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Smart Agriculture: Bt Cotton, a cash crop that can change the life of farmers


Last Updated: October 16, 2015, 12:36 IST

Smart Agriculture: Bt Cotton, a cash crop that can change the life of farmers

On the 15 of June, we caught up with a team of Delhi University scientists led by Prof Deepak Pental, geneticist and former vice chancellor of Delhi University, after they had signed an agreement to hand over cotton plants containing the Bt bacterial gene with insecticidal properties. The gene is similar to the one which Indian regulators had approved in three hybrids thirteen years ago, except for a few amino acids. The developers claim it is two times more potent against bollworms, a deadly cotton pest. Since the research was publicly funded they want it used for non-profit purposes.

Deepak Pental, Geneticist & former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University, said, “They have to back cross this over the next two three years into their best varieties. If those varieties are given to the farmers by the agricultural departments we do not ask for anything. If they commercialise it then we have some share of the royalty which they have to give us.”

Nagpur’s Central Institute of Cotton Research or CICR is the recipient of the cotton plants. It has straight varieties and hybrids suitable for the low rain and un-irrigated conditions of central India. Straight varieties are those whose seed farmers can save and sow unlike hybrids, which lose vigour if re-used, and have to be bought every year. Private companies only offer Bt hybrids so they can recoup investment and make a profit. Ironically, CICR’s seeds have been edged out of the market because they do not have the protective Bt gene in them. It hopes to claw back the acceptance they once enjoyed. It will have to grow the genetically modified plants in field conditions, test them for biosafety over three to four years before obtaining regulatory approval.

KR Kranthi, Director, Central Institute of Cotton Research, said, “This gives us a fairly good handle because the private technology providers are not willing to put their gene into varieties and here our main aim is to bring the gene into some of our best elite varieties. It is important to understand that before the introduction of Bt cotton, 60-70 percent of India’s entire area was under public sector varieties and hybrids. Sixty percent of the area was under straight varieties. These elite varieties were very good. If they would have had Bt even then it my view the yields would have been quite easily more than we are harvesting today. These elite varieties must be brought back which is very important.”

Punjab Agriculture University, which addresses the northern cotton zone, has been already on the job. It is developing hybrids with a private Bt gene. In April, it signed an agreement with Pental’s team to render its re-usuable cottonseed varieties resistant to bollworms.

Baldev Singh Dhillon, Vice-Chancellor, Punjab Agricultural University, said, “We are following two pronged approach in case of cotton. Going for hybrid LHH 144 we have sent the parent to Gujarat State Seed Corporation and signed an MOU, which in turn has a MoU with MMBL, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Limited. So they are transferring those genes into our hybrids. We sent it two years back. I signed a MoU two years ago. Dr Deepak Pental gene we will be using for development of varieties so that we cater to farmers having larger land holdings and small land holdings.”

Bt cotton hybrids are the rage in India. According to CICR, 1,667 of them have been approved, from three in 2002. There is an element of over kill as happens in a free market, but it is also a measure of their effectiveness against bollworms which used to strike terror earlier. Bt hybrids are sowed on more than ninety percent of India’s cotton acreage. Five companies can license Bt technology, through only one has been handsomely endorsed by farmers. There are those who say the choice is confusing, but seed sellers say the farmer is king, they are discerning and village stores do not stock so many brands as made out to be.

Vijay Jhawandia, former founder member, Shetkari Sanghatana,Wardha, said, “This is towards the very end of the interview, because he talks about Chakravyuha and Abhimanyu. Every year these companies introduce new brands and withdraw old ones. They have names of gods like Brahma. One is even called James Bond.”

Vijay Mahajan Niwal of Yavatmal in Vidarbha is a big farmer who boasts that he had distributed pirated Bt cotton seeds from Gujarat a year before the government approved them in 2002. A member of the Shetkari Sanghatana, which wants minimal state interference in agriculture, he justifies the illegality as motivated by a concern for fellow farmers, who were driven to rack and ruin by pink, green and spotted bollworms. He says they had little patience with the long winded regulatory process and the politics that was holding up approval of Bt hybrids. An engineer by training and a progressive farmer, he does not quite agree with CICR that India is over-dependent on hybrids and rain-fed areas like his, which is half of India cotton acreage, should opt out. He says the shift to hybrids has been a studied one.

Vijay Mahadev Niwal, Farmer, Village Heevri, District Yavatmal, said, “Our elders shifted from varieties to hybrids. It is not as if we changed overnight. It is not as if someone told us to shift. It is based on our experience. It is does not matter whether the soil is light or heavy here. Hybrid seeds give us higher productivity.”

Rustam Jamaluddin Turak, Farmer, Village Selsura, District Wardha, said, “I am benefitting from Bt. Yield is increasing. I get 8 to ten quintals. If there is good moisture and we give good fertiliser, the output can go up to 15 quintals an acre.”

Omprakash Bikamchand Lohiya, Farmer, Village Heevri, District Yavatmal, said, “Crop has started becoming good. Cost has also decreased. Our elders used to spray a little and give a little fertilizer. But after Bt we have to do some study about what should be given at what time. Not every farmer studies. Those who do study and do farming will not suffer.”

The wide adoption of Bt seeds despite their high prices speaks for their endorsement by farmers. Bt is a protective gene, not a production gene but it has delivered multiple benefits.

By reducing loss to pests, it has more than doubled India’s production from 16 million bales in 2001-2 to 40 million bales this year. The assurance of plant protection and extension of irrigation has increased area under cotton from 8.5 million ha to 13 million ha during this period.

From being an importer, India has turned exporter. Exports have increased from half a lakh bales to seven million during the time, after hitting a peak of 13 million in between.

Insecticide usage for bollworm control has fallen twenty fold from 4,470 tonnes in 2002 to 222 tonnes in 2011, according to CICR. This dramatic reduction has contained the overall insecticide load on cotton, despite a three-fold increase in sprays against sucking pests, which are not targeted by Bt and against which resistance can be created even through conventional breeding.

Mahatma Gandhi made Sevagram in Wardha his home after the Dandi march and the Salt Satyagraha. Here he lived an austere life wearing home spun and working the charkha. He had come to Wardha at the invitation of his industrialist benefactor, Jamnalal Bajaj, who had set up Shiksha Mandal, a charitable educational trust. It is through the trust that CICR is trying to win back rain-fed cotton areas in central India to its agronomic philosophy of high density planting of early maturing varieties.

Atul Sharma, Dean – Extension, Shiksha Mandal, Wardha, said, “In Maharashtra, we have the highest land under cotton and this is dependent on rain. In such a situation we need to think of those techniques that farmers can profit by. The techniques we are talking about today, a resource poor farmers cannot use. We also have to understand that rain in Maharashtra stops after September. When a plant is growing it needs less water, but when a plant starts flowering and bolls start forming, then it requires more than double the water. We cannot bring rain so for non-irrigated farmers to be able to earn a profit by spending less, there is no other technology than this.”

Ajay Vithobaji Ambore is a farmer whom the Shikha Mandal had persuaded to try out CICR’s non-Bt seeds, which sell for 150 rupees a kilogram. The seeds must be that cheap for high density planting of at least 44,000 plants per acre to be viable. The short duration varieties will put out bolls in the monsoon, which bollworms avoid, as their eggs will get washed out. Bt hybrids are not suitable for dense planting as they cost five times more at 830 rupees for half a kilogram in Maharashtra. Ambore has three of four acres under Bt; he is trying out non-bt on one acre.

Ajay Vitobaji Ambore, Farmer, Village Amgaon, District Wardha, said, “I am trying it out for the first time. I have sown it only on one acre. Will see how it performs.”

Though Bt seed prices pinch, farmers do not mind paying so long as high yields and prices and lower pesticide costs compensate. But farmer leaders like Vijay Jhawandia of Wardha are not reconciled to private enterprise in seeds. They believe in seed sovereignty or the right of farmers to reproduce them. They see a conspiracy in the public sector not developing their own Bt technology and believe farmers must be rescued from the clutches of private companies.

Vijay Jhawandia said, “I am not opposed to technology. But the technology should be such as will improve the economic condition of our farmers and not trap him like Abhimanyu in the chakravyuh of technology. Today, the Indian farmer has entered the trap of technology but cannot get out of it. The government must become the Krishna who will pull the farmers Abhimanyu out of the trap of private technology.”

Then there are Gandhians like Narendra Misal a.k.a Balasaheb who frown on Bt technology and chemical fertilisers. For them cotton growing is a political statement. They are not fixated on yield and output but what is left on the table. High yield agriculture gets their thumbs down, if they have to pay a price for it.

Narendra Misal, Chairman, All India Sarvodaya Mandal, Wardha, said, “People want more and more yield. In reality, they are spending more. Media and advertising have influenced people to focus on yield and move to Bt. We do not subscribe to that view. Our attitude is we should spend less and earn more. We do not focus on yield.”

Raghvendra Sinhji Jadeja belongs to one of Saurashtra’s 222 erstwhile princely estates that were welded into the Indian union after Independence. A breeder of pure Gir cattle he has their tree lines going back 98 years. He is similarly meticulous about agriculture. For the sake of costing and accounting, he has divided his 150 acre farm into a grid of one acre plots for each of which he keeps elaborate records. Jadeja is like the long term investor, who does not go by daily market movements but hedges his risk by growing a portfolio of commodities. Despite the slump in cotton prices, he is not shifting out of it.

Raghvendra Sinhji jadeja said, “I follow a fixed, multiple cropping, pattern. If the price of any crop rises, I can sell it and if the price of any crop falls I can stock it. If one sows only one crop and the weather changes, i will suffer losses. With multiple crops, the harvest is staggered, so we can do with fewer farm hands. Crop rotation also improves the soil condition.”

At the APMC market in Gondal, the effect of this year falling cotton prices is palpable. The mandi distributes some of its profits to farmers by subsidising Bt cotton seeds by 200 rupees a pack of 450 grams. From its seed sales, a shift to groundnut is discernible.

Jayantibhai S Dhol, Chairman, APMC, Gondal, “We used to sell every year 20,000 packets of cotton seed. But this year we have sold so far 15,000 packets. It looks like there will be less production of cotton. Demand is increasing for groundnut. In Gondal area there has been a lot of rain so 50 percent of seeds have failed to germinate. Where ever this has happened people are growing groundnut.”

For the three years to 2011-12, the CACP, the official agency which fixes support prices for commodities estimated the cash cost of cultivating cotton plus the national value of family labour at Rs 13,500 an acre, the returns at Rs 26,000 and the rate of profit at 95 percent. But with the slump in prices, and farmers are demanding technologies that will save on labour, which accounts for a large share of the total cost.

Jayantibhai Gajera said, “We have a technology to deal with bollworms, but now we face a problem of leaf curl. We need to have a technology that can deal with sucking pests and also weeds. I have heard it is going to come but it has not.”

Rustam Jamaluddin Turak,Village Selsura, District Wardha, said, “We spend a lot on de-weeding and on spraying herbicides. We have to pay Rs 300 a day. Earlier I used to spray myself but I am 68 years old. I did not engage wage labour but now I cannot manage it. My children work off the farm.”

Since farmers pay five to ten rupees to pick a kilogram of cotton, machine picking is also eagerly awaited. This means tailoring planting practices and plant structures to the requirement of machines. The dense cropping pattern which CICR advocates will require machines to harvest. Bt seed companies are also recommending hybrid plant populations of 14,000 an acre which is double the number they were earlier advising, but much less than the 44,000 that CICR is pushing for. Spacing of fertilizer application, use of drips and limiting plant height so nutrients are not wasted in vegetative growth are other practices being suggested to reduce costs and improve profitability. Despite having the largest area under cotton and hybrids, India ranks 33 among 80 countries in productivity. Seed companies will continue to bring in new technology but farmers will have to match their agronomic practices so that the yield gap closes.

To know more, watch 'Smart Agriculture' presented by Monsanto, every Saturday & Sunday at 4:30 PM and Monday at 5:30 PM on CNN-IBN and every Saturday & Sunday at 4:30 PM on CNBC-Awaaz.

first published:September 08, 2015, 12:33 IST
last updated:October 16, 2015, 12:36 IST