In the cotton fields of Maharashtra, hybrid varieties are unable to withstand the onslaught of pests and diseases, prompting a shift in course towards India’s indigenous (desi) cotton varieties.
However, farmers want newer technologies or better alternatives but few are willing to test out desi cotton for fear of losing yields.
Illegal Bt cotton seeds are more popular than desi seeds. Even in the face of abundant evidence, there has been no action against the sale of illegal seeds.
Though there are NGOs promoting desi cotton, experts feel government backing is a must for a large-scale shift from Bt cotton to desi varieties.
In a region where Bt cotton rules the roost, Kamal Kishore Dhiran, a farmer in Balodi, 50 km from Yavatmal (in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra) is an outlier. He has been planting desi cotton seeds and withstood the pressure to grow transgenic or Bt cotton since it was introduced in 2002. He was once part of a successful organic cotton venture – the Vidarbha Organic Farmers Association (VOFA) which is now defunct, and which used to export organic cotton.
Dhiran still grows ‘straight’ (as opposed to hybrid) varieties of cotton; he sources it from the Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth in Akola every few years. He is among the few farmers who saves the seed and only buys fresh ones every three years or so.
Dhiran has been a farmer since 1960, and owns 60 acres. He did try out hybrid cotton seeds and grew them with fertilisers and other chemicals – soon he found the yields were falling and he decided to grow desi (indigenous) cotton which was more suited to the area. Today he grows desi varieties like AK 7 and AK 8, and some American varieties, and gets 4 to 5 quintals (100 kg) per acre in dry land and about 8 quintals per acre in his irrigated land. He spends Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per acre, which includes cow dung and other inputs. He deals with his pests using natural enemies and finds that his neighbours are spraying heavily for Bt cotton.
“Bt cotton is like Fair and Lovely [a popular fairness cream]. Does it really change your or make you fair? Similarly Bt cotton doesn’t address the main problem of pests. I have better techniques and fight pests using their natural enemies,” he said.
Dhiran stands alone in a market dominated by hybrid Bt cotton seeds, now numbering over 2,000. Few seed companies sell desi cotton seeds and they serve a niche market. A cursory look at the seeds market in Yavatmal shows the dealers only stock Bt cotton. A Mahabeej (Maharashtra state seeds corporation limited) dealer remarks no one wants alternative seeds. If they do, they have to place an order in advance; but often, there are no stocks available.
The last few years have seen a vicious attack by the pink bollworm which has developed resistance to Bollgard 2, the proprietary Bt cotton variety produced by Monsanto, reducing cotton yields and driving farmers to despair. This has prompted a belated shift in course away from hybrids, thanks to secondary pest attacks and pests like the pink bollworm that used to ‘minor’ morphing into a serious menace.
The alternatives to Bt cotton
Since 2002, field trials of 25 to 30 Bt cotton hybrids and straight varieties have been conducted under the All India Coordinated Research Project on Cotton. Since 2017, two straight Gossypium hirsutum varieties have been released for north Maharashtra. One of them was developed by the Punjab Agricultural University and is named PAU Bt 1; and the other developed by CICR is Bt 6. Farmers are growing them and a private seed company is commercially multiplying the Bt 6 seeds. In addition, the six straight varieties that have approved for release in Maharashtra are also G. hirsutum varieties — PKV 081, Rajat, Surat, and some others, but they are in the seed multiplication stage.
Vijay Waghmare, director, Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, said the trials were promising and the yields were as good as the early Bt cotton seeds — at 15-20 quintals per hectare in rainfed conditions and upto 24 quintals per hectare in irrigated conditions. It remains to be seen how these seeds perform in farmers’ fields over time.
Straight varieties can be reused by farmers but unless they gain wider acceptance, seed companies may not be interested in producing them on a large scale. However, hybrids continue to dominate the Indian market.
The prevalent menace of illegal Bollgard 3
After cotton fields were devastated by the American or green bollworm, Bt cotton was launched in 2002 but soon secondary pests including the mealy bug surfaced for the first time on cotton in India. The pink bollworm was already chewing up Bollgard 1, and the company Monsanto Mahyco came up with Bollgard 2. Even that has proved to be ineffective against the pink bollworm, as is evident in the last few years.
However, illegal herbicide tolerant (HT) Bt cotton is being sold and has found great popularity among farmers. Two years ago, Monsanto withdrew its application for approval of herbicide tolerant cotton from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee over differences on its royalty being cut, but illegal herbicide tolerant cotton has found its way into farmers fields and seems to be extremely popular, with farmers naming it “Bollgard 3”. Agents come to villages and sell it cheaply to farmers who have been planting it all over the place. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, among other states are growing this cotton but there is little regulation.
After many complaints of illegal cotton, in October 2017, the Prime Minister’s Office formed a Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC) under the Department of Biotechnology in the Union Ministry of Science and Technology. Its report recommended action against such companies and destruction of illegal seeds. Maharashtra reportedly seized over 16,000 seed packets till April and confiscated unpacked seeds, apart from filing over 20 cases.
After analysing over 13,361 samples, the report found illegal herbicide tolerant cotton on 15 per cent of the area in Maharashtra, Telangana, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in 2017. The samples tested negative for all other herbicide tolerant genes except for that of Monsanto’s MON88913. This entire episode is reminiscent of 2001 when illegal Bt cotton was found in Gujarat fields even before it was approved by the government a year later.
While there were an estimated 35 lakh packets of illegal herbicide tolerant Bt cotton sold in 2017, despite the Committee’s recommendations, in 2018 too, Waghmare estimates that 12- 20 per cent of the cotton area is planted with this illegal cotton. At least 15 per cent of the area in Vidarbha is growing this illegal variety on which glyphosate is sprayed and the CICR has been warning farmers as glyphosate has long-term effects on the soil and the germination of the next crop.