Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Why farmer suicides in Punjab is a climate story

An insect has ravaged the cotton crop across Punjab’s Malwa region. The destruction of almost two-thirds of the state’s cotton crop by the whitefly has forced as many as 15 farmers to commit suicide and pushed hundreds of others into debt.

A Times of India report cited a farmer from Bhatinda likening the destruction caused by the pest to the airstrike by the Japanese navy on Pearl Harbour, the attack that drew the US into World War II.

The extent of the devastation has left many agricultural scientists in the state puzzled given that the whitefly is common to cotton farms across Punjab.

Punjab has nearly 1.2 million acres under cotton farming this year and almost all of it grows the genetically modified Bt cotton, resistant to some major pests such as bollworm but defenceless against the whitefly. The whitefly was considered a secondary pest, one which farmers controlled by intensive spraying of chemical pesticides. But this year, the scale of the attack was unexpected. Farmers cited in media reports across the ravaged districts say that the whitefly appeared earlier than usual this year and the deficient rain seems to have helped the pest survive longer.

The whitefly incident describes best the story of all that is going wrong with the agro-ecology of a state that was once described as the food bowl of India. The incident this year, should also serve as a wake-up call to the state and its policymakers to the realities of climate change which, mixed with bad ecological policies, can wreak havoc on a state’s economy. Of course, no one incident can be linked to climate change, but science does tell us that longer summers, shorter winters and freak weather conditions will be the symptoms of human-induced climate change. Combined with the heavy use of genetically modified crops that are not immune to pests such as the whitefly, it is but obvious that Punjab’s cotton farmers are now facing a crisis.

It was no less than the Inter-Government Panel on Climate Change that mentioned in its report of 2007 that India’s climate “has undergone significant changes showing increasing trends in annual temperature with an average of 0.56°C rise over last 100 years". Further, that warming was more pronounced during the post-monsoon and winter season with an increase in the number of hotter days in a year. The report further predicted that “the country is likely to experience frequently occurring extreme events like heat and cold waves, heavy tropical cyclones, frosts, droughts and floods".

Now let’s come to the other factors. Temperature is the single-most important regulating factor for insects. A paper in the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications titled ‘Will climate change pose serious threat to crop pest management: A critical review?’ states precisely that “climate-change induced challenges that the crop growers have to face in near future in managing harmful insect pests of their crops will only increase". The paper observes that “those insects have limited ability of homeostasis with external temperature changes. Hence global increase in temperature within certain favourable range may accelerate the rates of development, reproduction and survival in tropical and subtropical insects. Consequently, insects will be capable of completing more number of generations per year and ultimately it will result in more crop damage". A strategy known as diapause, which is a period of suspended developmental activities, is also used by insects to adjust to a changing thermal environment. As an adaptive trait, diapause plays a vital role in seasonal regulation of insect life cycles because of which the insects have better advantage to survive a great deal of environmental adversity. It’s this understanding of the biological cycle of insects, coupled with the longer summer this year with less rainfall, that explains why the cotton crisis hit Punjab.

The first reaction by agricultural scientists to the crisis has been to blame farmers for not spraying insecticides in their fields the right way. And yet even the experimental cotton crops at the Punjab Agricultural University were destroyed by whitefly.

What could be the way forward? Women farmers in Jhajjar decided not to use any pesticide against whitefly but just homemade spray, which has been efficient in protecting their crops and helped them avert the crisis. The whitefly incident should caution agricultural scientists across Punjab to factor in climate change, and start advocating options such as multi-cropping in a state which is in the midst of an agrarian crisis, thanks to the excessive use of chemicals and heavy dependence on mono-cropping. With the onslaught of climate change round the corner that perhaps maybe the best way to not only adapt to changing weather patterns but also prepare farmers for the future.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches From A Vanishing World.

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