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Business News/ Industry / Agriculture/  As cotton fields thrive, so do concerns

As cotton fields thrive, so do concerns

A decade after Bt cotton was approved, it remains mired in controversy

Changed preferences: Farmers in Khamba used to cultivate groundnuts, but switched to cotton in mid-1990s. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint (Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)Premium
Changed preferences: Farmers in Khamba used to cultivate groundnuts, but switched to cotton in mid-1990s. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
(Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

Khambha (Gujarat): The farmer in Nanudi village in south Gujarat, roughly 350km from Ahmedabad, is among the overwhelming majority of Indian cotton growers who have sown Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton this year.

Unlike most farmers though, he’s using bina bill wala beej (seeds sold without the bill), or illegal Bt seeds, available on credit at roughly three-fifths of the price of officially certified seeds in Gujarat.

Bt cotton is a genetically modified (GM) crop, named after a soil bacterium, the gene of which has been inserted into the cotton plant to produce a toxin that works as an in-built insecticide to control bollworm, a major cotton pest.

“I have sown only the uncertified seeds this year," said the farmer. More than 60 years old, he owns two hectares or roughly five acres of land in Nanudi, located in the Khambha block of Amreli district, and grows cotton and castor.

He tried the costlier certified seeds last year, but did not find any difference in yield, and has switched back to the illegal brands that he has been sowing for roughly a decade. “I paid only 600 for one packet (450gm) of Bt seed, and I have the flexibility to pay the seed dealer after the harvest," said the farmer, explaining his preference for the uncertified seeds. Certified Bt cotton seeds are sold at a state-mandated price of 930.

Illegal Bt seeds have a history in Gujarat, preceding the official approval given to Bt cotton in the spring of 2002. It was the success of an uncertified Bt cotton seed, Navbharat-151, in controlling bollworms amid a heavy pest attack on other cultivars in 2001 which paved the way for official approval of Bt cotton in the country despite a raging controversy over its safety and utility at that time.

Since then, Gujarat’s cotton yields have raced ahead than the national average. The state accounts for roughly one-fourth of the area under cotton in the country, but produces one-third of the cotton output. The state’s farmers have played a leading role in raising the country’s cotton productivity to historic highs and in making India a net exporter of cotton.

The farmer, whose farm is irrigated by an open well, said average cotton yield more than doubled to 30 quintals after he switched from a public-sector-bred hybrid, Shankar-IV, to Bt cotton. Profit more than doubled in the initial years because of the increase in yields and savings in pesticide costs, but have dropped over the past few years owing to the increased cost of inputs such as fertilizers.

Scholars attribute Gujarat’s success story in agriculture partly to Bt cotton, and in particular to the availability of cheap illegal Bt seeds well-suited to local conditions. Despite a ban on Navbharat-151, the market for illegal seeds has continued to thrive, providing small farmers low-cost access to superior technology.

Growers elsewhere in the country haven’t fared as well and this has sparked controversy on the impact of Bt cotton on yields and incomes, even as roughly nine of 10 farmers adopt the Bt seeds.

Ten years after India’s first and only GM crop was approved, both Bt cotton and GM crops seem to be facing trouble. A parliamentary standing committee on agriculture report last month slammed the regulatory regime on GM crops as inadequate and linked the introduction of Bt cotton to agrarian distress, although it acknowledged that Gujarat’s farmers might have benefited from the technology. In Maharashtra, the second-largest cotton-growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether technologies such as Bt cotton are suitable in rain-fed and suicide-prone regions such as Vidarbha.

At first glance, the contrast between Gujarat and Maharashtra seems to present a paradox: GM cotton has brought prosperity in one state and distress in another. The difference between the cotton productivity of Gujarat and Maharashtra has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

The answer to the paradox lies in some key factors: differing initial conditions in the two states, the contrasting performance of the respective state governments in areas such as management of water and power, wider seed choice in Gujarat, and to some extent, plain luck.

Historically, Gujarat’s cotton yields have been higher than those of Maharashtra. Gujarat has greater soil depth and farmers there have better access to formal sources of credit, partly owing to the cotton cooperative movement’s legacy.

In the 1990s, Gujarat’s yield averaged 353.8kg of cotton lint per hectare compared with Maharashtra’s 136kg. According to provisional data from the Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research, cotton yields in Gujarat doubled over the past decade to 659kg in 2011-12, while that of Maharashtra rose 59% to 310kg over the same period. Irrigation accounts for a large part of the difference. Gujarat’s cotton area under irrigation was 40% in 2000 and 49% in 2007. The comparative figures for Maharashtra were 4.3% and 2.7%, respectively.

In the past decade though, the rapid expansion of micro-irrigation projects in the rain-fed areas of Gujarat, led by both governmental and community efforts, fuelled the rise in cotton yields.

In Khambha, the expansion in check-dams and rain-water harvesting started in the late 1990s, led by a local non-governmental organization, Shikshan Ane Samaj Kalyan Kendra (SASKK). Khambha lies in the rain-fed region of Saurashtra, where a history of droughts since the mid-1980s led NGOs and later the state government to devise extensive water conservation and micro-irrigation schemes.

Khambha has historically been a groundnut-growing belt and it was only in the mid-1990s that farmers started raising cotton. Since the advent of Bt cotton, it has eclipsed the traditional crop. Groundnuts are nitrogen-fixing crops and help raise soil fertility, adding to cotton yield.

Yields in Gujarat and most other cotton-growing regions have declined in the past couple of years and costs of cultivation have increased, but the impact on Khambha’s farmers has been muted owing to relatively better links with the formal economy. In most families, someone has a job in industries located in nearby towns and cities. For instance, the son of the farmer cited at the start of this story polishes diamonds in Surat. Also, almost everyone has access to cheap farm loans unlike Vidarbha, where money lenders enjoy a roaring business. Such factors aside, technological change has driven the cotton revolution in the state, said Yoginder Alagh, former Union minister for science and technology and chairman of the Institute of Rural Management in Anand. But Alagh also said that illegal seeds have played a major role in Gujarat’s cotton boom and such underground markets pose bio-safety risks.

Between 2000 and 2007-08, the period when cotton yields rose fastest, illegal Bt seeds accounted for most of the cotton grown in the state, according to surveys by N. Lalitha and P.K. Viswanathan, professors at the Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Institute of Development Research.

Since then, the use of illegal seeds has dropped, partly because of a higher proportion of fakes and partly due to price controls that have lowered the premium on certified Bt seeds. Large farmers mostly use certified seeds now. Illegal seeds now account for only 25-30% of Gujarat’s Bt seed market, a senior seed industry executive said on condition of anonymity.

In Amreli, a little less than half of the Bt cotton seeds sold are illegal, estimated Vipul Sheladiya, a large land owner who also works for SASKK. SASKK has formed a producer company to supply low-cost inputs to farmers and its outlet is among a handful in the district that doesn’t stock uncertified seeds.

A Monsanto India Ltd spokesperson said “rumours" of seeds with unapproved technologies had been heard but their use seems to have declined.

Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Seeds Pvt. Ltd stopped producing the Navbharat-151 variety in 2001 after a ban by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) following a complaint by Mahyco–Monsanto Biotech Ltd (MMB), which found its proprietary Bt protein in Navbharat-151. GEAC also asked for the illegal plantations to be burnt.

Farmers rallied against the order and the Gujarat government took their side. The ban stayed, but local seed companies started selling clones, often using the Navbharat brand name. Several studies, including one by Lalitha, showed that the illegal Bt initially performed better than the approved ones.

Navbharat chairman D.B. Desai said the 151 variety (and its clones) succeeded as it was better suited to local conditions.

Small firms such as Navbharat should have been integrated with bigger ones so they remained under regulatory watch, said Alagh. “We could have adopted a strategy similar to what we have for generics in the pharmaceuticals industry."

The number of official Bt hybrids rose over the years and so did the number of illegal brands. Given that hybrids must be cross-pollinated manually, most seed production takes place in north Gujarat, where labour is cheap and often underage. Seed companies outsource production to local organizers or smaller companies, which tend to produce more seeds than required. The excess is sold illegally, without royalty being paid to MMB.

A part of the trade is just farmer-to-farmer transfer and hence is legal, said Lalitha. But a large fraction is sold through seed dealers. To avoid a direct confrontation with the law, the illegal packets are sold without bills and carry a message that says that they are being used only for farmer-to-farmer transfers.

In the latest twist to the illegal Bt story, an upgraded version of Bt cotton, the round-up ready flex (RRFlex) GM cotton developed by Monsanto— which enables use of the herbicide glyphosate to kill weeds without any impact on the RRflex Bt crop—has made an entry into the country illegally, even before its official approval. The RRFlex cotton seeds are being used mostly in the Kutch region where there is an acute shortage of labour, said the seed industry executive cited above. A seed dealer in Amreli confirmed that RRFlex seeds are available in the market.

Gujarat seems to be repeating its history with Bt.

Read: Vidarbha’s tryst with Bt Cotton

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Published: 02 Oct 2012, 10:06 PM IST
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