A Pest, A Crop, and A Thousand Questions

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What do we plant next year? It’s a question that would confront tens of thousands of cotton farmers in India in the coming days. The year gone by was a bitter experience. The year ahead raises critical questions.

The farmers, left with no other option, will yet again take on the cultivation of cotton this season, just as they do, year after year. But, the frightening experience of an unprecedented pest infestation on cotton that states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, or Telangana, witnessed in 2017-18 cropping season, has left the farmers pondering if the next year would be any different.

Meanwhile, scientists have been pointing out that the much-hyped Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) -cotton technology has failed miserably, especially in the face of an unparalleled pink bollworm attack that Maharashtra witnessed in the year 2017-18. The financial loss incurred by farmers was phenomenal, particularly for those with cotton fields in Vidarbha and Marathwada, the two major cotton-producing regions in Maharashtra.

A beleaguered peasantry already tormented by a raging and deepening agrarian distress got further wrecked by an inch-long pest that devoured the white lint at an unmatched pace.

Great Loss

The western state of Maharashtra recorded the death of nearly 50 farmers due to accidental inhalation of pesticide in its cotton belt of Vidarbha last season, July through November, following a spurt in pesticide spraying in the face of pest attacks. The chairman of Maharashtra government’s special task force on the agrarian crisis, Kishore Tiwari, has estimated the loss at Rs 10,000 crore in Vidarbha and Marathwada.

The official estimates put forward by the state’s agriculture department on pink-worm infestation, portrays a grim picture. The pest attack is likely to decline India’s cotton output by 10 per cent, compared to the pre-harvest forecast of a bumper production of 37.7 million bales (170 kg each) for 2017-18.

Apart from the cotton farmers, the drastic decline in the production and quality of cotton in Maharashtra has consequently affected the ginners as well. In March 2018, the ginners association found their samples rejected by buyers who had earlier entered into contracts with them, both within and outside the country, for cotton bales.

Add to it, the falling cotton-seed prices by around Rs. 1400 per quintal and a rising dollar, the cumulative impact has been a steady fall in cotton prices in the local markets – at a time when overall production in some regions like Vidarbha and Marathwada took a hit due to the pest attack. There are estimates by the Cotton Association of India that farmers still have 150 lakh quintals of unsold cotton.

While, the centre has acknowledged the problem, it has failed to come up with a definite roadmap to deal with the issue.

Does remorse help?

Recently, a day-long meeting was held in Nagpur, which was chaired by the Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh and attended by the Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Although the meet underpinned the crisis staring at the cotton growers, neither the centre nor the state has suggested a way out of the conundrum.

In the day-long meet, Maharashtra Agriculture Minister Pandurang Phundkar was quite categorical in his admission – much to the chagrin of his own officials – that the genetically modified Bt cotton seed, introduced in 2002, had wiped out alternatives from the market.

Phundkar rued the fact that the growers have no alternative to the expensive Bt-cotton technology – which reflects the failure of the the Indian public sector towards the farmers. He was critical about the idea of giving a free run to the private sector, so far as agricultural technology is concerned, and has prompted the government to reconsider its dependence on the widely used Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) seed.

With the government failing to provide the cotton farmers with an alternate seed technology, the private sector will continue to sell the less-potent Bt-cotton technology and consequently the farmers will be left to deal with its disastrous after-effects.

For over two decades, cotton has been a major experimentee in case of the contentious Genetically Modified (GM) technology. Needless to say, it is expected of the government and the central scientific research institutions to play a more vigilant role in managing the sector as they withdraw from a more direct engagement, leaving the private players to take over the farm-to-mill chain.

As the 2018-19 cotton cropping season is just around the corner, a sheer confusion prevails with regard to the fate of Bt-cotton, introduced in the country by the US behemoth, Monsanto, through many private seed companies. Forget a vigilant role, the central institutions are floundering big time in giving an advisory to the farmers, and it does not bode well for the peasantry.

Photo : Jaideep Hardikar

Bt-cotton decoded

Bt-cotton contains cry (crystal) genes derived from a soil-dwelling bacterium bacillus thuringiensis and inserted into cotton plant genome (genetic material of the cell) to provide protection against bollworm.

The first generation hybrids, or Bt-cotton, contained only one Cry1Ac gene in the seeds. Bollguard (BG)-II that involves introduction of Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab genes into cotton plants claims to build resistance against three insect pests: American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), pink bollworm and spotted bollworm (Earias vittella).

The return of the pink bollworm and the damage it caused to the farmers in the past three years, and particularly in Maharashtra in 2017-18, has pitched the Indian cotton-seed companies, around 50, against the multinational seed giant Monsanto, from whom they had sourced the BG-I and BG-II cotton technology on payment of royalties. The pink bollworm damages the crop in the winter – the latter half of the cotton growing season when the toxicity of Bt-gene recedes and the pest does not consume any crop other than cotton.

But, more central to the debate is the question of how did pink bollworm find its way back in India?

There is a section of plant scientists who say introducing Bt-genes in hybrids was a problem; no other country growing Bt-cotton does it in hybrids. The experts are of the opinion, that the Bt-genes should be stacked in open pollinated – or what is called as desi cotton – varieties.

While there are several experiments going on in the country, so far as Genetically Modified technologies are concerned, as well as its trials on other crops, the Bt-cotton disaster calls for some serious introspection – should they be deployed in hybrids or in the open pollinated varieties?

During the period of 2002 to 2011, the area under cotton hybrids rose from 2 per cent in north India and 40 per cent elsewhere to 96 percent across the country. And, most of these hybrids which uses Bt-technology are long-duration hybrids.

The long duration of cotton hybrids between 160 and 300 days, allows this pest to thrive and evolve resistance more quickly than it can in case of short-duration crops. Other cotton-growing countries mostly use short-duration open pollinated varieties even for Bt-technology that come to fruition in 150 days.

The dilemma of variants

For the coming seasons, the private seed companies are divided in their opinion on whether to go back to BG-I or continue with the BG-II technology, the latter does not have a Monsanto patent, as the Delhi High Court ruled recently. The other option is to deploy BG-I in straight line desi (Indian) cotton, or do away with Bt cotton altogether and go back to the open pollinated varieties in high-density fashion.

Private seed companies in India cannot develop open-pollinated varieties with BG-II, but they can with BG-I, since the latter was never patented by Monsanto in India. Yet, its efficacy is now questionable.

Gujarat is the only state as of now that has managed the pink bollworm outbreak with a range of crop and pest management technologies, with concerted efforts by both the State and private players.

Whichever option we choose, if the Centre at all takes a call, it will take a few years for the public and the private sector seed companies to develop such quality seeds to flood the markets once again. But, its high time for the concerned authorities to come up with a decision on whether to go ahead with BG- I or BG-II technology considering the approaching cropping season that stares at the face of the farmers. Companies are likely to sell the BG-II hybrid seeds – and all of over a thousand hybrids in the markets are susceptible to pink bollworms, which is likely to lead to yet another round of pest attack, leaving the farmers with nothing but ruined crops.


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