1.Desi cotton to the rescue
2.Government takes 7 years to admit Bt cotton has failed
1.Desi cotton to the rescue
Down To Earth, July 15 2012
*CICR banks on traditional solutions to Vidarbha's cotton crisis
BHIMRAO Kaviram Kadam of Dhanora Tathod village in Maharashtra's Washim district is, in more than one way, going back to his farming roots. And so is Pandurang Shende of Brahmankheda in Yavatmal district. They are among 160 farmers across the Vidarbha region who have turned their backs on genetically modified or Bt cotton, which they have been growing for several years and plumped instead for Desi (Indian) cotton varieties. This is a dramatic change and it has been prompted by soaring costs of inputs and poor yields that have made cultivation of Bt cotton hybrids untenable in the extremely harsh, rain-shadow terrain of Vidarbha.
It's here in Vidarbha, notorious as the suicide belt of debt-ridden farmers, that the state has finally stepped in to seek ways of making cotton cultivation sustainable through a productivity improvement programme that marks a clear shift from dependence on high-tech solutions. Leading the initiative is the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), which has put together a package that provides farmers its best varieties of Desi cotton (G arboreum and G herbaceum species) and superior medium and long staple varieties along with an old but discarded technique of cultivation—high-density planting system (HDPS) in which cotton plants are packed tightly together at eight to 10 times the normal rate and planted in rows.
HDPS, like the varieties, was used traditionally in Vidarbha until hybrids made their entry in the 1970s and gradually took over the market. As such, the CICR project, which is backed by Maharashtra, marks a return to their roots for the farmers who have overwhelmingly taken to Bt cotton since its debut in 2002. But with Bt cotton failing to live up to its promise of high yields and reduced pesticide use, desperate farmers now appear ready to return to their roots. In Vidarbha, in particular, Bt cotton has proved to be a bitter experience for farmers who were not cautioned that the technology is premised on the availability of irrigation facilities almost absent in the region. Drought is now compounding the problem.
Accordingly, the worst soils and the toughest terrain of Vidarbha have been selected for the project. Explains CICR director Keshav Kranthi: “The aim is to find a sustainable solution for Vidarbha farmers. I am convinced this is the way. By October-November when the cotton crop is ready we will know if this is, indeed, the answer for Vidarbha’s crisis.” Initially, 40 villages in eight of Vidarbha’s 11 districts—Akola, Amaravati, Yavatmal, Washim, Chandrapur, Wardha, Buldhana and Nagpur—have been covered in the demonstration projects that are being taken up by Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) and the Maharashtra Agriculture Department. Total cost: just about Rs 10 lakh for the 64 hectares (ha). The objective: to validate production technologies for rainfed regions of Vidarbha and to establish sustainable yield levels of over 1,800 kg per hectare of seed cotton compared with current yield of just seven to eight quintals. If successful, the project will be widened to parts of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha with industry linkages. The idea is to meet the surging demand for surgical cotton.
CICR is footing the bill for this initiative, which Kranthi is pushing even before getting formal approval. "I felt we couldn't wait any longer because the situation in Vidarbha is critical," he told Down To Earth. To make certain that farmers follow HDPS norms scrupulously, CICR has marshalled 17 of its scientists to monitor the project in different locations apart from the complement of KVK and agriculture department officials who are coordinating the pilots. "We are providing all the technological inputs and CICR is taking sole responsibility for the project," declares Kranthi.
The focus is on slashing costs. According to estimates by CICR, input cost (fertiliser, pesticide, growth regulator and weedicide) comes to just Rs 4,525 per acre (0.4 ha) of HDPS compared with at least Rs 10,000 for growing Bt cotton. There are other benefits, too. Zero cost of seed because farmers can reuse their seeds, low outgo on labour because unlike hybrids Desi varieties require much less weeding.
Kranthi is endorsing what a number of agriculture experts have been saying for the past decade: Bt cotton is not suitable at all for rainfed areas. In fact, a 2006 fact-finding survey by the Planning Commission had underscored “the wrong or uninformed choice by the farmers in adopting varieties of seeds which were not suitable for rainfed conditions”. Although packets carried the caution “Best grown in irrigated conditions”, farmers did not pay heed to this as it was in very small letters. “The adviser was the input dealer and the State machinery did not take precautions or measures to warn the farmers,” the report had pointed out.
Oddly enough, it was only after a trip to Brazil in April by a high-level team of agriculture officials that the state machinery started to move. Says Maharashtra Agriculture Commissioner Umakant Dangat who was part of the team along with Kranthi: “We found the package of measures used by Brazil would be right for us as the soil conditions are similar. Brazil uses HDPS along with growth regulators. But most important: it does not grow any hybrids but only straight varieties. It also has no irrigation for cotton which is a rainfed crop.”
Brazil has the highest productivity among the top six cotton producers in the world with yields of 2,027 kg per ha. India's yields are less than 500 kg. However, Brazil's vast cotton fields rely heavily on mechanisation and are assured of high-quality seeds. Although these factors are missing in the Indian context, particularly superior varieties, Dangat is confident the Desi cotton initiative will succeed in Vidarbha.
While some farmers' organisations and activists campaigning for sustainable agriculture have welcomed the Vidarbha initiative, however late in the day it may have come, there is scepticism—anger, too. Kishore Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti dismisses the exercise as a pointless undertaking of discredited agencies like CICR, which had promoted Bt cotton of its own. Tiwari has been carrying on an unrelenting campaign for a ban on Bt cotton in Maharashtra because he believes the costly GM technology is responsible for the huge number of farmer suicides in the state, the largest number being from Vidarbha. “Sharad Pawar (agriculture minister) has admitted that the average yield of Bt cotton in dry land areas of Maharashtra is only 125 kg and that’s why farmers who opted for Bt cotton in four million hectares are likely to lose Rs 10,000 crore according to the initial estimate by the government.” Maharashtra had announced a compensation package of Rs 2,000 crore for Bt cotton failure in February.
On a more muted note, farmer leader Vijay Jawandhia says: "It's good that the authorities have finally accepted that Bt cotton is not good for the region. But we will support this move only if there is a clear policy on cotton. Bt cotton must be withdrawn from the state and there should be plentiful supplies of high-quality seeds of cotton varieties. These could even be GM." Jawandhia's contention is that having small pockets of Desi and other cotton varieties will not work when Bt cotton is overwhelming the rest of the state. "These will turn into refugia (buffer zones) and attract all the pests," he insists. "CICR must first explain why it allowed hybrids to be introduced."
Officials are unwilling to comment on the demand for a ban on Bt cotton but Dangat says Maharashtra is keen to increase the area under Desi and HDPS. CICR, too, is determined to revive the fortunes of Desi cotton which was grown in two million hectares until 2005. Currently, its acreage is less than 100,000 ha, relegated to marginal land although it boasts huge advantages: resistance to sucking pests, immunity to new leaf curl virus and tolerance for moisture stress.
But while championing Desi, CICR is also working on compact multi-gene "super Bt cotton" dwarf varieties for HDPS. It is an ambitious network project involving public research institutions and universities and will build on novel genes that have already been discovered but not commercialised.
2.All the way to Brazil to find Vidarbha cotton solution
Down To Earth, June 22 2012 [Extracts]
*Government takes seven years to admit Bt cotton has failed in Vidarbha and return to Desi varieties
In April this year, a high-level team of agriculture officials and the director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) at Nagpur went all the way to Brazil to learn how the South American country manages to have the highest cotton yields in the world—without using high-tech genetically modified seeds, without hybrids and without irrigation. It uses straight varieties of high quality as India did in the past.
...far from increasing yields and cutting down pesticide use as the company had promised when Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002, yields have been slipping. According to Kranthi, pesticide use has been increasing (see 'Cotton saga unravels'). In Vidarbha, GM cotton has proved to be a grim experience for farmers as erratic rains and high costs of cultivation have resulted in poor returns. This appears to be a prime cause of the wave of farmer suicides that have touched nearly 9,000 since 2005, according Kishore Tiwari who heads the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, an organization fighting for farmer’s livelihoods.
Some unanswered questions
But the question that some agriculture scientists and farmers’ leaders are asking is this: did officials have to travel half-way across the globe to Brazil to rediscover suitable methods of cultivating cotton in Vidarbha which has all along followed the so-called 'Brazilian model'? Vijay Jawandhia, farmer leader from Wardha, says he is surprised by the ballyhoo over the Brazilian model. “Before the advent of hybrid cotton, farmers in Vidarbha were practicing HDPS. I remember in 1974 when I started growing cotton we used 5 kg seed per acre and planted it in rows. Then everything changed after hybrids came into the market. Why was this practice killed? CICR must first explain why it allowed hybrids to be cultivated in Vidarbha.”
Jawandhia is a founder member of the Shetkari Sanghatana, which he has since left because of policy differences. He is of the opinion that the CICR project to bring back desi cotton and straight varieties would make sense only if there is a clear policy on cotton. “We cannot support such a haphazard policy.”
It’s a valid concern given that most of the country is under Bt cotton hybrids unlike in China which has used its traditional varieties to bring GM cotton for the farmer. “First we got Bollgard and then Bollgard II and now they are getting ready with Roundup Ready. The cotton farmer remains enslaved by seed companies,” says Jawandhia.
He contends that unless Bt cotton is removed from Maharashtra the desi cotton experiment will not succeed. “We need to know what will be the effect of the 97 percent Bt cotton on traditional varieties,” he says. “Will the Desi cotton act as refugia (buffer zones) for the GM cotton and attract all the pests?” Jawandhia, for his part, has switched to soybean from cotton cultivation on his 12 ha farm at Waifad in Wardha district of Vidarbha because of falling yields.
There are others like agriculture scientist G V Ramanjaneyulu who worry about the future of straight varieties in view of the overwhelming presence of GM cotton. “The CICR initiative is a welcome move. But CICR should answer the question about contamination of Bt Bikaneri Narma and the way they withdrew it. if Bikaneri Narma was contaminated, any other variety could also be contaminated. What is the use of promoting traditional cottons? These will also get contaminated.”
Bikaneri Narma was the GM cotton developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) but was withdrawn within a season of its release because it was found to be “contaminated” by Monsanto’s MON 531 Bt cotton which is the gene construct of the Bollgard Bt cotton sold in India.
Old wine in new bottle
Ramanjaneyulu, who left ICAR to set up the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad, also points out that the authorities are merely repackaging Vidarbha’s traditional practices. “Cotton density earlier was the same. Now they are going back to the old method and calling it the Brazilian model. In the name of modernization, the authorities increased the spacing between cotton rows but we are going back to the traditional system.”
Officials are not conceding this. Maharashtra agriculture commissioner Umakant Dangat and Kranthi believe the Brazilian model will enable first, Vidarbha to catch up with rest of Maharashtra in cotton yields and then Maharashtra to reach the all-India average.
But with Indian yields having shown little improvement in the past five years, CICR is betting on GM varieties to transform the picture. Work is under way to develop compact multi-gene ‘super Bt cotton’ dwarf varieties that are expected to be commercialized by 2016. These will also be used with HDPS system.
The cost of developing this is expected to be Rs 100 crore.