Kochi: Wayanad’s famous peppers may soon become history. More than a decade after the root wilt disease nearly wiped out pepper cultivation from this northern hill district in Kerala, the crop is now facing a lethal attack by wasps.
(GOING SEEDS) The pests have destroyed at least 70% of the pepper crop in Wayanad, once India’s largest producer of the spice, according to state agriculture officials. Farmers, tired of fighting these attacks, are giving up pepper farming and turning instead to more pest-resistant and lucrative crops such as rubber.
The wasps have infested the standards, or the thorny support trees known locally as murukku (Erythrina indicus), on which the pepper vines grow. Spraying pesticides hasn’t helped to get rid of the pests and the only option now is to uproot and burn the standards, some farmers said.
Facing threat: Pepper vines are prone to disease as Kerala receives two monsoons a year.(Photo: Ajayan / Mint)
“It’s a grave situation,” said M. Tamilselvam, director of the Directorate of Arecanut and Spices Development, or DASD, an office under the Union agriculture ministry. “We are in touch with the Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR) and will jointly look at ways to address the problem.”
DASD plans to start a study into the wasp attack and, together with IISR, work on developing alternative, more resistant standards for pepper vines, Tamilselvam said.
Wayanad dominated pepper farming in the country 20 years ago, producing more than 40,000 tonnes of the crop every year in the mid-1980s, about half of India’s total pepper production.
The variety grown in the district is the aromatic Tellicherry bold pepper, for which the Spices Board of India, a government trade promotion body, is attempting to get a geographical indication status, to acknowledge its unique pungent flavour.
(MONSOON TRACKER) But the situation turned dramatically in the 1990s, with the spread of the root wilt disease among Wayanad’s pepper vines, said Abraham Benhur, chairman of the Haritha Sena, a farmers’ organization.
Pepper vines in Kerala are prone to such diseases as the state has two monsoons a year and the rains provide an ideal environment for the dormant fungus to bloom.
Excessive planting also disturbs the soil and makes it easier for the rains to spread the fungus, said E.V. Nybe, head of the plantation crops and spices division of the Kerala Agriculture?University.
Wayanad, which produced 22,385 tonnes of pepper from 43,039ha in 1995-96, harvested just 9,828 tonnes from 36,488ha in 2006-07, according to data available with the state directorate of economics and statistics.
Farmers in the district believe replanting the pepper crop after treating the soil for fungus will also help get rid of the pests.
“After testing the soil and freeing it of the fungus, the government should go ahead with its pepper replantation scheme, for which it has already allotted funds to the Kerala horticulture mission,” said Parakkal Sunny, a pepper farmer in Pulpally.