To grow or not to grow: the Bt cotton conundrum
Has Bt cotton exhausted its usefulness in Yadgir?
Every time, while ferrying passengers on his autorickshaw from Shahapur circle to Doranahalli and back, Abdul Pasha’s gaze falls on a vast agricultural field holding nothing but dead Bt cotton plants. He sighs with a feeling of loss and pain attached to it. He turns his head away for he cannot bear to look at the field anymore. Two acres of this land belonged to him until very recently. He had to sell an acre and a half when in 2018, Bt cotton failed miserably in Yadgir district. Things came to such a pass as a result of severe shortage of rainfall. Abdul found himself in an unusual predicament. He had taken a loan of Rs 5 lakh from a local moneylender. ‘’When the crop failed, I had no option but to sell my land. I was left distraught but thought of doing something rational. So, I used the money from the sale of the land and used it to buy an autorickshaw; of course, after repaying my creditor. I drive my rickshaw and earn about Rs 250-300 per day. This income keeps me and my family alive,’’ he says with a morose look on his face. Several other farmers of drought-prone Shahapur suffered huge losses because of low precipitation.
The story of Santosh Michael is similar to Abdul and yet a wee bit different. Michael, too, had borrowed Rs 3 lakh from a moneylender. He used the whole amount to grow Bt cotton. But unlike Abdul, Michael did not possess any land. The land he used for farming belonged to his brother, Surya Michael. Surya left Naikal, a neglected village of Shahapur, in 2014 looking for better opportunities. He found a small job in Bangalore and has not returned since. But Santosh used to send his brother a part of the earnings from the land. Most farmers, Santosh included, grow Bt cotton here since the yield is high and profits are significant. However, the failure of the crop last year and, to make matters worse, his sister’s marriage forced him to borrow more.
The marriage of Santosh’s sister was fixed in January 2018. Santosh came to know of his would-be brother-in-law and his family from a common friend. His family was elated because they thought that they had at last found someone who would keep their Pooja (Santosh’s sister) happy. The man, who works at the Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilizers Ltd., would take her away from this dreary life, they thought. Santosh sits dejectedly at a tea stall and says woefully: ‘’Almost all the arrangements for the wedding were complete by September. But our dreams were crushed when the rain gods betrayed us. We all were shattered and broken. I don’t know how to repay the loan. My lender is a generous fellow. But even he is asking impatiently for his money because like me there are many other farmers who took loans from him and failed to return the money.’’
Mohamad Hussain, another minor farmer from Naikal village, took a loan of Rs 2 lakh from Pragathi Krishna Gramin Bank. Fortunately, he could avail a formal loan because he had the necessary documents. He has been growing Bt cotton since 2011. But with the failure of the crop, he is gradually sliding into indigence. He has pleaded with authorities to waive his loan. And he might succeed since it is election time and politicians are busy garnering support. Hussain is busy managing his small paan shop and says with confidence, ‘’My father used to grow cotton. He came to know of it from a friend of his who was cultivating the crop in Telangana and earning great profits. My father started growing Bt cotton in 2006. The revenue allowed us to send my brother to school and then college. We were leading a happy life until this happened. We had not anticipated this failure. When I took up the mantle of farming from father, I enjoyed the gains. The crop required very little caring.’’
Bt cotton was introduced in Shahapur way back in 2004. The crop contains genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis which make the plant resistant to pink bollworm. At present, there are around 70 recognised subspecies of the bacterium. This inbuilt insect resistance leads to savings in chemical pest control. The crop was, therefore, an instant success with farmers. The high yield and profits made farmers think of nothing other than Bt cotton. The presence of the Upper Krishna Irrigation Project (UKIP) acted as a boon. The scarcity of natural irrigation was not a problem. R Lokesh, Dean, College of Agriculture, Bigudi, explains: ‘’Bt cotton was a bumper crop when it was introduced here. It is resistant to insects and was designed to fight the pink bollworm. Before the introduction of this genetically modified variety, farmers used to spend a lot of money on insecticides to control the proliferation of bollworm as an attack of this insect does not allow the boll, the protective case, to open properly. It matters not how much luxuriant the boll is. The cotton should come out without hindrance. This is the logic behind the whole cotton industry.’’
The normal variety of the crop had the problem of the cotton not coming out smoothly. The GM variety was introduced with the aim of solving the very problem. Lokesh further says, ‘’It is a transgenic crop and when the transgene is inserted into the plant’s genome, it produces toxin crystals, Cry toxins, which the normal variety of the plant would not produce. Bollworms ingest these toxins which destroy their gut lining eventually leading to the organism’s death. Thus, the protective case opens smoothly, picking becomes very easy, and the farmer gets clean and beautiful cotton. Unsoiled produce always fetches good price in the market. Bt cotton, therefore, has many advantages over non-Bt cotton such as an increased yield that allow farmers to earn substantial profits and reduced use of insecticides.’’
But, on the other hand, Bt cotton seeds are quite expensive and ineffective against pests like leafhoppers that suck the sap from the underside of leaves. Therefore, when the crop fails, losses are high. Also, the crop needs more water and pesticides in comparison to the ordinary variety. Around $620 million (Rs 28 billion) worth of pesticides is used in the country’s agricultural set up, of which $344 million (Rs 16 billion) alone is used on Bt cotton (as this is the predominant variety grown in India). Similarly, the water requirement for Bt cotton, throughout its three stages of growth, is also quite high. H C Soumya, Assistant Professor, genetics and plant treatment, College of Agriculture, explains the importance of water in growing the crop, ‘’Bt cotton needs moisture. Without moisture it cannot survive. The toxin level in the plant to destroy the gut lining of the bollworm should be high because the insect’s gut is alkaline. To increase the toxic level in the plant, ample moisture is required. Once the toxin gets dissolved and is consumed by the insect, it starts damaging the gut tissues. So, the bollworm dies of starvation. If there isn’t enough moisture, the plant is reduced to the quality of any other ordinary variety.’’ Most farmers are not aware of the drawbacks and keep on growing the crop. Farmers with means can take risks but small farmers who follow suit are often the worst sufferers.
To understand the Bt cotton situation in Shahapur, it is important to have a nation-wide picture of the cash crop. It was introduced by Monsanto, an American agrochemical company, through Mahyco, in 2002. Shahapur adopted the GM crop two years later. The new-generation seed spread like wildfire and farm revenue touched the sky. The merits of biotechnology were at once evident when India, a big importer of cotton until 2002, emerged as one of the largest exporters by 2008. The technology had its fair share of detractors as well as supporters. Scientists who opposed the technology attacked Monsanto and Mahyco for the severe farm crisis in Maharashtra and Telangana, two of the biggest cotton-growing states. A few activists and experts blamed the technology for cattle deaths, pink bollworm growing resistance in many places, and contamination of genetic diversity. Scientists like Lokesh, however, believe that Bt cotton has turned the fortunes of farmers by reducing input costs.
One of the major reasons attributed to the failure in Shahapur is that farmers do not grow refugia crops – cultivation of non-cotton or non-Bt crops around the main crop. Although, paddy and tur dal are famous here, the major focus is on Bt cotton and has always been in the minds of farmers, small and big alike, since its incorporation in the farming model of Shahapur. Dayanand Satihal, Farm Superintendent, University of Agricultural Sciences, Raichur, and former agro-economist, who has done extensive research work and is regarded by his colleagues as one of the foremost experts on Bt cotton, says: ‘’Farmers realised that the cost of cultivating Bt cotton is very less in comparison to other major crops grown in the area. This remunerative and high-yielding crop gave a fillip to their income. However, with higher profits came greed. Earlier, the prevalent practice was to sow both Bt and non Bt seeds. The purpose of growing ‘refuge’ plants around GM plants is to prevent or delay the development of Bt-resistant insects. Farmers, in a bid to gain more profits, chose only Bt and stopped growing non Bt. The purpose was defeated. And with time the bollworm’s resistance to toxin has increased. The yield has gone down quite a lot.’’
Years of cultivating the same crop is also considered one of the reasons for the failure. When one crop is grown again and again, the insects become accustomed to the insecticides and develop immunity. This is what has happened with Bt cotton in Shahapur as well. Farmers have over utilised the crop. In spite of this, most of the cotton produced in the country is of this variety making India one of the largest producers. Only China and the United States produce more Bt cotton than India.
Even though the soil in Shahapur is suited for this crop, problems abound when it comes to execution. The scarcity of water is just one of many problems. According to a Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, report, Bt cotton is not recommended for small farmers because of its concomitant risks. The government, in an effort to dissuade farmers from growing genetically modified crops, has excluded Bt cotton from the list of crops covered by Minimum Support Price (MSP). Suman Sahai, a geneticist, believes that adulterated varieties are often sold to Indian farmers in the name of standardised seeds which results in low yields.
Another problem is that Shahapur is a drought-prone area and irrigation here has been a thorn in the flesh of farmers. Bt cotton farmers are dependent upon rain as it saves them a lot of money. When it does not rain, as happened in 2018, water has to be procured from nearby canals linked with the UKIP. The UKIP was meant to provide irrigation facilities to drought-prone areas of north Karnataka. But the state government has failed to utilize the project. It has raised the height of the Almatty Dam, the main reservoir of the UKIP, which led to hundreds of thousand million cubic of water remaining unutilized. On top of that, around 1.50 lakh cusecs of water was released to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. Farmers were incensed by this. The government had taken up a mega rehabilitation project involving shifting of hundreds of villages when Almatti dam was built in 2005. But, people in these rehabilitation centres are still reeling because of lack of basic amenities. Therefore, the farmer leaders are demanding that the government conduct an assessment of the likely social impact due to increase in the height of the dam. But even these canals are dry this time. One can find only rubbish heaped in them. The stench emanating from the canals tells the tale of a failed farming season.
Maheshwara Subedar, a leader of the Karnataka Rajya Raita Sangha and Raita Sene, an association of farmers, who drapes a green shawl come summer or winter as a symbol of farming, is of the view that Bt cotton will cease to exist in Shahapur after five years. He says, ‘’The yield has come down considerably. Previously, one Bt cotton plant used to have 70-80 flowers on it. But after erratic rainfall in the past two years, a plant only produces 8-9 flowers. Can you imagine the loss for farmers? In 2017, one hectare of land yielded around 20 quintals of the crop. Last year, when it did not rain, the produce was no more than 6 quintals. The on and off release of water from the Upper Krishna Project has aggravated the problem. During the sowing period itself the crop requires large amounts of water.’’
Ishwar Saini, another Raita Sangha leader, who works closely with the College of Agriculture, believes that water scarcity was always a problem but farmers ignored it because of the presence of the UKIP. Now, as silt is accumulating at the Almatty dam and its height has been increased, the release of water to these areas has seen a considerable decrease. Also, farmers with large landholdings dump crop residue in canals which blocks the flow of water to tail-end farmers.
Activists often blame Bt cotton for farmer suicides. One of the prime reasons for this is that Bt cotton seeds cost almost twice as much as seeds of the ordinary variety and lose vigour after a couple of generations. Many Bt farmers are, therefore, forced into taking huge loans, as a result of the high prices, from moneylenders, who should better be called usurers for charging exorbitant interest rates. When the yield is low, these lenders coerce farmers to sell their produce to them at a price which is considerably lower in comparison to the market price. All these factors snowball into economic and agrarian distress. Eventually, left with no other way to come out of the quagmire, farmers commit suicides. A report, which appeared in the scientific journal, Nature, in 2013, quotes Vandana Shiva, a renowned environmental activist: “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. It’s a genocide.” Suicide is an ineluctable facet of the lives of Bt cotton farmers of Shahpura as well. According to reports available with Shahpura Circle police station, six Bt cotton farmers had ended their lives in 2017; seven in 2018; and three up until February 2019.
However, the Nature report also presents an argument contrary to such school of thought. It states the findings of a study conducted by Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist at Georg August University in Göttingen, Germany. Qaim studied 533 cotton-farming households in central and southern India. He found that owing to reduced losses from pest attacks, farmers’ profits rose by an average of 50%.
A very pertinent question that arises from all this is that why do farmers here are still pursuing the cultivation of this cash crop. A succinct answer was provided by Subedar, ‘’Ample profits. A decent life.’’ But the encumbrances, as can be seen, are many.
So, what could be done to ameliorate the problems of these farmers. Farmers, sometimes, could be very obdurate people who do not heed expert advice. As Satihal, who has helped the Government of Karnataka in drafting several farm policies, says, ‘’We conduct numerous awareness campaigns for farmers. We apprise them of the best and latest farming practices. For instance, they have been told how growing of paddy is banned in the taluk because paddy needs large amounts of water to prosper. But they don’t listen.’’
Nevertheless, he is witnessing a gradual change in the attitude of farmers, because, as the adage goes, the burnt child dreads the fire. Farmers from all over Yadgir are now coming to the large plot of land which Satihal has acquired from the college for the explicit purpose of giving demonstrations. If farmers really take the learned advice of experts, things might turn for the better.