Field report

Bt cotton farmers in Karnataka are an insecure and confused lot, and neither the government, nor Mahyco or the anti-Mahyco groups are any help at all

By Manu N Kulkarni
Published: Tuesday 15 October 2002

-- I happened to be in Hirekur taluk in Haveri district of Karnataka to attend an Independence Day flag hoisting function this year. Farmers dominated the gathering. Not surprisingly, all talk seemed centred around the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton experiment in the state. Pleased with my evident interest in their talk, the farmers invited me to see their Bt cotton. I promptly took them up on their offer, and gathered my colleagues in Hope Foundation to tour these fields.

We were clear about how we wished to set about this study. We would tour the fields randomly, and work without bias. All we wanted to do was arrive at an understanding of how Bt cotton is faring in cultivation. But when my colleagues and I landed in Hirekur, we found farmers whispering worriedly among themselves. They seemed convinced that we were part of MD Nanjundaswamy's Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha, and that we would uproot their Bt cotton crop at his behest! It took some convincing to reassure them that we had nothing to do with the Sangha, and that we were merely impartial observers.

The Genetic Engineering Action Committee (geac) had approved the release of Mahyco's Bt cotton mech 12 and mech 162 in June 2002. Mahyco lost no time in selling its seeds all over Karnataka. By and large, seed dealers have sold mech 162 -- at a cost of Rs 1,600 for a 400 gram packet -- to farmers in Hirekur. They have also given farmers 125 grams of non-Bt seeds to cover one acre of crop land.

We started with Danappa Muthur's cotton fields. In a one-acre plot, Muthur has planted four rows of non-Bt cotton. He informed us that Mahyco gives out an audio cassette with its seeds to guide farmers. He planted four rows of non-Bt cotton according to those guidelines. But he is not happy with the 'refuge plantation' stipulation, because he could have sown some pulses or cash crop in that space.

We examined the already maturing cotton buds. There were green bollworms on them. The farmers assembled explained that when a bollworm is born it is green, turns yellow during its cotton-eating phase, and then turns brown and dies. They also said they need to continue spraying the Mono pesticide, which costs Rs 250 per litre to counter this threat. Mahyco's assurance that they will not need pesticides after an initial spray or two doesn't seem to have convinced them.

We asked the farmers how Bt cotton is better than hybrid seeds that were already available, like dch 11. The unanimous opinion was that dch 11 had lost all pest resistance. In terms of quality and yield, farmers are still anxious about whether Bt cotton will better or match dch 11 or local varieties like Jayadhar and Laxmi. At any rate, they agreed, if they could save on pesticide, it would be a huge cost saving.

But there are many things farmers have been confused about. For instance, can delinted Bt cotton seed be fed to their cattle? One farmer informed us in all earnestness that some cattle did graze on Bt cotton plants and were still alive. Farmers are also unsure about the strength of Bt cotton. They have heard reports from Gujarat that Bt cotton shreds when spun into yarn. And after it was made into khadi cloth, those wearing it developed an itchy sensation. Farmers in Hirekur, however, are not convinced that these reports are true.

A number of farmers are worried about the prospects of the Bt cotton harvest. How and where will they sell this produce? Karnataka has introduced crop insurance for dry crops like jowar, maize and other minor crops, but not Bt cotton. This despite the obvious fact that farmers in Karnataka have taken a big risk in cultivating Bt seeds. As regulatory bodies, they promote gm crops but do not protect farmers from multiple risks.

The state government has organised large events discussing the merits and benefits of Bt cotton, but farmers are never invited to these events to present their experiences or doubts. But come October 2002, we will know exactly how Bt cotton has fared in the fields.

Manu N Kulkarni is chairperson and trustee, Hope Foundation, Bangalore

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