Anil Khondwa Shinde was a cotton farmer in Bhadumari in Vidarba. Last week he swallowed pesticide and died within minutes. At 31, Shinde was not the only young farmer to have taken the fatal route to escape the continuing agrarian distress. Nearly 60 per cent of the farmers committing suicides happen to be less than 45 years in age.
Ironically, Shinde is a victim of the highly expensive and sophisticated improved technology. The New York Times reports that he had planted Bt cotton, the genetically modified crop expected to reduce the application of pesticides and thereby improve profitability. He is not the only Bt cotton farmer to have ended his life, hundreds of Bt cotton farmers in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have killed themselves over the past few years.
In India, Bt cotton was projected as a 'magic bullet'. Although I had warned time and again that the technology is not suitable for the non-irrigated areas (and much of cotton is grown in dryland regions), it was pushed nevertheless. Several studies have shown Bt cotton yields to be substantially lower than non-Bt varieties. Agricultural scientists had earlier projected a net increase in profit by Rs 10,000 per acre from growing Bt cotton without considering that the seed royalty in India was 30 times more than what was being collected in China. Let us not forget that the loss being incurred by Chinese farmers would have been much higher if they were also made to cough out a higher royalty fee.
As a result, while an increasing number of Bt cotton farmers are dying, the seed companies and dealer's profit continue to soar. Thanks to the marketing blitz launched by the seed companies even using dancing girls to lure gullible farmers the area under Bt cotton continues to multiply. And so are the profit margins for the companies. Between 2002-05, the seed companies had earned Rs 1,400-crore by way of royalty alone (they call it 'technology fee'). In 2006, the seed companies aim to pocket Rs 4,000-crore as royalty from farmers cultivating Bt cotton in 3.5 million hectares.
I have often said that if only this money had remained with farmers there would have been far less suicides. It only needed a government regulatory order to stop the royalties from being collected. With no price regulation, seed companies extracted an exorbitantly high royalty in India Rs 1200 per acre (now lowered to Rs 900 as per company claims) compared to a paltry Rs 38 in China. Higher the seed cost, higher was the need for crop loans. At the same time, as I said earlier Bt cotton requires more water, which means more cost to pump out underground water. Fertiliser requirement also went up considerably. And with the crop harvest belying the promised yields, farmers found themselves in a terrible crisis a victim of faulty technology.
As the New York Times reports "Frustration is building in India with American multinational companies peddling costly, genetically modified seeds. They have made deep inroads in rural India - a vast and alluring market - bringing new opportunities but also new risks as Indian farmers pile up debt." Regardless of the extent of failure of Bt cotton, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) the apex nodal agency that accords clearance for GM crops has been merrily approving Bt cotton varieties. In the past four years, 59 Bt cotton varieties have been approved for commercial planting.
With the single-gene Bt cotton varieties failing to stand up to the promise, the GEAC is getting ready with the two-gene Bt cotton varieties. Without being first held accountable for the release of single-gene Bt cotton, the GEAC is being allowed a free hand to play havoc with the future of the farming community. Such is the callous neglect that it continues to brush aside reports of 1,600 sheep dying in Andhra Pradesh reportedly from eating Bt cotton leaves. It also refuses to take notice of reports of Bt cotton varieties causing skin allergies among cotton pickers in several parts of the country.
The question I am often asked is as to what is the alternative. My answer is very simple: Follow the two-pronged strategy. First, ban the use of chemical pesticides on cotton (which incidentally consumes 55 per cent of the total pesticides applied). This will result in a restoration of the ecological balance, minimise the insect attack, and result in a safer environment. Secondly, stop cultivating genetically modified cotton varieties. Not only will it reduce drastically the cost of production, it will also mean that the farmer is pulled out from the death trap.
Farmers in several parts of the country are following this approach. In more than 4,500 hectares in Andhra Pradesh, farmers are reaping a higher harvest without growing Bt varieties or using pesticides. And there are no pests. Why? If you stop spraying pesticides, beneficial insects take over. In case of cotton, there are 28 predators of the American bollworm in the same field. When the farmer stops using pesticides, these beneficial insects survive and devour the bollworm. With indiscriminate pesticides applications, these predators are the first one to be killed.
Hundreds of farmers in Tamilnadu, Punjab, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have taken the route to sustainable cotton production, and emerged free of the clutches of the seed and agribusiness companies. And if you are still not convinced, read what The Guardian has to say for rice, another crop for which GM varieties are being evolved. The Government of Egypt has announced its best-ever rice harvest. Farmers using conventional seeds grew a record average of 9.5 tonnes per hectare.
While the area under Bt cotton is expected to rise, government estimates point to a significant drop in cotton production this year. Still worse, China with the largest area under Bt cotton is planning to import cotton from India this year. The Bt cotton bubble has surely burst.