22 April 2003
Greening Cotton: Towards a perfect future.
In the second part of our two-part series on Bt cotton,
we bring you the story of the silent movement that is
seeding through the cotton belt in India -- farmers are
shunning the use of pesticides and are returning back
to the natural farming practices. Interestingly, the farmers
are a net gainer when they go green. For the industry,
this is not palatable.
Such a move will lead to the collapse of the fortunes
of the biotechnology industry, which had earlier sucked
the cotton farmers dry through the promotion of expensive
and harmful cocktails and multi-spray operations with
chemical. Most of the biotechnology companies were earlier
operating as chemical companies and have already wrought
a massive destruction in the cotton belts.
The best way to sway the public opinion against greening
of cotton is to use its 'financial-power' to circumvent
the policy decisions and at the same time lure agricultural
scientists by dangling the carrot of joint research collaborations
with the possibility of a foreign travel thrown in. Unfortunately,
agricultural scientists have found it easy to ride the
biotechnology bandwagon than to do any meaningful research
in resurrecting the future of cotton.
Meena Menon reports ------------------------------------------------------
Finally, a loss of faith in chemical agriculture Meena
Menon travels through the cotton fields of Gujarat and
Andhra Pradesh where, hurrah, farmers are slowly switching
back to organic farming InfoChange News & Features, April
2003 "The great thing is that organic farmers do not have
to commit suicide," says Muljibhai Bhalani, a small farmer
and schoolteacher near Bhavnagar in Gujarat. While some
feel that only large farmers can take up organic farming
as the risk is much higher for smaller farmers, there
are a few who prove this a misconception. Muljibhai, who
lives in Shampara village near Bhavnagar, is an example
of how seven acres can make for a profitable farm.
He and his family have promoted and practised organic
farming over the last eight years. "The Gujarat agricultural
university told us what to do and how to farm till 1990.
I believed them. The production capacity of land is not
endless and soon it was obvious that I would fail. I tried
growing fruit for a while but there is very little water
here. I decided to experiment, and tried growing crops
with and without chemicals.
In my organic plot, I saw that less water was needed,
insects were fewer and pests were better controlled."
"I also learnt to prepare and use bio-fertilisers and
found that expenses were less for organic cultivation.
Nobody told me all this -- I saw it for myself during
four years of experiments. In the first year, production
was 400 quintals per bhiga (here one bhiga = 2.5 acres)
and it was more or less the same over the years. I found
that more chemicals or pesticides meant more pests." "Then
in 1994 I totally stopped using any chemical fertilisers
or insecticide sprays on my land. I grow cotton on an
average of one or two acres every year. I felt I had to
prove myself in cotton since it was the local cash crop
and the main crop of the region.
I grow cotton along with dudhi (white gourd) as the leaves
attract pests of cotton, as does maize." His farm is quite
delightful. There are plenty of birds -- large babblers,
parrots -- and scores of insects which go about their
work. He claims he was the first organic farmer in the
whole of Saurashtra and slowly the movement has grown
to about 30-odd farmers in the district. It is not unusual
to see Muljibhai selling his bio-fertiliser concoction
to farmers or advising them.
His farm is a museum that many people visit. But the
majority of the locals are still sceptical about his techniques.
Muljibhai and his wife Manjulaben have worked hard to
improve the soil quality -- most of the soil here is saline,
and not even quality grass grows here. "We had to focus
on improving the soil and at first people used to laugh
at us. They don't know that the secret of a good crop
is healthy soil." Water levels are below 700 feet in this
region and Muljibhai is recharging a borewell using a
small pond nearby.
He uses vermicompost and exchanges fodder for cowdung
from a cattle pond nearby. Muljibhai has been searching
for a local variety of cotton suitable for this region
and travelled all over Gujarat in 1994 in his quest. Wherever
he saw good cotton plants he brought them home and cultivated
them. He finally settled on one variety, improved it and
called it Nisarg. In 1997 he distributed the seeds to
several farmers but the crop failed due to drought and
he lost the seed totally.
To select the most suitable variety for the farm, he
conducted his experiment on ten gunthas where he grew
ten varieties and found that H8, a cotton hybrid, gave
the best yield of 37 kg. But a desi or local variety was
close behind with 36.5 kg. His profits have gone up from
30 to 50% and he no longer sustains any losses. Farmers
inspired by him have stopped using pesticides but still
use some quantity of urea. In Ishwariya village, Virsingh
Solanki also grows desi cotton and he gets 250 kg a bhiga.
Next year he wants to stop using even urea and grow organic
cotton on four of his 20 acres.
Others in Pipardi and Zariya villages in Bhavnagar district
are trying to grow crops organically but some of them
still use urea, which they believe is organic! Many farmers
are realising through experience the ill-effects of chemical
agriculture and it is the big farmers who are setting
the trend, adopting low-cost techniques and reducing dependence
on external inputs. This is a healthy trend that is being
slowly adopted in many parts of the country by discerning
The prospect of selling certified organic cotton which
fetches premiums of 10 to 30%, is a major attraction in
certain areas where organic cotton projects are underway.
After the initial euphoria over hybrid cotton and the
extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides, there is
a loss of faith in the magic of the early years and now
farmers are prone to experimenting and even reducing the
extent of chemicals and pesticides on their farms. Intensive
cotton farming has led to depleting yields and mounting
Large farmers like Baburao Wankhede from Amravati and
Anandrao Subedar from Yavatmal (both in Maharashtra) were
intelligent enough to see by the 1980s that a change was
called for in the way cotton was being farmed. This was
the time when farmers were hearing about Bhaskar Save
or Masanobu Fukuoka, proponents of natural farming, and
trying to experiment on their own. Farmers found they
did not have to look elsewhere for natural farming as
it was part of Indian tradition and had nurtured her soils
for centuries since the days of rishi kheti.
They found that organic farming is not some esoteric
idea but a way for the farmer to spend less and ensure
he/she gets a good yield which also does not deplete soil
fertility. For smaller farmers especially, it can be the
difference between life and death as Muljibhai has said.
Cotton is a crop most suited to drylands. It has flourished
there despite poor monsoons. The old cotton varieties
(herbaceums or arboreums, called desis) were suited to
each region and its peculiarities. Hybrid cotton with
its promise of high yields changed all that, but now in
some places, farmers are convinced of the need to develop
and grow varieties which are locally suitable.
The spate of suicides, mainly among cotton farmers in
the last decade, the resistance of pests to insecticides,
the high cost of cotton production, low returns -- these
are the wages of progress. Farmers in debt have sold their
tractors, their houses, their valuables, even their kidneys
in Andhra Pradesh, to survive. And many of them have paid
for cotton farming in blood. Cotton, once famed in India
as 'webs of woven wind', had to be made suitable for the
textile mills in Britain which were geared to process
longer stapled cotton, and the traditional short stapled
herbaceum and arboreum cottons were slowly replaced by
hirsutums (medium and long stapled cottons).
Cotton, once known as white gold, has replaced much of
the traditional food crops and is mono-cropped. Erratic
rains, poor quality seeds, increasing pest resistance,
degrading soils and indiscriminate use of pesticides have
led to mass crop failures. The resultant suicides by farmers
who have consumed the same pesticides they used futilely
against cotton pests, are acts of desperation by a community
pushed to the wall.
In Punjab, a study conducted by the Centre for Research
in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), in seven
villages of Bhatinda district of Punjab (Pioneer, April
26, 1999), found that 85% of the cotton farmers were in
debt. In Bhatinda over 100 farmers are reported to have
committed suicide in 1998-99. In Dharampur village, taluka
Savli, Baroda, of 32 farmers, most are in debt. In Vidarbha
in Maharashtra, since May 2001, over 80 farmers are reported
to have committed suicide.
Why has cotton become a killer crop in the land where
it was born and grown and famed the world over? Hundreds
of crores have been spent on cotton research in this country
and instead of the native short staple cotton today almost
45% of the total area in India is planted to intra and
interspecific commercial cotton hybrids (Cotton Production
Practices Report prepared by ICAC secretariat for the
61st plenary meeting Cairo, Oct 2002). Yet cotton today
is low in productivity, and does not give sufficient returns
to the farmer who has to spend anything above Rs 3,000
per acre to cultivate it. While agriculture overall has
reached stagnation with the miracle of the Green Revolution
now officially declared a failure, cotton has been the
Pests, notably the American bollworm, have become resistant
to insecticides. Cotton is grown on 5% of the land in
India, the largest cultivator of cotton in the world,
but consumes about 54% of the total pesticides in the
country. Soils have been the worst-affected by chemical
pollution and farmers are realising that unless their
soils are enriched, farming will become a thing of the
past. Proponents of intensive farming have dismissed organic
agriculture but farmers on their own, in many parts of
the country, are rejecting chemicals and fertilisers and
trying to salvage their degraded lands using sheer common
sense. Growing cotton without chemicals and pesticides
is not only possible, as several farmers have shown, but
highly beneficial for the soil and for bringing back birds
and other natural predators.
Many of the farmers who are growing cotton organically
do not feel the American bollworm or other pests are a
problem and many have also understood how to deal with
pests naturally. "It is estimated that about 14,000 tonnes
of organic cotton were produced in the world during 1999/00.Turkey
was the largest producer of organic cotton, followed by
the USA and India. (The ICAC Recorder, Vol XIX No 1, March
2001). The ICAC Recorder of December 2000 lists India
as having produced 1,169 tonnes of lint in 1999/00.
Today, certified organic cotton is grown in 10-15 countries.
Production is concentrated in Turkey (1,750 tonnes of
cotton fibre, 29% of the total) and the USA (1,625 tonnes,
27%), but significant amounts of organic cotton are also
produced in India (1,000 tonnes, 17%), Peru (550 tonnes,
9%) among other countries. Not all farmers have switched
to organic cotton for the high premiums. Farmers like
Yellappa (though not an organic farmer fully) in Asifabad
, Adilabad district, Andhra Pradesh, who do not use pesticide
sprays and have reduced the use of chemicals, are not
troubled by the bollworm.
Pathubhai Rathod, an organic farmer in Surendranagar,
is content to let the bollworm chew up his cotton crop
- after the assault, he finds the crop grows back and
gives him an average yield. Most farmers who have stopped
using chemicals and pesticides find the pests have reduced
or do not appear. They also see that natural predators
are back on their farms and even birds prey on the worms
once they stop using all toxic chemicals. Farmers who
have experimented with organic and chemical farming find
that pest attacks are more on chemicals plots and they
have to spend more.
Many of them are going back to desi varieties where this
problem of bollworms did not exist. The issue here is
availability of seeds. According to the report of the
working group on Organic and Biodynamic Farming for the
Tenth Five-year Plan (GOI, Planning Commission, September
2001), "Although as yet in its infancy, organic farming
is becoming important in the agriculture sector in India,
largely through the efforts of small groups of farmers.
It has come out of the exploitative agriculture that has
been followed all these years, resulting in damaging impacts
on environment, human and animal health, soil and water
It is well-known now that increased use (or abuse) of
chemical pesticides and fertilisers has created a chain
of problems of soil, environment and water degradation.
The intensive chemical agriculture that has been followed
after Green Revolution successes is causing heavy pollution
of our food, drinking water, air. Life expectancy has
improved, but the quality of life has substantially deteriorated."
Over the last 20 years there has been a slow recognition
that soil is the key to productivity, not adding tonnes
of chemicals to it.
There is a small but not insignificant effort to cleanse
the air, bring the soil back to its nutritional level
and improve productivity, and this effort is coming from
the farmers themselves. Though there is scientific endorsement
for organic farming, farmers are not looking to the government
for solutions. While this is hardly a sweeping revolution,
the organic seeds have been sown. It remains to be seen
whether the damage done in three decades of chemical farming
can be arrested or even undone.