Himansh Dhomse, DNA | Last Modified - Mar 26, 2012, 06:01 AM IST
Ahmedabad: Are genetically modified (GM) seeds the real culprit behind the fall in yield of cotton crops? Farmers and economists seem to think so. It has been 10 years since genetically-modified Bt cotton was first introduced in the country. The yield of cotton rose to a peak in the first four years of the last decade but declined later.
On Monday, Bt cotton will complete 10 years in this country as it was on March 26, 2002, that the central government’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved three Bt cotton hybrids for use by Indian farmers.
Subsequently, Bt seeds were used during the cotton season (Oct-Sept) of 2002-03. In that year, cotton was cultivated in 16.34 lakh hectares and 30.50 lakh bales (1 bale=170 kg) were produced. This came to 317 kg cotton per hectare.
The introduction of genetically-modified Bt cotton transformed Gujarat’s cotton landscape. During the four years from 2002-03 to 2005-06, cotton yield jumped by an impressive 150per cent to 794 kg per hectare. This led to a quantum leap in total production which rose to 89 lakh bales, a jump of 191per cent.
However, the honeymoon with Bt cotton proved short-lived as production began to decline after 2005-2006. Farmers were not amused. They felt that it was Bt cotton that was responsible for the decline in yields.
“Thanks to Bt cotton, yields began to decline post 2005-06, though the fall in yield has been only 18.50per cent till today. Cotton growing land has started losing its fertility which is a cause of concern,” said Magan Patel, president of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) in Gujarat.
With a long list of drawbacks, the farmers of a small village, Khoraj, near Sanand are giving up Bt cotton and tilting towards crops like paddy, castor, jowar and others. This small village has made a major shift from cotton to paddy, due to easy availability of water. For the past many years, Gujarat has seen a rise in area under cotton cultivation.
It is estimated that cotton sowing is being carried out in around 30 lakh hectares of land this year, which translates into more than one-third of the total land where kharif sowing is normally undertaken.
But in Khoraj almost 90per cent sowing has shifted to paddy in the past couple of years. This year, farmers are expecting good profit from paddy instead of cotton. Farmers in Khoraj said that Narmada canal and good rains have increased water availability.
"Earlier, we went for Bt cotton but it needs lots of pesticide and water. This in turn hardened the soil. So around three to four years ago, farmers of Khoraj shifted from Bt cotton to Kalyan cotton," said Raghu Jadav. He said now they are moving to paddy. Farmers said that the easy availability of water has made them look at other crops for better profits. Now, of the total 5,000 bigha under cultivation, over 90per cent is used for paddy production. Gambhir Jadav who has around 200 bigha of land in Khoraj said earlier rains were normal and labour was easily available which made cotton a viable option. "Now rains are good but very uncertain and last longer which spoils the standing cotton crop. So we mainly sow paddy and castor," he said.
"Cotton being a cash crop gives more profit. But past experience has taught us that the crop is often lost due to unseasonal rains, disease or limited availability of water," said Hitesh Chavda. He has around 100 bigha of agricultural land, said that between 2008 and 2010, over 50per cent of his cotton crop failed due to unseasonal rains and various diseases.
"In case of cotton, the crop cycle takes eight months and if it fails a farmer cannot sow anything else as water is not available," he said.
Jamsangh Umarsangh, who owns 150 bigha of land said good rain for the past many years has made them shift to paddy. "The arrival time for paddy is three to four months. By Diwali, we will be enchasing paddy and, post-Diwali we will start sowing the second kharif crop. Similarly, in summers too we can go for jowar, castor or any other crop," said Umarsangh. The farmers of Khoraj believe that if rains remain bountiful, their counterparts across the state will have to shift to other crops as cotton will not be feasible any more.
It may appear paradoxical that even as productivity has taken a hit, total production has constantly grown over the years. But it is not as big a puzzle as it may seem. "Production figures seem impressive but that is because the total area under cotton cultivation in the state has gone up. The area under cotton farming in Gujarat is now 30 lakh hectares, the highest ever in the state. However, this is also likely to come down from next year," said Patel. Agriculture expert and vice-chancellor of Junagadh Agriculture University, Dr NC Patel, believes that cultivation of Bt cotton may be one reason for the decline in productivity.
"It is not that the gene of GM cotton seeds has changed. Due to continuous cultivation of Bt cotton, there is a possibility that the land has become less fertile. Apart from this, there are other reasons for the decline in yield in the state. If the cotton yield peaked in a year, it is possible that rain and weather were good for the crop that year," said Dr Patel. The state government, however, rules out the possibility of GM crops affecting fertility of the land. "If the yield has come down, GM technology can't be blamed. There are other factors such as seasonal and unseasonal rain and climatic changes which could have played a role," said Dr BR Shah, director of agriculture, Gujarat government.