Science in Society Archive

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 Pradesh

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.

Non-governmental organisations 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 this trend.

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 27). 

Madhavi, 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 27).

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 and despair. 

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.

Article first published 05/01/06

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