GM fields

By Ashutosh Mishra
Published: Monday 15 September 2008

Despite a ban, Bt cotton cultivation is widespread in Orissa

the recent death of 93 goats after grazing near a cotton field in Bolangir, a tribal-dominated district in Orissa, has put the authorities on alert. The field in Kuthurla village, Khaprakhol block, was reportedly under Bt cotton cultivation. The state government discourages cultivation of Bt cotton as a matter of policy.

Following the incident, the police arrested one Shankar Deep from the village for allegedly poisoning the goats by sprinkling organophosphate pesticides, a potent neurotoxin, on the field.

While postmortem findings and lab reports of soil samples are still waited, activists say the goats died after feeding on Bt cotton leaves. Officials do not rule out the possibility. "It's difficult to identify if the crop is Bt or non-Bt after it grows big.But the genetically modified (gm) crop is no doubt being cultivated in some parts of the district," says Bolangir District Agriculture Officer Arun Kumar Choudhary. The incident has raised concern over extensive illegal cultivation of Bt cotton in the state.

Reality check

Almost all companies trading in Bt cotton sell their seeds illegally in Orissa
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Kuthurla village falls in the major cotton growing belt--parts of Bolangir, Rayagada and Kalahandi districts--in Orissa. This year, in Bolangir alone, over 21,000 hectares (ha) of land is under cotton cultivation. Choudhary says his department is trying its best to deter farmers from cultivating Bt cotton. "We conducted raids in Patnagarh and Khaprakhol blocks in July but didn't find evidence of Bt cotton seeds... Dealers are selling clandestinely," says Choudhary. Social activist Shiba Prasad Sahu, who visited the village soon after the incident, says farmers are hiding facts out of fear.

This correspondent, however, found that cotton growers in Rayagada district had little hesitation in admitting that they grow Bt cotton. Bhabani, a farmer in Dharapur village, Padampur block, says this year he has planted Bt cotton on his entire 8-ha field. Tulasi 4, Tulasi 9, Bani and Malika are some of the popular brands among farmers in his village. "These are free from pest infestation, so I get to save on pesticides," says he.

Hari Sabar, a farmer from the neighbouring Gudabandh Guda village, has sown the gm seeds for the first time this year. Since he is not sure of the results he decided to play it safe he has sown both Bt and non-Bt cotton. "If non-Bt fails to fetch a good yield, Bt will compensate for it," he says.

Farmers in this area are aware that Bt cotton cultivation is illegal in Orissa. But they are left with little choice. Since the state government does not supply them cotton seeds, they have to depend on suppliers from neighbouring cotton-growing states--Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. "Of late, suppliers from these states have flooded the market with Bt cotton seeds...There is hardly any supply of non-Bt cotton seeds," says Suresh Kumar Jena, the district agriculture officer of Gunupur. This year, says Jena, about 60 per cent of Rayagada's cotton fields is under Bt cotton cultivation. Though his department has set up special squads to check the cultivation, they plead helplessness. "We can't take action against the farmers since they sow only what they get," says Jena.

Voice of concern
Activists of Living Farms, an organization campaigning for organic farming in the state, during their recent visit to Rayagada found that almost all companies trading in Bt cotton seeds are illegally selling their seeds in the area. Farmers are extensively using brands such as Tulasi 4, Tulasi 117, Nuziveedu ncs 145, Nuziveedu Mallika (ncs 207), Bayer Surpass sp 504 (Dhanno), nusun Sigma of Vibha Agrotech, Swagath Seeds Brahmadev (nspl -999), Kaveri Bullet (kch -707) Varsha (Akansha- 999) and Ankur-Sita Akka. The activists also heard farm labourers complaining of physical discomforts like itching and rashes while plucking Bt cotton.

They are also concerned because farmers are not adhering to biosafety protocol, which is mandatory for any gm crop cultivation. "Hardly any field under Bt cotton cultivation has a warning placard. Farmers neither plant non-Bt refugia--a must to prevent resistance among pests--on the field border nor maintain distance between the Bt and non-Bt crops grown in adjacent fields," says Jagannath Chatterjee of Living Farm.

The organization has written to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik demanding immediate measures.

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