Pest attack: Punjab Bt cotton crop may be set back by 25%

Pestattack: Punjab Bt cotton crop may be set back by 25%

New Delhi: The cotton crop in Punjab, grown from the Bt cotton seed, has suffered a setback following attacks by a pest known as the mealy bug.

“According to the (Punjab) agriculture department, even though more area is under the cotton crop this year, production will be approximately 20-25% less," says a government official who did not wish to be identified.

After a bumper cotton crop last year, this year has come has a shock to Punjab farmers, especially since 80% of the cotton acreage in Punjab falls under Bt crop. Bt cotton seed is genetically modified to repel attacks by bollworms, a common cotton pest.

The districts of Mansa, Bhatinda, Muktsar and Ferozepur are the worst-hit by this pinhead sized insect, which feeds on plant sap. The last major attack of mealy bug was in 1978 with few and sporadic attacks since then.

Meanwhile, many of the farmers who didn’t plant Bt crop this year appear to be unaffected.

“The reason has nothing to do with Bt or non-Bt crop," said A.K. Dhawan, cotton expert at the Punjab Agricultural University. “The reason is organic farmers (those who use indigenous seed varieties) practice multi-cropping. Mealy bugs don’t fly. They attack row after row of cotton crop. In multi-cropping, various vegetables and cereals are sown in rows next to each other so mealy bugs die when they hit another crop row."

Some organic farmers are glad. “I have five acres and I sow maize, lobia, soybean, cotton and vegetables. Though my neighbour’s crop (also five acres) has been badly affected by the insect, my crop is intact," says Amarjeet Sharma, an organic farmer.

Agricultural experts agree that when the focus is on controlling one pest, secondary pests can take over. “There have been numerous cases in China of such attacks on Bt cotton," says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a lobby group for organic farmers. “In Gujarat, the agriculture department has even set up a committee to look into the matter of attacks of mealy bugs and other pests on Bt cotton. The crop also requires high amounts of fertilizer inputs, which increases sugar content, thereby attracting sucking pests."

Meanwhile, an association that represents seed sellers such as Monsanto-Mahyco Biotech Ltd, Rashi and Ankur notes that the problem is “not Bt related. Bt is only specific for bollworms. This has taken farmers by surprise. Not that they are not aware that they need to use pesticides with Bt cotton seed," said R.K. Sinha, executive director, All India Crop Biotechnology Association, the umbrella organization for manufacturers of genetically modified seeds.

“It has been observed that when 100% of a region goes under Bt cultivation, it becomes susceptible to pests," says a pesticide company official who did not wish to be identified. “The best example is Gujarat. We expected this to happen in Punjab too as more than 80% is under Bt and it did."

This year’s attack will not only reduce cotton yield but it has pushed up input costs of farmers as well. “The cost to farmers has increased by Rs2,500 per acre on account of pesticides to contain the attack," the pesticide official said. He added that because of this attack, his company had in the last few weeks sold additional pesticide worth Rs300 crore. Input costs for Bt cotton farmers is higher to begin with as each seed packet costs around Rs750. Moreover, Bt can be grown only in intensively irrigated areas as opposed to indigenous seeds, which are hardier. Irrigation pulls up input costs for farmers because they have to run pumps.