Lost variety

The distress in cotton farming in Telangana and Maharashtra is the most telling example of the outcome of the Centre’s slow withdrawal of support for agriculture.

Published : Jul 20, 2016 16:00 IST

Cotton being picked in a field at Talamadugu in Adilabad district of Telangana.

Cotton being picked in a field at Talamadugu in Adilabad district of Telangana.

IN Pulkal mandal in Medak district of Telangana, the Akkula brothers, Vishnu, Srisailam and Ravi, are still repaying the Rs.1 lakh their father, Vittal, borrowed. Vittal killed himself in January last year by drinking a pesticide after the cotton crop he had raised on two acres (0.8 hectare) failed. Ironically, he bought the pesticides from the shopkeeper who had lent him Rs.50,000 at 25 per cent interest. Vittal had borrowed an equal amount from a private moneylender at 36 per cent interest. Vishnu works in a beer factory. Ravi is into construction work. Srisailam tried to continue farming, but he is now subsisting on the government’s 100-day job guarantee programme. The brothers borrowed Rs.40,000 for Vittal’s treatment in a private hospital, which has added to their debt burden.

This story of distress is common across Telangana, the State which recorded the second highest number of farmer suicides in the country. The suicides were largely, if not entirely, attributed to the crisis in cotton farming.

High input costs coupled with failed crops, particularly in Maharashtra and Telangana, began pushing farmers into an unending cycle of distress leading to a wave of suicides. According to the All India Kisan Sabha, cotton farmers accounted for 90 per cent of the suicides. Official data from the National Crime Records Bureau estimated three lakh deaths between 1995 and 2013.

India is the only country in the world that uses hybrid crop varieties extensively, which is an outcome of the government’s policy direction since the 1980s to introduce high-yielding crops. But until 1991, under a state-run framework of research, development and production, they were bred in controlled environments, with extensive adaptability results in multiple locations for several years, before a hybrid was released for mass cultivation.

Activists and researchers now talk of a return to indigenous varieties but with a different cropping pattern. The Brazilian Model is now considered a possible solution; it involves planting a high density of short-duration indigenous crops that will mature in 150 days. New pesticides, which claim to effectively tackle bollworm, which attacks cotton crops, have been in use since 2006.

Rajesh Krishnan, a farmer in Kerala’s Wayanad region who is part of the Coalition for GM Free India, said: “At least we will not be mere managers of our lands, devalued and not confident with our own knowledge of farming, and will return to controlling our crops and own the seeds we sow.”

Vijay Jaiwandhia, leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers’ union of Maharashtra, belongs to a land-owning family. He owns 30 acres (12 hectares) in Wardha and has grown cotton and pulses as a winter crop and wheat in summer for as long as he remembers. “The Prime Minister talks about ‘Make in India’, why should cotton seeds not be made by Indian farmers, why make us dependent on foreign companies?” he asked. Jaiwandhia was, of course, referring to Bt cotton, the genetically modified organism (GMO) cotton variety introduced by the United States biotech behemoth Monsanto a decade after India liberalised its economy in 1991. He admits that yields were low three decades ago. He got about three to four quintals of cotton per acre. Bt cotton increased the yield, but it also caused a drastic spike in input costs. “This year I had a yield of 140 quintals from 14 acres [5.6 hectares] of Bt cotton. But my input cost, including seeds and pesticides, was Rs.2 lakh. I spent Rs.1.5 lakh more on cotton picking alone. Then there was sowing, weeding and several other unexpected expenses. Finally, I was left with very little, whereas my father was able to save money even with his three-quintal-an acre yield.”

The minimum support price for cotton now is Rs.4,160 a quintal. Jaiwandhia got a maximum of Rs.6 lakh, which is his gross income for the entire year as cotton is grown as a long-duration crop with a sowing season of about six to eight months. It goes against the cropping logic for arid and semi-arid regions, but Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which is a long-duration crop, has a virtual stranglehold over the market.

“Take the gold standard, for example. In 1972, I sold cotton at Rs.200-250 a quintal. One tola [12 grams] of gold was about the same price then. Today I sell cotton at Rs.4,160 a quintal, but a tola of gold is Rs.28,000. I have to sell seven quintals for one tola of gold today,” he said, explaining how the increase in government-offered support prices have not kept up with inflation and the rising prices of commodities and salary increases in the organised sector.

The Centre’s slow withdrawal of support for agriculture began after India became a member of the World Trade Organisation on January 1, 1995.

Cotton farming presents the most telling example of what this withdrawal has meant for agriculturists. In less than 15 years, Bt cotton replaced 95 per cent of the indigenous and hybrid varieties in India’s 128 lakh hectares, as per the 2014-15 data from the public sector undertaking Cotton Corporation of India Limited. This is only 5 per cent of all cultivated lands in the country but represents the largest area under cotton cultivation worldwide.

This makes India Monsanto’s largest market and revenue source for its cotton seeds. Seventy-five other cotton producing countries, including Pakistan, China, the U.S., Brazil and South Africa, make up the rest of the 206 lakh hectares. Several of them have Bt technology, but they do not pay Monsanto a royalty or a “trade fee” as Indian farmers do. Bt seeds are sown in Pakistan as well, but farmers there do not pay royalty to Monsanto as seeds patenting is illegal in that country. In China, 36 lakh hectares of the 38 lakh hectares under cotton cultivation use indigenously developed Bt cotton seeds.

Bt cotton is a genetically modified cotton seed “that expresses an insecticidal protein whose gene has been derived from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis , commonly referred to as Bt,” writes Keshav Kranthi, Director of the Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), in a widely publicised Question and Answer on Bt cotton, its efficacy and the consequences of its use. He argues that this bacterium is generally known to be toxic only to insects and not “other living organisms”, in an attempt to allay fears of whether Bt is harmful when it enters the human food chain.

But Kranthi admits that Monsanto’s virtual bulldozing of the sector will make the revival of the indigenous or hybrid varieties produced by the National Seeds Corporation Limited (NSC) or the State Seeds Corporation Limited (SSC) difficult. “India has its own native cotton, with a rich biodiversity of 5,000 years. American cotton, into which the Bt gene has been inserted, came into India through the East India Company only in 1790. Those who want to get back to cultivating varieties [as indigenous cotton is commonly referred to], will find it difficult. We have a bank of those varieties, preserved in anticipation of such a phenomenon. This can happen with any technology, especially one that is as potent as Bt.”

“On 10 March 1995, Mahyco [Maharashtra Hybrid Company Limited, which became Monsanto-Mahyco in 1998] imported 100 grams of cotton seeds that contained the MON531-Bt Gene into India without approval from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). Mahyco, under undisclosed circumstances, had obtained permission from the RCGM (Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT)), which does not have the authority to approve such an import. Without the approval of the governing body responsible for the approval of the import (GEAC), Monsanto had smuggled a controlled substance into India,” writes the trenchant and articulate anti-GM advocate Vandana Shiva in a July 21, 2015, article about the dramatic and illegal entry of Monsanto into India.

A couple of years before Monsanto’s entry, the CICR suggested sowing of its most popular hybrid, NHH44. The seeds produced by the NSC and SSCs were Rs.375 for a 750-gram bag of seeds. In came Monsanto, with a price of Rs.2,700 for a 900-gm bag of seeds, causing a sixfold increase in the cost of the most essential input. But by 2001, the American bollworm had become a “monster”, Kranthi said. This insect attained an epidemic status mostly in India’s irrigated regions of Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, which constituted 38 per cent of all cotton crops. Indian hybrids of American cotton were being sown there. Farmers there were persuaded to replace them with Bt. As these were high-yield regions and the technology proved to be effective, returns increased dramatically. Farmers in other rain-fed regions like Maharashtra and Telangana decided to follow suit, hoping that Bt would work there as well. It did, initially, but began tanking when the rains failed.

In 2006, the Andhra Pradesh High Court capped Bt seeds at Rs.650 for 450 gm following a petition by the State government, but Monsanto managed to increase the price to Rs.930 by 2015 under the pretext of improved hybrids.

The company is now locked in a battle with the Centre following a radical order that not only caps seed cost but disallows Monsanto from entering into restrictive agreements with seed companies. After Monsanto threatened to withdraw from the Indian market, the Narendra Modi government suspended the Government Order and has sought consultation with the public. The government has welcomed replies on the issue until mid August, after which a policy decision is expected. But researchers and activists fear Monsanto will rig this debate and arm-twist the government, as it has done several times in the past.

By 2006, different variants of bollworms became resistant to Bollguard 1, and new pests emerged. Monsanto acknowledged this phenomenon and introduced Bollguard 2, a double protein strand of Bt. Bollguard 1 was a single strand. Between 2006 and 2008, Monsanto added 13 more hybrids. By 2012, that number increased to a whopping 1,128. The use of lethal pesticides required for cotton reduced by “90 per cent” in the initial years of Bt, but it has now returned to pre-Monsanto years, with resilient pests and “sap-sucking susceptible Bt” now in wide cultivation across India.

“You can influence the plant, but you cannot influence the pest,” Kranthi said.

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