Barren Fields, Dwindling Yields: How Bt Cotton Let Down Madhya Pradesh Farmers

After initial success, benefits from the genetically modified cotton petered out with insect attacks increasing the reliance on pesticide and chemical fertilisers, and harming the soil

By Shishir Agrawal

Khargone (Madhya Pradesh): At a time when the much-hyped Bt cotton crop is causing heartburn to farmers, the Union Government is gradually setting the stage for rollout of genetically modified (GM) mustard. Last October, the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change approved the field trials of Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, developed by former Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental.

While the government argues that the GM variety will increase mustard production and reduce the country’s reliance on edible oil imports, anti-GM activists are wary because of the poor show put up by Bt cotton, the first genetically modified crop in the country.

They have seen how the guarantee of better yield and claims of reduced requirement of pesticides and chemical fertilisers have gone with the wind. Apparently, the few things that Bt cotton farmers ended up with were barren fields and increased input costs.

Take the case of Madhya Pradesh, which accounts for 18.69 lakh cotton bales (in 5.47 lakh hectares) of the total 352 lakh bales (in 1,18.81 lakh hectares) produced in the country. Khargone, Barwani, Khandwa and Burhanpur are the main cotton-producing districts in MP.

Cotton crop covers a total of 2,11,450 hectares in Khargone, according to statistics from Farmer Welfare and Agriculture Development Department.

Chhagan Chauhan, a resident of Mogargaon, had gone to Khargone’s cotton market to sell 2.6 quintals of cotton. This year has proved to be better for him

“I got Rs 8,500 per quintal. This price is good for me,” he beamed.

Last year, incessant rains and pest attacks destroyed half of his crop. “Ideally, 10 packets of Bt cotton seeds that I sprayed on the field should have got me about 40 quintals of cotton. But I harvested just 16 kg. Thankfully, pests have spared me this time,” he sighed.

Temla-based Shyam (24) has been assisting his father Anil Dhangar in cultivating Bt cotton on seven acres for the last two years. On the challenges they face, Anil said, “Getting a good price for the yield and worm infestation are our biggest worries.”

Unrolling a cotton boll in his hand, he said, “See, the pink-coloured insect (Pectinophora gossypiella) has made a home here, damaging the seed kernel. Now, this cotton fruit will not grow into a flower to give yield. The only thing left to do is to remove it from the field as quickly as possible.”

He added that pest attacks began late this year compared with the previous year, when around 40% of the crop was affected.

Bogus Claims

Four types of caterpillars — Pink Bollworm, Spotted Bollworm, American Bollworm and Tobacco Cutworm — are found in cotton. Of them, Pink and American bollworm attacks are common in India. A 2018 survey conducted by Central Institute of Cotton Research found that the incidence of pink bollworm had increased from 5.17% to 73.82% between 2010 and 2017 in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

The irony is that the government had permitted commercial cultivation of first generation Bt cotton (Bt-I cotton) in 2002 to prevent insect attacks, while its second generation (Bt-II) was launched in 2006 by combining two Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) proteins (Cry1Ac+Cry2Ab) with the promise to specifically target the pink bollworm.

Adoption of Bt cotton soared to 81% in 2007 and 93% in 2011 as farmers thought pest-resistant varieties were their best bet. Unlike other crops, new seeds have to be bought from the market each time to cultivate the GM variety. What’s more, a packet of seeds weighing 450 gm costs Rs 750!

Though things are not in their favour, a return to natural cotton varieties is near impossible for farmers as only GM varieties are available in the market. According to experts, Bt cotton has become so prevalent that they make up for 98% of the cotton fields nowadays.

“All the farmers in Khargone and Burhanpur district grow Bt cotton only. Helicoverpa armigera was the first pest to attack our crops. Pink bollworms were not to be seen in the initial years,” said Mahesh Patidar of Temla.

Agriculture expert and senior journalist Devinder Sharma told 101Reporters that Bt cotton’s ability to resist pests has come down in just two or three years since its arrival.

“This is a scientific fraud… All the claims made about Bt cotton have been proved wrong. As far as the increase in yield is concerned, if you examine the data on irrigation, it will be clear that the production has not increased solely due to the introduction of GM variety. There are other reasons too,” he explained, adding that the government should withdraw it now.

Farmer leader Vijay Jawandhiya, also an anti-GM activist, reiterated this point.

“Production has not increased just because of the seeds. The use of chemical fertilisers has also increased, and so has irrigation.”

According to a study by KR Kranthi and GD Stone, Bt cotton’s contribution to increased yield is only 4%. It has also been revealed in the study that after 2018, the yield decreased as compared to the initial years.

Four flowers come out of one boll of cotton. In September, pink caterpillars start appearing. Sometimes, the entire boll is covered with worms. By November, the cotton-picking season also begins. As the farmer cannot pick cotton from plants with caterpillars, he has to remove the remaining plants also by running a rotavator to use as waste.

Sandeep Yadav of Behrampura Tema claimed that the yield has been dropping over the years.

“In 2014, I could get 22 quintals of cotton from one acre of land. Today, I somehow manage to get five to six quintals from the same land,” he informed.

While highlighting the increased use of insecticides, he said, “Suppose I have sprinkled insecticides worth Rs 50,000 this year. Next year, their prices would be around Rs 55,000.”

Like in the rest of India, chemical fertiliser prices in Madhya Pradesh have gradually increased by 62% from 2007-08 to 2014-15. According to Devinder Sharma, the cost of pesticides has increased “by 30% in the last 20 years”.

Soil Quality

Dr GS Kulmi, senior scientist and head of Khargone’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra, confirmed the increased use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

“Soil microbes have reduced and so has their ability to multiply. This has affected soil quality, leading the farms to barrenness.”

Take the case of Madhav Yadav, who has been using more chemical fertilisers and pesticides in his field in Behrampura Tema with each passing year to save his crop. He is into cotton farming for the last 20 years and has been facing pink bollworm attacks for the last three years.

“Pink bollworms damage around 30% of my crop every year. As I have been spraying more pesticides and fertilisers to make up for the losses, the land has become hard. Earlier, we could easily stir the soil using a cultivator, but now it is a pain,” revealed Madhav.

Noting that the soil’s carbon content is decreasing, Jawandhiya said only a return to the traditional use of livestock manure or compost can reverse this condition.

Sandeep, on the other hand, noted that farmers are opting out of livestock rearing, which naturally reduces the availability and use of natural fertilisers.

The spraying of pesticides on cotton has had a cascading effect on the other crops.

“Worms can be seen in my maize and wheat crops now. There was no need to spray chemicals on them until three years ago. But now, it is needed once or twice to protect the crop,” said Madhav.

Dr Kulmi thinks the changes in environment and pesticide use are the possible reasons.

“Heat has increased and the rain pattern has changed. Earlier, fall armyworm was seen in maize only in South India and not in the fields here. The more pesticides you use, the more resistant insects become. In this case, the pests have become polyphagous, which means they can attack more than one type of crop,” he reasoned.

(Shishir Agrawal is a Madhya Pradesh-based  journalist  and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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