ISIS Report 05/01/06
Return to Organic Cotton & Avoid the Bt-Cotton Trap
No more debt, pesticides and suicides for Indian cotton
farmers who avoid Bt-cotton and regain livelihood, health, independence and
peace of mind with organic methods
Rhea Gala reports from Andhra
The green revolution turning full circle
In the fertile regions of Andhra Pradesh
(AP) ‘white gold’ monocultures of the high yielding hybrids of ‘Green Revolution’
cotton had turned the state into the pesticide capital of the world even before
the advent of genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton. Now, however, the revolution
is turning full circle as more and more farmers are opting for low input organic
methods that are healthier and economically far more rewarding.
such as the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Modern Architects of Rural
India, the Permaculture Association of India, the Sarvodaya Youth Organisation
and Oxfam are working in many villages to promote and train small and marginal
farmers in non-pesticide management (NPM) of cotton leading to organic production
in the third year of uptake.
This initiative comes against a historical backdrop of
government support for high chemical input cotton production at national and
at state level that has sent the wrong messages to farmers. GM cotton is now
falsely promoted as the answer to reducing the scourge of proliferating pesticide
use, and is one of many reasons farmers are succumbing to the pressure to
grow GM cotton.
How AP became the ‘Pesticide Capital of the World’
Many of the cotton varieties once grown with a diversity of food crops
were swept aside and lost during the 1970s and 80s when the high yielding
varieties (HYVs) of the Green Revolution arrived, and the irrigation infrastructure
developed. These HYVs are expensive hybrids that have to be purchased every
year from seed dealers and nurtured with further expensive inputs of fertiliser
and pesticide, being far more vulnerable to pests and the vagaries of the
weather than the hardy local varieties that they had replaced.
Farmers initially saw the system of industrial production
as timesaving and requiring far less knowledge of soils and pests; however
it soon proved to be a relentless treadmill. It degraded the soil, depleted
scarce water resources and proliferated cotton pests beyond the farmers’ worst
nightmares, as both yield and profit progressively diminished. Pest
resistance and distortion of natural predator communities necessitated galloping
applications of the most toxic chemicals. Some 55 percent of all pesticides
used globally are on cotton, more in AP than anywhere else in the world.
GM cotton hybrids, far from being the solution to proliferating pesticide
use, will actually accelerate
Indeed, many poor farmers and labourers can be seen with
their pesticide back-packs moving backward and forwards along the rows of
cotton through a haze of spray, with no protective mask or clothing. These
farmers are very aware of the problems of pesticides, and many thousands of
them are killed either passively through poisoning or actively through suicide
when their crops fail.
Why organic cotton farming makes sense
Mr MD Amzad Ali of Sarvodaya Youth Organisation, Mr G Raja Shekar of the
Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, and Mr Y Kambaram of Modern
Architects of Rural India introduced me to farmers who have been practising
NPM cotton production and had moved on to organic cotton production after
two years. By making and applying their own natural fertiliser they were
able to access a high quality premium of 200 rupees per quintal (1 quintal
= 100kg) at a price of around Rs1900/q.
The NPM system was started
in 1997 by MARI and attracted farmers because of microcredit available to
them and the low investment needed for seed and other natural inputs such
as cow dung and urine mixture and neem seed that were available locally.
The farmers and NGOs organised four local cooperatives of between 100 and
500 farmers that soon became self-sufficient and able to pay their way in
the local market, adding substantially to the local economy. Farmers who
complete the five year programme - of two NPM years followed by three organic
years - become trainers and role models for new entrants.
Tookya Niak knew
farmers who planted GM Bt cotton that failed and committed suicide, and decided
to try the NPM method himself. Now in his second year, he stressed that the
low investment required will almost certainly lead to a profit, and that farming
had become virtually free from stress as his debt was minimal.
He was confident that his
variety was hardy and dependable and that he could remove most pests during
the early immobile stages in their life cycle through his skill in selecting
an effective deterrent. He also no longer worried about the health of his
young family, and expected that his yield would rise as his soil improved
and insect communities reached a natural balance. He was still expecting
about seven quintals per acre on his poor red soil.
Indeed Niak had become such
a beacon in his community that the village has been renamed after him and
the NPM credo written on the walls in the village square to counter the pro
Bt cotton posters found everywhere. His positive appraisal of the NPM method
and its advantages were confirmed by all the other farmers that we questioned.
Recreating the natural balance of predators and pests
The skill of managing pests without recourse to synthetic pesticide requires
knowledge of life cycle and behaviour, vigilance, an armoury of pest specific
deterrents, and a healthy community of natural predators of pests. To control
pests such as the spotted bollworm, American bollworm, tobacco caterpillar,
pink bollworm, aphids, jassids, thrips, white fly and mites, each of which
is capable of causing between 30 and 50 percent damage to a crop, natural
predators are the most effective year after year.
For example trichogramma,
a tiny parasitic wasp, lays its eggs in the eggs of the American bollworm
that soon die; bracon, another parasitic wasp, lays its eggs in bollworm larvae.
Hoverfly larvae feed on aphids; pirate bugs feed on bollworm larvae, and big
eyed bugs feed on bollworm larvae and white fly. Chrysopa, a lacewing, feeds
on bollworm caterpillars and sucking pests; ladybird beetles and larvae feed
on aphids and deter Spodoptera. Ground
beetles and dragonflies feed generally on crop pests, and robber flies, predatory
wasps and red tree ants steal bollworm larvae for the young in their nests.
Preying mantis and spiders are also predators of cotton pests; as are many insectivorous birds for which perches
are erected throughout the crop.
Mechanical and chemical aids to pest reduction include
pheromone, light, kerosene, water, and yellow and white coated grease traps
that are laid within the crop as a particular pest proliferates. Castor plants
are grown that capture tobacco caterpillar eggs and marigolds that capture
American bollworm allow these pests to be ‘nipped in the bud’. Specific pests
may be sprayed with a mixture of fermented cattle dung and urine that also
add micronutrients that help wilt and other diseases. Neem seed kernel extract,
chilli/ ginger/ garlic extract, a tobacco decoction and jaggari solution,
made from the residue of sugar cane, are used to deter a variety of destructive
insects. Unlike the use of pesticides, none of these biological/organic control
methods will lead to pest resistance or harm the environment; instead, they
serve to restore the ecological balance and to increase the farmers’ health,
profit, knowledge and independence.
Organic farmers regain full independence
The third year of the NPM programme is the organic stage of cotton production,
and is run by Oxfam. Oxfam has accessed a traditional Tamil Nadu non-hybrid
variety called surabhi from the Central Institute of Cotton Research in Coimbatore.
This variety has an excellent staple length and is therefore popular with
buyers. It also has resistance to both pests and diseases such as bacterial
leaf blight, and grows well in conditions similar to those in AP.
Moreover, the surabhi seed costs Rs130 per acre, as opposed to Rs450 per acre
for hybrid cotton and Rs1600+ per acre for GM Bt cotton. It will give a standard
yield of 3 to 4 quintals per acre in poor conditions, though in good conditions
last year, it yielded 8 quintals per acre. More importantly, it yields viable
seed that puts seed control back in the farmers’ hands, allowing them to retain
and propagate the line; an unusual benefit in this age of hybrids.
So with freely available
local fertilisers such as tank silt, vermicompost and green manure, and
cheap natural pest control inputs, a profit from the crop is almost inevitable,
giving peace of mind to the farmer, who can repay any debt to the cooperative
for lending to new members.
Research backs up the case for NPM and organic cotton
A report entitled Bt cotton vs. Non Pesticidal Management of cotton: Findings
of a study by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2004-05 compares Bt
and NPM cotton in AP. It reports conclusively that Bt cotton is more prone
to pests and diseases and that beneficial insects are more prevalent on NPM
cotton. It also reports that the cost of pest management of Bt cotton is 690
percent higher than in NPM farming systems and that seed cost of Bt cotton is
355 percent higher than conventional varieties (‘Organic cotton beats Bt Cotton
in India’ SiS
who works for Oxfam on this programme, told me that in Maharashtra,
Karnataka and other Indian states, there is a culture of organic agriculture,
and she is currently talking to local officials to promote organic production
in colleges and research institutes in AP and to familiarise local farmers
with this lost tradition.
The greatest triumph for organic cotton happened when the AP Minister of Agriculture
Mr Raghuveera Reddy got the failed Monsanto cotton hybrids - Mech-12 Bt, Mech-162
Bt and Mech-184 Bt - banned in the state in May 2005, and is now supporting
the expansion of the NPM programme since witnessing its success in the village
of Punukula (‘Organic Cotton Beats Bt Cotton in India’ SiS
Madhavi added that the multinational
companies have corrupted seed dealers who gain a much larger profit on each
drum of Bt seed sold than non-Bt seed, and although the Bt crop looks destined to fail again this year,
most illiterate farmers, through wishful thinking, have believed
the hype of the profiteers. They remain caught in a cycle of debt, pesticide
But the transition to organic
cotton has been very successful where implemented and Oxfam is seeking to
give more farmers this sustainable option and will expand its programme to
other crops, including rice, in the near future. This is the opportunity
that small farmers need to avoid falling into the Bt cotton trap, and return
to autonomy and financial independence.