Bt cotton GM Crops

Herbicide-tolerant Cotton Grows In Vidarbha While the Government Snores

cotton field

When politics and ideology influence scientific decisions, people scorn regulators and take autonomous actions that can have grave consequences, reports Vivian Fernandes from Yavatmal. Mahyco Monsanto had applied to the Genetic Engineering Approvals (now Appraisal) Committee for commercial approval of herbicide-resistant Bt cotton in March 2013. it was awaiting permission as of February 2015. The GEAC had not met since August 2014.

While the Supreme Court-appointed committee of scientists has sought an indefinite pause on field trials of genetically-modified crops, farmers in Vidarbha have sown cotton which is resistant to a weed-killing chemical even before regulators have approved its commercial release. After three years of safety trials, the US multinational Monsanto’s Indian affiliate had applied in March 2013 for a license to sell its herbicide–resistant GM seed. But the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee did not consider the application in its meeting that month.

This correspondent saw the herbicide in action in the field of a well-to-farmer in Yavatmal. Weeds in the sprayed

Weeds wilting after being sprayed with weedicide in a  herbicide-tolerant cotton field in Yavatmal, Maharashtra.

Weeds wilting after being sprayed with weedicide in a herbicide-tolerant cotton field in Yavatmal, Maharashtra.

fields were wilting while cotton plants swayed in photosynthetic glee at the plight of their tormentors. The farmer had sown six of 50 acres under cotton with the seed that, he said, had been smuggled in by Gujarat dealers from the United States and Argentina. At Rs 800 per acre-covering packet of 650 grams, this is Rs 543 cheaper than legally saleable Bt cottonseed without weed-burning traits. The prefix Bt is an abbreviation for a soil bacterium whose gene makes cotton leaves toxic to bud-and-flower-eating weevils.  The Bt variety currently in use has two such genes to outsmart the evolutionary cunning of weevils.  The herbicide-resistant version is spiked with another agro-bacterium gene which is immune to glyphosate, a widely used weed killer.

The stealth action of the farmers shows their yearning for labor-saving and profit-enhancing technologies, but is fraught with risk. Though GM crops are believed to be safe, protocols have to be observed to ensure they remain so. One recalls the events of 2001, when Navbharat Seeds, a Gujarati company seen as savior by farmers, sold pirated Bt cottonseed, a couple of years before the GEAC permitted Mahyco Monsanto Biotech to sell its variety. The central government ordered the Navbharat crop to be burnt, but the Gujarat government did not oblige. It feared the wrath of the farmers, who were encouraged by organizations like Sharad Joshi’s pro-market and pro-GM Shetkari Sanghatana.

‘If the government does not give permission for new technology, we must adopt it by stealth or agitation to send a message,’ said the farmer who asked not to be named or identified. According to him, 60,000 packets, enough to cover about as many acres, have been sold in Hinghanghat, Warora, Wani and Rajura taluks of Maharashtra’s Wardha, Chandrapur and Yavatmal districts. He used them first last year; the seeds have been in circulation for three years now.sprayed fields were wilting while cotton plants swayed in photosynthetic glee at the plight of their tormentors. The farmer had sown six of 50 acres under cotton with the seed that, he said, had been smuggled in by Gujarat dealers from the United States and Argentina. At Rs 800 per acre-covering packet of 650 grams, this is Rs 543 cheaper than legally saleable Bt cottonseed without weed-chewing traits. The prefix Bt is an abbreviation for a soil bacterium whose gene makes cotton leaves toxic to bud-and-flower-eating weevils.  The Bt variety currently in use has two such genes to outsmart the evolutionary cunning of weevils.  The herbicide-resistant version is spiked with another agro-bacterium gene which is immune to glyphosate, a widely used weed killer.

The stealth action of the farmers shows their yearning for labor-saving and profit-enhancing technologies, but is fraught with risk. Though GM crops are believed to be safe, protocols have to be observed to ensure they remain so. One recalls the events of 2001, when Navbharat Seeds, a Gujarati company seen as savior by farmers, sold pirated Bt cottonseed, a couple of years before the GEAC permitted Mahyco Monsanto Biotech to sell its variety. The central government ordered the Navbharat crop to be burnt, but the Gujarat government did not oblige. It feared the wrath of the farmers, who were encouraged by organizations like Sharad Joshi’s pro-market and pro-GM Shetkari Sanghatana.

It is a message that the ministry of environment is not getting ever since its previous minister Jairam Ramesh converted the approval process for Bt brinjal in 2010 into a spectator sport where the sane voice of science was drowned at ‘panchayats’ across the country by cymbal-clanging ideologues of various plumages.

The myths about Bt cotton that need to be punctured are those that have been inflated with ideological helium. ‘Bt is good,’ says Omprakash Bhikamcand Lohiya, 58, of Hiwari village, about 18 kms from Yavatmal town. He has been growing cotton since the age of 15 and recalls people using concoctions of neem and garlic to get rid of the weevil infestation. Lohiya is a small farmer. He has three acres, all of them under cotton. But his farm is fertile, and water is available very near the surface, being on the lower side of a teak forest that recharges the aquifers. He gets 1,500 kgs of cotton an acre – three times more than in pre-Bt days and expects a 500 to 700 kg increase due to the use of drips for irrigation and injection of fertilizer. ‘There is somewhat more profit’ says Lohiya coyly while dispensing the wisdom that if one diligently follows agronomic advice ‘there is no question of taking one’s life.’

Omprakash Lohiya, cotton farmer of Yavatmal.

Omprakash Lohiya, cotton farmer of Yavatmal.

Lohiya’s neighbor Vijay Mahadev Niwal, 49, is a farmer-cum-motorbike dealer. An engineer, his family of four brothers owns 75 acres, two-thirds of which are under cotton. Niwal says Bt cottonseed has doubled and even tripled yields because of lesser weevil damage, while incomes have improved because of fewer pesticide sprays and the abolition of Maharastra’s compulsory procurement at depressed prices.  Suicide pockets, according to him, emerge from a ‘legacy of debt.’ If Bt cotton was loss-making, ‘farmers would not repeatedly plant it.’

‘Because of Bt, in my areas 90 percent of farmers do cotton,’ says Dilip Rao Nandokh, 45, of Jalna district’s Malkapur village. ‘Otherwise our plight would have been like that of the Vidarbha people.’ Nandokh has nine acres, two of which he bought for Rs 14 lakh each, on which he grows cotton with drip irrigation. These gave him 45 quaintals. An intercrop of cauliflower yielded Rs 2.5 lakh in four months. His son, graduating in agricultural studies, wishes to pursue post-graduation in entomology, take up a job at the nearly Mahyco facility, while tending to his farms.

Indeed, a combination of fewer sprays and tripling of average yields had more than doubled income per acre to 6,400 in Maharashtra’a rain-dependent areas and Rs,10,000 in irrigated fields, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar told the Lok Sabha in August. Farmers had voted their approval; 92 percent of the state’s cotton area is under Bt, he said.

Biodiversity enthusiast Ram Kalaspurkar with gourd shells

Biodiversity enthusiast Ram Kalaspurkar with gourd shells

For Ram Kalaspurkar, 59, this is proof of a mega conspiracy. A bio-diversity enthusiast, this electronic engineer believes that multinationals had prepared for a Bt takeover by convincing (that is, bribing) Indian plant breeders to ‘artificially emasculate’ native varieties so that they became sterile when pollinated by gene-tweaked ‘terminator’ cotton. ‘Farmers are using Bt cotton because they have finished everything,’ laments Kalaspurkar, whose genteely unkempt double-storyed house with a Volkswagen Beetle stowed in a shed, speaks of concerns removed from those in the hovels. A heap of variously-shaped gourd shells advertises his penchant for seed preservation.  That passion is played over a 170-acre farm, supported by the very vocal anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya – a network of Indian seed keepers and organic producers. But he sees redemption in a backlash. ‘From Amravati to Akola, people have switched from cotton to soyabean,’ he says.

Indeed they have, to diversify risk. Amit Rathod, 22, of Yavatmal’s Bothbodan village has three acres equally under soya, cotton and jowar. So has Kailash Narayan Jadav, 40, a pan-beedi seller. Studies by economist Tushaar Shah’s team’s shows that Vidharba’s rainfed cotton area shrank by a third in the fifteen years to 2009, and was replaced by soya. But soya has not given succor. Those lured by high prices last year are staring at a loass, caused by a prolonged spell of rains. ‘It is spade and pickaxe and work in Yavatmal for me,‘ says Vijay Rathod, 32, staring at his rain soaked soya harvest, drying under a cloudy sky. ‘With his six acre farm returning just a fifth of the amount he had borrowed, it is easy to see why Bothbodan is suicidal; there have been 17 (unconfirmed) cases in the past two years. The fields have more stone and soil, and water just slips through, as if greased.

If the vaunted gains of Bt cotton lend themselves to controvery is because yields vary with the weather, soil conditions, irrigation, seed quality and agricultural practices. A Planning Commission study in 2005-06 gave per hectare savings ranging from Rs 3,320 to 10,351 for rainfed cotton, and Rs 22,051 for irrigated cotton in Akola.

While cotton is withdrawing from Vidarbha, Shah finds it is gaining ground in Saurashtra, which shares similar terrain and social landscape. Irrigated cotton area has doubled in Saurashtra to 35 lakh acres, or 8 percent of total cotton area, unlike one percent in Vidarbha. Quoting studies which analyzed 2002-03 NSS survey data, Shah says that while Vidarbha farmers get one picking  of cotton, Saurashtra farmers spend 20 percent more on inputs but more than double the output, and a saving of 90 percent. People’s groundwater recharge movement, rationed and assured electricity to farm pumps, the May-long mobilization of the administration for agricultural extension, and a four-fold increase  over Vidarbha in milk production have contributed to Saurashtra’s prosperity.

Crop failure, and not any particular crop, is why suicides happen. Among the many reasons is the Maharashtra government’s failure to provide irrigation, encourage rain conservation, and promote judicious use of water through drips and sprinklers.

The national crime data show that housewives as a group tend to have an affinity for the noose, perhaps because of the domestic shocks they have to relentlessly absorb.  And while West Bengal leads in both number and rate of suicides, more farmers tend to kill themselves in Maharashtra. There, the number of farmer suicides tripled to 3,337 in the seventeen years to 2011, suggesting an increase in rural distress.  But the rate per lakh has tapered from a peak of 4.6 in 2002, when Bt cotton was introduced, to nearly 3 in 2011. This tapering coincided with a dramatic expansion in Bt cotton area.

Bothbodan village - Poor sanitation

Bothbodan village – Poor sanitation

Suicides in Vidarbha are not an indictment of Bt cotton but of the government. The wide use of stealth herbicide-resistant cotton shows an absence of governance. Villages also lack social capital. Bothbodan is a jumble of houses built on streets criss-crossing with waste water.  The cemented access road is a mass lavatory where the entire village defecates. Is it any wonder that such infernal living conditions spark suicidal tendencies?

(Reporting for this story was done in the first week of October, 2013) 

 

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