Bt cotton kills pests or farmers?
Bt cotton kills pests or farmers? by Neha Saigal
IN THE 1920s, the freedom struggle was marked by Mahatma Gandhi promoting handspun khadi (cotton) and initiating a movement to boycott foreign cloth. I choose to remember this part of our struggle for independence as I feel it becomes significant and symbolic in the fight against Bt cotton. Then, it was about challenging the takeover of British imperialistic forces of our textile market, now it is about an American multinational seed giant taking control over the very basis of our cotton sector, the seed, using the tool of genetic engineering.
Bt cotton was controversial at the time it was introduced in 2002 and a decade later the controversy still remains, though you can hear many a time the biotech seed industry ranting falsely about its success.
Bt cotton is created by inserting the Cry protein (endotoxin) gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the cotton plant which will then make every cell of the plant produce this bacterial endotoxin, rendering the plant poisonous to a class of insects called leptidopterans which includes the bollworm, which is the primary pest of cotton.
The complete failure of synthetic pesticides to control this pest along with aggressive marketing by the biotech seed companies lured many a farmers into the neverending trap of Bt cotton. It is to be remembered here that Bt cotton is nothing but a continuation of the treadmill technologies that synthetic pesticides are also a part of.
What we saw in the last 10 years was a well thought out plan by Monsanto and its cronies in India, of monopolising the cotton seed market. Today, approximately 90 percent of the total cotton cultivation in the country of 11.14 million hectares is covered by Bt cotton. This seems to be the basis on which our policymakers have come to the conclusion that Bt cotton is a success story. But that’s only half the picture, the other half which comprises of dirty tricks used by the companies to first lure desperate farmers using advertisements promising high yields and reduced use of synthetic chemicals along with systematic removal of non Bt seeds from the market is hardly seen by the policymaker. The tragedy is that our policymakers continue to ignore this at the cost of lives of thousands of cotton farmers in our country.
Cotton is cultivated in 11.14 million hectares of land in the country, which has made India the largest producer of cotton in the world after China. Among cotton farmers, 85 percent of them are in rainfed areas or marginal farmers with less than 1 acre of land. If you were to ask one of them about Bt cotton’s success, you will not get the same shining picture that the industry paints.
I had the opportunity to be part of a national conference which reviewed the 10 years of Bt cotton in India. The conference held at New Delhi jointly hosted by Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, Centre for Environmental Education, Ahmedabad and Council for Social Development, New Delhi saw various stakeholders including agriculture scientists from various universities, private seed sector representatives, socio-economists, farmer union and civil society representatives sharing their experiences on Bt cotton (http://indiagminfo.org/?p=416).
While arguments and counter-arguments were made relentlessly on the success of Bt cotton, one thing which everyone seems to agree to and something that study after study documented is that the cost of cultivation is high for Bt cotton. There is an increased usage of chemical fertiliser, irrigation and surprisingly pesticides. The last one is because of an increased attack of secondary pests. Some of the studies also talked about bollworms getting resistant to Bt cotton. There was also an agreement that Bt cotton probably is not right for non-irrigated regions. Well, this means that Bt cotton is not suitable for 65 percent of cotton area in the country.
The macro-economic studies showed another interesting factor. If we take the 10 years of Bt cotton in India, the rate of growth of cotton yields was highest in the period 2002-07 when Bt cotton area grew from zero to 41 percent of the total cotton area. In the next five-year period, when the area under Bt cotton increased to almost 90 percent. The growth in yield has stagnated and even slumped. So it proves that Bt cotton adoption alone is not the reason for increase in growth.
AS MANY of the speakers at the conference including Jairam Ramesh, the Union Minister for Rural Development, who chaired the concluding session, said, “The growth in cotton production cannot be solely attributed to Bt cotton.” It seems like other factors like increased adoption of hybrids, increased irrigation and low bollworm instances seemed to have played a role in it.
Bt cotton is not the success it is made out to be and conclusions from the conference brought this to light. Once again it has been established that the performance and impact of the Bt technology is variable and depends critically on a wide range of climatic, social, institutional, economic and agronomic factors.
The government needs to take a serious step to assess the 10 years of Bt cotton from a scientific, social, economic, environmental point of view. This becomes especially important as we do not want to repeat the bitter mistakes of the Green Revolution and adopt a technology for short-term gain of a few companies.
Cotton farmers in our country have been pushed into vicious cycles, first the chemical intensive agriculture and now Bt cotton. There is a way out and the government needs to see this. There are ecological and socially sustainable alternatives like the non-pesticide management practiced in Andhra Pradesh which has been successful and fast spreading. Most importantly as a farmer pointed out, ‘those organic farmers do not commit suicide’.
So before policymakers jump to any conclusions about Bt cotton by looking at the experiences of a few irrigated pockets in Gujarat or Punjab, let’s listen to the experiences of the larger section of the cotton farmers in our country, those poor rainfed, small and marginal ones in Vidarbha, Warrangal or Jhabua. As the Mahatma himself said you have to measure progress in the country by the poorest of poor.
So this is a fight for independence and our sovereignty. Any complacence on our side will leave our farming and food security at the mercy of the multinational seed companies.
Neha Saigal is a campaigner for sustainable agriculture with Greenpeace India. The views expressed here are personal. For more information please see http://www.tehelka.com/story_main53.asp?filename=Fw050712Cotton.asp
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