The much-touted Bt-cotton leaves the party

India's 2018 cotton harvest was devastated by swarming armies of bollworms

In India, 90 per cent of the land under cotton uses a GM Bt-seed variety cotton supplied by Monsanto. But the main pest it was meant to safeguard against is back, as a virulent pesticide-resistant species.

The bollworm lays thousands of eggs and multiplies into millions of worms within days. Estimates based on surveys by the state revenue and the Maharashtra agriculture departments around November and then again in February-March indicate that the pink-worm infestation affected over 80 per cent of the 4.2 million hectares under cotton in the state. Each farmer reportedly lost 33 per cent to over 50 per cent of their standing crop.

Bt-cotton gets its name from bacillus thuringiensis, a soil-dwelling bacterium. The Bt seed contains cry (crystal) genes derived from the bacterium and inserted into the cotton plant genome (the genetic material of the cell) to provide protection against the bollworm.

Bt-cotton was meant to control the bollworm. But farmers will now find the worms surviving in Bt-cotton fields, Kranthi wrote in a series of essays in industry magazines and on his own CICR blog. Neither the ICAR nor the Union Agriculture Ministry seemed alert to the potential devastation at the time. The state and central government have since been aware of the extent of pink-worm devastation, but have not come up with a solution.

In 2006-7, Monsanto released BG-II hybrids, saying the new technology was more potent, more durable. These slowly replaced BG-I. And by now, BG-II hybrids occupy over 90 per cent of the around 130 million hectares under cotton across India, according to government estimates.

Where to now?

There is no new GM technology in sight now or in the near future that promises to replace BG-II. Neither is any technology available for more effective insecticides. India is in deep trouble on its fields of cotton, a crop that occupies vast stretches of land and creates millions of workdays in rural India.

The Ministry of Agriculture of the government of India acknowledges the problem, but has rejected the demand from Maharashtra and other states to de-notify Bt-cotton – a move that will change its status to regular cotton since Bt’s efficacy has gone.

Going Organic in India

Going organic in India – Sikkim state

A mountainous region in eastern India, Sikkim recently became the first state in that country to go fully organic.

The Chief Minister of Sikkim announced this vision for the state’s 290 square miles of agricultural land in 2003, in response to the serious environmental and health problems resulting from chemically intensive farming methods. A combination of political will, use of local farmer’s traditional knowledge and the willingness to share technical know-how made this vision a reality.

Photo - Sikkim farmers in pineapple fieldThis news is especially encouraging coming from India, which has very high rates of pesticide use — and where media stories abound about farmer suicides and pesticide related cancer clusters. This is also a wonderful model to point to as we struggle to make our own agricultural system in California safer for some of the most vulnerable members of society — our children.

The triple bottom line

The transition of Sikkim to a 100% organic state means three things: the state’s environment is better protected, the health of Sikkim families is not undermined by pesticides, and farmers get a better price for their crops. The state’s tourism sector has also gotten a boost. A few resorts have started marketing themselves as destinations where tourists can pluck, cook and relish fresh organic food from kitchen gardens.

So with people, planet and profits all covered, the triple bottom line concept has been successfully implemented in Sikkim.

To make the state fully organic, every farm needed to get organic certification from an independent certifying body. The state government passed a law banning the use and sale of any pesticide in Sikkim, with a substantial fine and jail term penalizing anyone breaking this law. On January 18, 2016 the Prime Minister of India declared the state fully organic.

Along with a variety of vegetables, Sikkim’s organic food products include paddy, wheat, spices (such as large cardamom, turmeric and ginger), flowers and mandarin oranges. While the state’s farmers get a good price for their crops, they continue working hard to improve yields from their organic farms, with the support of the state government.

The best way forward

Organic agriculture, as part of an agroecological approach to farming, provides real solutions to a variety of problems, including:

  • improving farm resiliency in the face of changing and unpredictable climate
  • protecting the health of communities from agrochemcials
  • conserving biological diversity and natural resources
  • improving economic stability for farmers

In a world facing increasingly fickle weather patterns, falling economic returns for industrial farmers and an avalanche of pesticide-related health harms, agroecology seems the only logical way forward. Sikkim is one more case in a string of many that shows the feasibility of moving towards agroecological practices.

Source: Pesticide Action Network

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