Bt for Better Times?

Good weather, illegal Bt seeds raise Punjab's sagging cotton yields

Published: Thursday 15 December 2005

Bt for Better Times?

-- Whatever the Bt cotton experience for farmers in other parts of India, it seems that it has given their counterparts in Punjab a new lease of life. After being plagued by continuously declining productivity and escalating input costs for years, farmers had been going off cotton in a big way. But Bt cotton is bringing them back, if the 2005 crop is any indication. And it's happened mainly because of better harvests and substantial savings on pesticides.

That doesn't mean all's well in the Bt universe. Illegal seeds from Gujarat, new diseases, violation of bio-safety norms in trial plots and the need for more water are serious problems. Also worrying is the impact on small farmers; one farmer has committed suicide after failing to sell his produce.

Even then, the total area under cotton cultivation in Punjab this year has been about 580,000 hectares (ha) compared to 509,000 ha in the 2003-04 season. According to the Union ministry of agriculture, the area under cotton in Punjab is up 81,000 ha this year, though cotton area in the country has fallen by 37,000 ha. Jasbir Singh Bains, joint director (cotton), ministry of agriculture, Punjab, calls this the Bt factor. Bt cotton is being grown in almost 200,000 ha in the state, approximately 30 per cent of the total area under cotton, he calculates.

Late beginner Punjab caught up with the Bt revolution three years after Andhra Pradesh (ap). Punjabi farmers experimented with Bt despite the fact that Maharashtra and Gujarat had had mixed results from the so-called wonder crop and ap had banned some varieties. As a late beginner, Punjab had the advantage of learning from others' experience and the numerous studies published on the crop's performance. On March 4, 2005, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac), the regulatory authority for genetically modified crops, approved six cotton varieties for comercial cultivation in Punjab, namely: rch 134 Bt, rch 317 Bt, Ankur 651 Bt, Ankur 2534 Bt, mrc 6301 Bt, and mrc 6304 Bt. The above-mentioned varieties carry the Bt gene developed and patented by Monsanto, one of world's biggest agribusinesses. Three companies sell licenced Bt cotton: Rasi Seeds, Ankur Seeds and Mahyco-Monsanto. While the first two are sub-licensees of Monsanto for the Bt gene, the last one is a joint venture between the two companies.

Unlike other states where civil society organisations and political parties opposed Bt cotton, the companies had a smooth passage in Punjab. Chief minister Amarinder Singh, who has long been a supporter of Bt cotton, described it as a gift for the state. He declared his approval of these varieties at a function organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (cii) in Bathinda on May 6, 2005. He even did a decent marketing manager's job by endorsing four varieties sold by Rasi and Mahyco through publicly funded advertisements. This was done after the companies struck a deal with the Punjab State Co-operative Supply & Marketing Federation (Markfed) for marketing their seeds through the latter's vast network. The ad issued by the state government says: "The cultivation of Bt cotton will result in a net saving of Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 per hectare (ha) on pesticides. Besides, an increase of 25-28 per cent in the yield as compared to the normal hybrids could also be expected."

This endorsement smoothened Bt's path. The path was further smoothened because dissent was circumvented: if the companies had sold their product themselves there was a possibility they would have faced opposition. "By leaving the marketing job to Markfed , which is Asia's largest cooperative marketing federation, possible dissent was pre-empted," says Umendra Dutt, executive director of the Faridkot-based non-government organisation Kheti Virasat Mission (kvm).

Markfed entered into arrangements with the private companies to supply 150,000 packets of Bt cotton through its branches, which, incidentally, translated into Rs 18 crore in royalty for Monsanto (at Rs 1,200 per packet of 450 gramme).

Though Bt has been a success in Punjab that does not necessarily translate into a big success either for Monsanto or its licencees. That's where the Gujarat factor comes in. Despite the advertising blitz and Markfed 's reach, illegal Bt seeds from Gujarat are outselling the official variety - that's because these seeds cost one-third the price of the branded variety and there's no noticeable difference in performance. Saheb Singh, a farmer in Bathinda's Baniatry village, says Punjab farmers have been getting Bt seeds from Gujarat for the last two years anyway -- even before Bt cotton was legalised in the state. "About 60 per cent of Bt cotton seeds sown in Punjab are varieties that have not been approved for commercial sale by the Union government," says R B Singh, member, National Commission on Farmers. A kvm study claims only 9 per cent of the cotton grown in Punjab's Malwa region is covered by branded Bt.

Research by Down To Earth (dte) has unearthed addresses of seed farms in Gandhinagar. Mallik Singh of Baniatry, who bought 600 packets, says he got them from Vijay Seeds at Rs 600 a packet. He says a farmer in Gujarat told him about these. Prominent 'brands' include Sarpanch, Arjun-151, Bt plus, Sirhind seeds, Apna Punjab Bt, Maha Gujarat, Sema, Sartaj, Kamander, Balwan, Mold, Om-1, Om-2 and Om-3, Rakshak, and Patidar.

Bt bonanza
Visits to villages across the Malwa belt revealed interesting details about the agronomic and pathological changes that the crops are going through. Jagsir Singh of Lalbai village in Mukhtsar district is popularly known as a 'Monsanto farmer' in his village because the company chose him for trials of their varieties. Jagsir is a happy man because he had a bumper harvest of 1,600 kg per acre (0.4 ha) this season, three times higher than what he used to get from his normal hybrid cotton varieties. His pesticide use has gone down significantly and is restricted to only two sprayings of Confidore for insects like aphids and jassids. This saved Rs 2,500 per 0.4 ha for him. Though not every farmer is as lucky as Jagsir, many are satisfied with the yields. Many farmers whom interviewed by dte said productivity in their fields has ranged between 1,500 kg per ha to 3,000 kg per ha. In the past, this was between 750 kg per ha and 1,250 kg per ha. "The increased production is mostly because the Bt strains are resistant to the American bollworm," says Mitra Singh from Raikekalon village in Bathinda.

Though American bollworm was not a problem, farmers had to deal with new pests and diseases. The most prominent among them was the sucking pest called tobacco caterpillar (Spodoptera littoris, Punjabi: tambakhu di sundhi), of which there was a serious infestation after 90 days of sowing till the end of harvesting. But the pest attack was quite late for the insect to significantly damage the bolls. Farmers also complained of leaf virus and fusarium wilt appearing more prominently in Bt cotton. Experts feel that it could be dangerous to take such pathological symptoms lightly. "The pests and diseases are very fast-changing and can take the form of an epidemic next year," says Rubhash S Jakhar, a cottonseed breeder from Patrawala in Abohar.

The reduction in the use of pesticides has meant that Bt has had an interesting side effect: creatures that are friendly to the cotton plant -- like earthworms and natural predators like birds -- have begun to reappear in cotton fields after a long gap.

With more than 30 per cent of the cotton sown this year being Bt, the pesticide industry is in the doldrums in the Malwa belt. Manish Kumar, proprietor of Jaishakti Fertilisers, one of the largest wholesale distributors of pesticides and fertilisers in Bathinda, says his pesticide sales have fallen by 90 per cent this season. Many others claim the fall is more in the range of 30-40 per cent. However, no verifiable data is available to calculate the reduction in pesticide sales as a whole. Industry sources say the only pesticides being sold are those meant for jassids.

There's a caveat to the success story, however. While agreeing that Bt cotton has been a success, P S Aulakh, the chief agricultural officer of Punjab, admits weather conditions also played a vital role in keeping the crop pest-free this year. Chand Singh of Deon village in Bathinda says his non-Bt crops were equally successful this year due to relatively less humid weather, which is not congenial for pest attack. "My non-Bt crop had an yield of 1,700 kg per ha, while Bt gave 22 kg per ha ."

Bt blues
"I had to irrigate my field eight times for Bt crop instead of three times for normal ones," says Harcharan Singh of Narainwala village in Bathinda. dte found this phenomenon to be widespread. However, it didn't bother most farmers since irrigation water is free in Punjab. Besides, 99.23 per cent of the cotton area in Punjab is irrigated. Farmers in other cotton-growing states have to fork out decent amounts for irrigation water: Rs 495 per ha in ap and Rs 180 to Rs 1,050 per ha in Maharashtra, depending on the season.

Harcharan Singh was still unhappy. "I spent Rs 1,200 extra on diesel because electricity (also free in Punjab) wasn't available all the time." Gurpreet Singh of kvm argues Bt cotton has increased water requirements at least threefold.

Even as Punjab is evaluating it's first experiment with Bt cotton, seed companies have started trials for new varieties. But the trials show little to no respect to biosafety protocols. The companies do not follow norms like isolation distance. A senior field executive of one of the companies says it's very difficult to follow all norms in an Indian field situation and it is silly to talk about this because there is no biodiversity left in Punjab anyway.

And then there is the market
The full-fledged introduction of Bt cotton in Punjab has definitely produced a good harvest this year. But farmers had a bitter experience when the government procurement agencies, Cotton Corporation of India (cci), which operates in 14 mandis, and Markfed , which operates in 27 , didn't provide the expected msp of Rs 1,835 per quintal to most of the farmers. Farmers were stranded for upwards of three days at different mandis like Gidderbah (Mukhtsar), Rama mandi (Bathinda) and Mansa's district mandi.

"I waited for three days but the government refused my cotton citing poor quality. I was forced to sell my 3,600 kg at Rs 1,540 per quintal (1,000 kg) to buyers from Bharat Cotton Factory," says Mandar Singh, a 34-year-old farmer whom dte met at the Guniana Mandi.

Farmers complain that the state government initially promoted Bt cotton and then raised msp parameters while procuring. Both cci and Markfed have increased the staple length value to 26.5 mm from last years 26 mm. Most of the Bt cotton is not meeting the criterion. But since most farmers have adopted illegal Bt as a source of seeds they have no leg to stand on, says a senior government scientist.

S R Mittal, manager cci , Bathinda, says: "We have increased the required staple length as Bt cotton is supposed to have a greater staple length. But we have also increased the micronaire (fineness of fibre) value range to 3.8-4.7 mm this year, instead of 3.8-4.4 mm last year." Mittal also says that high moisture content (in excess of 8 per cent), a result of late rains, makes it difficult for the procuring agents to procure at msp.

But farmers complain that purchase inspectors are trying to twist arms. They determine moisture content and staple length by sight and touch rather than with prescribed instruments. Yash Arora, assistant manager, cci, Bathinda, defends this. "You can't question their years of experience," he says. But farmers say the denial of msp is at the behest of industry. Om Agarwal, a cotton trader in Bathinda, says at least 40 cotton mills have reopened this year due to the good crop. "Since industry needs more cotton at lower prices the government is not procuring at msp," says Kanwaljit Singh Sidhu, a farmer leader.

The Punjab experience seems to indicate that there can be no uniform, prejudgmental assessment of the potential of Bt cotton. The technology failed in ap and Maharashtra because collateral conditions were not conducive (water, power). Even in Punjab, farmers with small holdings did not benefit because they couldn't afford the inputs. As for the long term, the jury seems to be out, especially in the light of the possibility of adverse ecological fall-outs.

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