Years after BT cotton was introduced in India, the promised benefits are yet to be felt by the farmers who grow BT cotton in the taluk
Bangalore, May 2, 2018: Gurusham Desai, a farmer from Tumarikoppa, quietly entered and sat at a tiny shop as he waited for his piping hot cup of chai. He said that he has been growing BT cotton for the past ten years and mentioned that there has been an increase in the use of pesticides. This wouldn’t have been the case if there was adequate rainfall in the region. “The clothes you are seeing me wearing are the only decent pair of clothes that I have. This is how poor I am,” he said as he looked away.
Walking through the narrow lanes of the Kalasannakoppa village in Kalghatgi taluk, Bibi Jaan, a BT cotton farmer, pointed at her field. Visible at a distance were the colors green and white specs in between. Plump sacks of cotton lay at the entrance to her home. She said, she does use pesticides for this crop. The only problem, however, she said is that the crop requires a generous amount of water.
However, Malati R, Agricultural officer from Dhumwada Krishi office, said that farmers shifted from growing Desi cotton to BT cotton as the former required more water.
Manjunath, a BT cotton farmer from Dhumawad village, spoke about how he spends money on pesticides and insecticides despite the fact that the purpose of BT cotton is to reduce the use of the same. He said that he is suffering losses because of the unfavorable climatic conditions in which he grows his crop and the additional price of pesticides.
Kallappa, a farmer in the village G. Basavanakoppa, also spoke about the attack of pests and how his BT cotton cultivation suffered. The BT cotton farmers in Kalghatgi taluk report increasing use of pesticides and increased pest attacks.
What are BT cotton seeds?
The BT seeds are developed using the Bacillus Thuringiensis protein. It was first discovered in 1901 by a Japanese biologist named Shigetane Ishiwatari as he was investigating the cause of death of silkworms.
It was rediscovered by German scientist Ernst Berliner in 1911. It was in 1920 that French farmers began using it as an insecticide and production of sprays began in 1938. Finally, BT cotton was produced by Monsanto, an agrochemical company, in the 1980s. It commercially came to be known as Bollgard and entered the market in 1997.
The advent of the BT cotton seeds in the Indian market was in 2002 where, the cultivation was approved for commercial purposes in the cotton growing regions.
Bollgard-I was developed by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Limited and the hybrid cotton seeds were introduced in the market.
Why does the BT cotton subject matter?
The whole point of introducing the BT cotton seeds was to reduce the use of pesticides. It was supposed to curb negative environmental impacts in addition to being cost effective for the farmers. It is serving neither of the two conditions.
Karnataka proposed a ban on the sale of BT cotton seeds in 2014 following crop failure. However, there are companies still selling the product as it finds takers. Livon Company, Indo American Hybrid seeds India Pvt. Ltd, and Metahelix Life Sciences Pvt. Ltd are companies in Bangalore which still produce and sell BT cotton seeds.
Increase in use of pesticides due to pest resistance
Sangappa, 55, another BT cotton farmer from Tumarikoppa mentioned that he sells the cotton at the cost of Rs. 6000 per quintal in the market. He also mentioned the attack of ‘black’ coloured pests on his crop.
Chanamma Parappa Desai, 24, wife of a BT cotton farmer spoke about how she can’t sell the pest infested cotton balls as she pulled out a white sack of cotton from the adjoining room in her house. The larvae and the insects could still be seen crawling on the plucked cotton. She said that it is difficult to find takers for the cotton which has been infested. “I went to the weekly market thinking I could find someone who would want to buy this. But, no one wants to buy this and why would they,” she says.
Extensive research has been conducted on the futility of BT cotton seeds and excessive burden of pesticide use. In 2013, one year before the BT cotton seeds were officially banned in Karnataka, a fact finding report was released which assessed the failure of BT cotton in the state. The report found that pest attacks were more common in BT cotton than the desi varieties of cotton. They also found that BT cotton cultivation had also aggravated the use of pesticides, thereby also increasing the cost of farming.
P Srinivas Vasu, soil expert and member of Coalition for Gm Free Karnataka, said that multiple cropping resulted in initial success of BT cotton which helped Monsanto and other companies to sell the idea of genetically modified cotton. “The multiple cropping helped in averting the secondary sucking pests. However, as farmers began to grow BT cotton on a large scale in India, the practice of monocropping failed to avert the pest problem and led to complete crop failure,” he said.
A report has revealed that from 12.85 million hectares in 2014-15, cotton area subsequently declined in India to around 10.5 million hectares by 2016-17 mainly due to pest attacks. The report also revealed that pesticide usage per hectare has increased by 11 per cent after the introduction of BT cotton.
The deadly pesticides
Pradeep, Agriculture Director in Kalghatgi, mentioned that before 2013, the area under cultivation of cotton was about 2000 hectares. However, after 2013, the area has reduced to around somewhere around 500 to 1000 hectares. He also confirmed the use of monocrotophos in the taluk in addition to other pesticides used for cotton cultivation like the synthetic pyrethroids (cypermethrinz), carbendazim, coragen, lambda-cyhalothrin, profenophos and other kinds of weedicides and fungicides.
Gurusham Desai, the BT cotton farmer, added that he uses various pesticides for BT cotton. The two pesticides that he uses very commonly are Rogor and Endosulfan. He mentioned that he buys it at the cost of Rs. 700 per litre. He buys the BT cotton seeds at Rs. 1800 to 2000 for 300 gms. When he sprays the endosulfan, he doesn’t use any protective gear. He experiences itching and tiredness after spraying it in the farm land.
Beerappa, 43, a farmer from G. Basavanakoppa, says that he has been cultivating BT cotton for the past 20 years. The seeds that they use are Arjun BT and endosulfan is one of the major pesticides that he uses.
Endosulfan is a highly toxic pesticide that has been banned in the country. Yet, the farmers in the taluk have sources to gain access. “Every month, the agricultural inspector checks for products that are banned. But, there is a possibility that the farmers could be obtaining it illegally,” said Malati, the Agricultural Officer.
On the subject of the use of endosulfan the representative of the Department of Health research in the 29th Standing Committee report said, “…Ideally speaking, there should be no stores of endosulfan within the country. But we are not the enforcing authority. So, we do not know whether it is actually so or not.”
Monocrotophos and other pesticides
Vijaykumar M. Alagundagi, proprietor at Samarth Krushi Kendra, a shop that sells agriculture related products like seeds and pesticides in Dharwad, said that monocrotophos use is completely banned on vegetables and fruits. However, it is still widely used for BT cotton. He said that it is one of the highest selling pesticides. He also added that they sell several kinds of BT cotton seeds.
Under Dr. Anupam Verma, former professor of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), a committee was constituted where almost 66 pesticides were reviewed. The pesticides were grouped in six categories based on their continuity. The deliberation on monocrotophos is due only after the completion of studies that were recommended by the committee. However, the most interesting thing about the committee report is that the committee did not review the use of endosulfan as it is sub-judice, meaning, it is not open for discussion in public as it is still being examined by the Supreme Court.
The 29th Standing committee report analyzed the impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in the field of agriculture across the country. It revealed that organochlorines, organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids have adverse effects on human health. Organochlorines can affect the nervous system by acting as a carcinogen while pyrethroids can even cause cancer in addition to causing havoc in the endocrine system.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that monocrotophos has adverse effects on human health. The negative impacts are mainly related to the central nervous system and can range from slurred speech to paralysis of the body and respiratory muscles and eventually death. Monocrotophos is also one of the deadly pesticides that the Yavatmal cotton farmers in Maharashtra had sprayed which resulted in their deaths.
Malati mentioned that the Krishi office doesn’t provide cotton seeds and that the farmers buy it from elsewhere. The Krishi office is where farmers usually buy pesticides, seeds and other agriculture related products at subsidized rates under several state or centre funded schemes. About the protective gear, she said that although they do not provide the protective gear, they “inform” the farmers about ill effects of spraying without protection.
The cattle conundrum
Beerappa, the farmer from G. Basavanakoppa, said that they spray the pesticides in the months of June, July or August. In addition, it is extremely dangerous to keep these in the presence of cattle as there have been incidents of cattle deaths in the past.
Dr. Sagari R Ramdas, in a research paper, assessed the impact of BT cotton on livestock. His study was based in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Haryana where there have been reports of cattle falling sick after being fed the BT cotton seeds or having grazed on the fields where the BT cotton crop was cultivated.
He consulted shepherds, farmers and veterinarians in these states to come to the conclusion that BT cotton is indeed harmful to animals. He further added in the study that it is indeed the failure of the government’s research and regulatory bodies as they dismiss these findings.
The Pesticide Action Network in Asia and the Pacific produced a factsheet series where the adverse effect of monocrotophos on various spheres was assessed. They found that the pesticide not only affected aquatic life but also mammals and is one of the most toxic pesticides for birds. This pesticide was found to toxic also for bees which are important pollinators and ensure food security.
P Srinivas Vasu added that the pesticides that are used for BT cotton harms the soil health. “The pesticides not only affect the quality of the soil but also the texture. When excessive pesticides are used, it makes the soil very dry and hard. This in turn, obstructs rainwater seepage,” he said.
Despite the ban that was imposed in 2014, BT cotton is widely accessible. BT cotton has increased the level of pesticide use which is a health hazard not only to the farmers but every form of life.
The solutions that the 29th Standing Committee report suggested to curb the negative impact of pesticides were to use bio-pesticides, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and increased awareness and education on handling of pesticides and the levels of toxicity.
The agriculture ministry fails to recognize the perils of BT cotton and in enlightening the farmers about pesticides. Although there are many traditional varieties of cotton seeds most of them have vanished because of over use of BT cotton. There have been no efforts by the government to revive the desi varieties of cotton.
P Srinivas Vasu, said, “The government should have already effectively banned BT cotton. Instead of doing that it is introducing GM mustard and BT brinjal to our plates. No one in the government wants to talk about Endosulfan and its unregulated use. It is high time the government takes necessary actions to address the negative impact of genetically modified crops in the country.”