The Fatal Chain: Failure of Bt Cotton, increased sprays, poisoning deaths

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 13 Oct 2017 09:35:28


By Kartik Lokhande,

Root cause is not easily visible to the public eye, as the debate centres around immediate reasons only. As one goes deeper into the causes of pesticide poisoning deaths in Yavatmal district, one realises that the root cause is in failure of Bt Cotton leading to increased number of pesticide sprays. As far as farmers are concerned, Parshuram Ghagi, nephew of Diwakar Ghagi who had died of pesticide poisoning in village Ghoddara in Maregaon tehsil, gives a representative comment. A farmer himself, he puts it bluntly -- Bt Cotton resistance claims have proven hollow.

“Bt Cotton crop is susceptible to attacks by looper, leaf-eating caterpillar, and Pink Bollworm. Expenses of pesticides have gone up since increase in area under Bt Cotton. The companies have come up with different pesticides for different purposes. Previously, only one or two pesticides like Endosulfan or Rogor would prove to be effective. Now, the situation has changed. Bt Cotton has increased our pesticide spraying expenses,” Parshuram Ghagi says. Of course, increased number of pesticide sprays means more risk of getting exposed to pesticides, which precisely has led to deaths of at least 20 farmers in Yavatmal district alone.

Jainarayan Badki, Director of Vividh Karyakari Sanstha, Maregaon, shares Ghagi’s opinion. “Bt Cotton does not have own resistance now. Hence, pesticide sprays are needed. And, this is resulting in farming families losing their bread-winners. We do not know if those, who have survived pesticide poisoning, will be as healthy as they were previously,” he says.

Rakesh Dasarwar, officiating Tehsil Agriculture Officer, Maregaon, confirms that farmers have been complaining of Pink Bollworm attack. Pink Bollworm hibernates in cotton seed, he says. As cotton harvest in Maregaon tehsil is taken since Diwali up to January or February, the late harvest is exposed to higher risk of attack by Pink Bollworm, he adds.
Dr Sharad Nimbalkar, former Vice-Chancellor of Dr Panjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, has been very vocal against Bt Cotton.

“Bt Cotton variety in use has lost its potency. Besides, pests become resistant to even the pesticides over a period of time. As a result, the number of sprayings required to save the crop has increased. Also, farmers are using pesticides in combination, exposing themselves to the risk of adverse impacts of pesticide poisoning,” he explains.

Dr Pramod Yadgirwar, Senior Entomologist, Vasantrao Naik Agri-Biotech College, Yavatmal, also confirms that Bt Cotton has been found to be susceptible to attacks by Thrips, White Fly, Jassids. However, he says, maximum pesticide spraying is against sucking pest, Spodoptera, and Pink Bollworm. As a result, obviously, the spraying cost has increased for the farmers.

Kishor Tiwari, Chairman of Vasantrao Naik Shetkari Swawalamban Mission, says it straight -- Bt Cotton has become ‘non-resistant’. A few years ago, the seed companies claimed that BG-II variety of Bt Cotton would be resistant to Pink Bollworm. Some of the learned scientists also supported the companies’ claims through various studies with statements that pesticide spraying expenses would get reduced with BG-II.

Now, a few years since those studies, the situation on ground is totally different. Pink Bollworm has been attacking Bt Cotton. Now, Tiwari says, efforts are on to introduce BG-III. However, owing to some international developments, legal entry of BG-III into the markets has got stalled. Still, he alleges, more than 8 lakh seed packets of unauthorised BG-III variety have been sold in Yavatmal district alone this year. Almost all the cotton sown in Maregaon tehsil is of BG-III variety, he said. Most of this unauthorised BG-III is coming from Gujarat, he alleges.

Despite growth in area under Bt Cotton, input cost of farmers never came down. In fact, it increased because of rise in use of fertilisers, pesticides, Plant Growth Regulators, Stickers, enhancers etc. But, Tiwari asks, what is the option with the agricultural universities or ICAR institutions if Bt Cotton has become non-resistant to bollworm or other pests. “Are they merely white elephants,” he asks angrily.

The yield of Bt Cotton in rainfed areas is 7-8 quintals per acre, Tiwari says. If ‘required’ fertilisers are not given, and pesticides are not sprayed enough number of times, the yield comes down by 2 quintals per acre. So, if farmers decide to reduce number of pesticide sprays, they are bound to lose on the yield. As a result, he adds, farmers opt for pesticide spraying and fall prey to aggressive marketing of pesticide companies. “Sadly, now everyone knows what happens afterwards...” Tiwari observes.

Surprisingly, the Government knew about Bt Cotton being susceptible to Pink Bollworm attack and subsequent increase in expenses of farmers on purchase of pesticides and fertilisers. But, no action was taken.

According to Tiwari, the then Agriculture Commissioner S M Kendrekar, had written to Member Secretary of Standing Committee of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under Union Ministry of Science and Technology, on August 1 earlier this year regarding ‘increased susceptibility of cotton crop to Pink Bollworm’.

In the letter, the then Agriculture Commissioner had requested Member Secretary of Standing Committee of GEAC to ‘reconsider the approval of Bt Cotton as BG-II, GM crop, and its claim regarding resistance to Bollworm’. He had pointed out that his office was getting frequent complaints from farmers regarding crop failure due to the attack of Pink Bollworm.

Nearly 40 lakh hectares of cultivable area in Maharashtra was under cotton crop, and nearly 96 per cent of cotton-growers in the State were using BG-II cotton seed for cultivation. “Since last two years, it is observed that Bt Cotton is becoming more susceptible to Pink Bollworm. The farmers are complaining about crop loss apart from increased cost due to more number of sprays of costly pesticide,” the then Agriculture Commissioner had stated.

The companies selling Bt Cotton seeds had started providing non-Bt seeds for ‘refuge’ plantation so that ‘refuge cotton plants’ would attract the Bollworm or pest attack and Bt Cotton plants remained ‘safe’ and thus yield was protected.

However, in his letter, the then Agriculture Commissioner had also pointed out that ‘since last two years, refuge seed samples were found to be non-standard.’
Importantly, in the said letter, it was mentioned that BG-II should be declared susceptible to Pink Bollworm and ‘denotified from Bt category’. Once this was done, it was stated, the prices of BG-II cotton seed would be determined as ‘ordinary hybrid cotton seeds which will enable to reduce the cotton seed cost.’ However, the officer was transferred within three months of his appointment as Agriculture Commissioner.

Despite the fact that 20 farmers/farm labourers have died of pesticide poisoning and more than 500 have taken ill in Yavatmal district alone, there is a strange silence on part of the aggressive supporters of Bt Cotton companies. Technology is fine, but what about the increase in input cost associated with absorption of technology? Farmers simply cannot afford increase in input cost because there is no remunerative price paid to him in the so-called market economy.

As the debate over this rages, and will continue to rage among politicians and policy-makers, the family members of the farmers/farm labourers who have died or have taken ill due to pesticide poisoning, must be thinking -- what exactly is wrong with agriculture...