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August 2009



Dependence on Bt cotton is now total
Ramu Bhagwat
Times of India, 16 July 2009
NAGPUR: When it was introduced in 2002, the genetically modified Bt cotton seed was greeted with distrust by farmers which was anyway then out of reach for Vidarbha's poor dryland cultivator because of its prohibitive cost of over Rs 1000 per bag of 450 grams. Today, almost every cotton grower in the 32 lakh-hectare cotton belt of Vidarbha and Marathwada has shifted to Bt seed.
Maharashtra actually gave approval for commercial trials of Bt seeds in 2005. That year, less Bt seeds were sown in less than 4 lakh hectares. But the area under genetically modified seed multiplied magically in the last three years and farm sources say now the dependence on it is total. "No hybrid seed is being picked by farmer and there is hardly any sale of other cotton seeds," says Santosh Netam, a farm activist from Pandharkawda. But what worries him is the large number of spurious fake Bt seeds that many gullible farmers buy because of their lower prices.
Experts like acting director of Central Institute for Cotton Research's (CICR) Keshav Kranthi also admits that fake Bt seeds are being sold in the market. CICR has this year introduced its own brand of Bt seeds which are fairly priced at Rs 200 for a 2 kg pack as compared to still high-priced Rs 650 pack of 450 gram sold by multinational Monsanto's Indian partner companies. The CICR brand, may however, not reach far and wide because it could only produce around 20,000 packs, much less than the actual demand.
While the results of CICR brand Bt seeds will be keenly watched, the Bt seeds have generally improved yields in the last few years by protecting cotton crop largely from bollworm infections. According to Kranthi, thanks to Bt technology India has become a net cotton exporter nation in the last two years. The total cotton yield which was in the range of 170 lakh tonnes in pre-Bt days, has now crossed 300 lakh tones. In year 2007, India earned Rs 7,640 crore from cotton exports.
The total shift to Bt seeds has also triggered the risk factor. While farm scientists are still not sure of the environmental impact of the Bt seeds on other crops and soil in the longer run, it is well known that the dryland conditions are not best suited for it. The results are best in irrigated areas with a better crop management that Vidarbha farmers rarely adopt.
"Most dangerous aspect is that cotton crop in the distressed, suicide-hit area of western Vidarbha is not covered by national crop insurance policy," points out Kishore Tiwari of Vudarvbha Jan Andolan Samiti. Insurance is normally extended to food crops like jowar and pulses. Soyabean, the other main cash crop of the region, has also been covered albeit with a higher premium of around 10% as compared to below 5% for pulses. But when it comes to cotton, the insurance companies demand a high premium of over 20%. "This makes high-priced Bt cotton cultivation doubly risky," says Tiwari.