In these days of confessional nationalism a contest is brewing in cotton fields involving desi versus American, national versus multinational and public sector do-gooders versus private sector profit-takers.
All but 3 percent of India’s cotton acreage is covered by American cotton. As the name implies, it is not native to India. The British imported it in 1790 following the American War of Independence. The disruption caused by that struggle prompted them to search for alternative sources of supply to feed their mills in Lancashire and Manchester.
Switching to the Hybrid Variety
But the British were not able to persuade Indian farmers to switch. At the time of independence, 97 percent of Indian cotton was desi, of which there are two species. (The two other are American and Egyptian.) Asiatic cottons have evolved in this part of the world over millions of years. They are hardy plants. They can grow in saline and water-logged conditions, withstand drought, tolerate pests and resist diseases. Their yields may not compare with American Bt cotton hybrids, but they leave on the farmer’s table as much or more because of lower cultivation costs.
Indian scientists completed the unfinished task of the British. From desi cotton Indian weavers produced calico and muslin that were much in demand before cheap British mill cloth killed them. These cottons were of short staple length. They were regarded as coarse and inferior.
After independence, Indian scientists concentrated their efforts on improving American cotton of medium to long staple length for supply to mills. In 1970, India developed the world’s first cotton hybrid. There are more than a thousand now. Farmers switched. At the turn of the century about a quarter of Indian cotton was desi.
Foray of American Cotton
American cotton is a sensitive plant, susceptible to pests and diseases. Particularly stubborn and deadly are bollworms ─ American, spotted and pink. Farmers used to give 18 to 30 sprays during the life of the crop to kill the pest. Being hidden, they could evade the sprays. Farmers suffered huge losses.
The approval of genetically-modified Bt cotton further changed the desi versus American cotton mix. Bt cotton has a bollworm-killing gene derived from a soil bacterium, whose abbreviated name is Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). When implanted, it enables cotton plants to produce their own insecticide. The American technology was approved in 2002. It found the market ready and willing. Farmers took to growing Bt cotton. Ninety-five percent of Indian cotton acreage is American Bt cotton hybrids. The share of desi cotton has shrunk to about 3 percent now.
Overdependence on Pest-Resistant Variety
The Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), an apex cotton research body, has not taken kindly to being reduced to a bystander by the private sector on account of Bt technology. While it says Bollgard II is a ‘wonderful technology,’ it gloats when an African country bans Bt cotton or there are reports of bollworms developing resistance to it in India. (Bollgard II is the name under which the currently popular Bt technology is sold).
CICR believes if farmers go back to growing desi cottons, their dependence on imported Bt technology will end. Desi cottons will be attacked by bollworms to a lesser extent, but the infestation can be controlled by insecticides or by using one-gene Bt technology that has gone off patent.
The trick, it says, is to terminate the crop early ─ in five months. The longer the crop, the more the number of flowerings. Insects get attracted to the fragrance of flowers. Early termination will also deprive the insects of refuge for the rest of the year.
But output will drop if crop life is cut short. To compensate, CICR recommends ultra-high density planting. Instead of 675 grams of Bt cottonseed per acre, it recommends five kg per acre. Farmers use less of Bt cottonseed because the plant is bushy and the seeds are costly. Last year, a kg of Bt cottonseed sold for Rs 1,844 in Maharashtra. Desi cotton seed costs between Rs 50 and Rs 200 a kg depending on supplier.
Monopoly on Field
- Nationalism debate
rages on in agricultural fields with the desi variety of cotton yielding higher
profit than Bt cotton.
- May 23: News
reports suggest government has withdrawn its order dated March, 2016 capping
the royalty on genetically modified cotton seeds.
- December 26: Agriculture
minister Radha Mohan Singh passes orders in a bid to regulate the monopoly
enjoyed by multinationals like Monsanto.
- Nagpur-based cotton
research body CICR emphasises on growing desi variety by improving some of its
Desi Cotton Also Yields Profits
During last year’s monsoons, CICR chose 36 farmers in rain-fed Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra to spread its message. Five of the farmers, whom this correspondent met in April in Wardha, reported higher profits than Bt cotton because of lower costs of cultivation and higher prices for their produce. (The price differential might get reduced as more farmers take to cultivating it).
The desi variant which the farmers produced was short staple absorbent cotton used in surgical dressings. But CICR has also developed eight varieties of longer staple length and good strength which can be used in wearable fabrics.
CICR’s prescription meshes with the nationalistic mood in the agriculture ministry which is headed by an RSS leader. Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan said recently that the American supplier of Bt cotton technology “is a good company. We respect it but it cannot loot farmers because it has knowledge.”
Redeeming Home-Grown Cotton
Mohan has shown his ‘respect’ by slashing technology fee payable by farmers to the multinational by 74 percent, moving the Competition Commission to investigate the company’s alleged monopolistic behaviour, asking the industry ministry whether the company’s patent on (Bollgard II) technology can be withdrawn and bring Bt cottonseed across the country under price control.
“Based on its innate strength, desi will compete and coexist with all technologies like it did after independence. We strengthened desi by improving fibre traits and shortening its duration to help it to compete better with Bt. Pray that desi wins,” CICR’s Director Keshav Raj Kranthi said in a text message.
But in his newsletters he takes a nationalistic line. He believes the time has come “to wake up and help desi cotton get back its lost kingdom, and through it so shall our brethren regain back our roots to reach the sky.”
(Vivian Fernandes is editor of www.smartindianagriculture.in)