drop in wheat productivity on land that had previously been
cultivated with Bt cotton. This is similar to reports from Andhra Pradesh
where the Kisan Call Centre in Hyderabad received a number of complaints
from farmers about declining yields of subsequent crops.
According to Vyavsaya Panchangam
-- a farmers’ almanac -- published by the Acharya N G Ranga Agriculture
University, Hyderabad, Bt cotton uses more fertiliser than its non-Bt
counterparts. If adequate amounts of fertiliser are not applied, the
subsequent crop receives fewer nutrients. Further, the Bt toxin also
expresses itself in the root zone of the plant and can affect soil biodiversity
and ecosystem function, as reported in a research study by the Australian
government. These may partly explain why yields of subsequent crops
are declining, although nobody is paying much attention to this aspect.
This brings the story back
to Hartej Singh, an organic farmer associated with the Kheti Virasat
Mission. Singh grows cotton intercropped with rows of pigeon pea, sorghum,
maize, soybean, cluster bean, etc. Some of these are leguminous crops
that are uprooted and used as green manure. He grows F-1378, an early-maturing
American cotton variety and LD 327, a high-yielding desi variety that
is also tolerant to Fusarium wilt. His yields are slightly lower than
those of the Bt cotton in neighbouring fields.
But while the neighbouring
fields are heavily infested by the mealy bug, Singh’s cotton crop
is completely unaffected. Likewise for the 100-odd farmers of the Malwa
belt who, as part of the Kheti Virasat Mission, are growing non-Bt cotton
following the principles of organic farming. Intercropping with several
different crops stops pests from migrating to the next row of cotton,
and since these crops have never been sprayed with pesticide, predators
like beetle larvae can be seen feeding on the mealy bugs. Whenever the
pest concentration goes up, a combination of neem leaves and pods, along
with Datura, etc, mixed with cow urine, is sprayed on the crop. The
attack subsides and damage to the cotton crop is negligible.
Umendra Dutt, Executive Director
of the Kheti Virasat Mission, sums it up thus: “Farmers were promised
a magic bullet in the form of Bt cotton which has turned into a bitter
pill.” Meanwhile, the PAU and state agriculture department are
now consulting Dutt to work out a way to tackle the mealy bug. Speaking
to the media on August 9, the head of the department of entomology recommended
using traditional methods to destroy the mealy bug -- remove the weed
hosts and use neem-based insecticides…
is with the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security.
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