Death By Cotton

In Maharashtra’s Mansawali village the story of farmer suicides persists as they continue to get entangled in the debt cycle of Bt cotton cultivation

The former Sarpanch of Mansawali village, Ashok Khadase, does not stop counting the honours his village received during his tenure as the village head. Mansawali is located in Hinganghat tehsil of Wardha district, around 60 km away from Wardha city.

“My village has been honoured with many State prizes. Mansawali was declared Tanta Mukti Gaon (dispute free village) three years ago. We also received Nirmal Gram Puraskar two years ago.”

But Ashok falls silent when it comes to farmers from his village who have committed suicide in the past few years. According to him, 15 farmers have committed suicide in the last 15 years and three in the last eight months.

Mansawali falls in the cotton belt of Yavatmal and Wardha district. Almost all the farmers in this village grow Bt cotton.

The latest case of farmer suicide here was on September 28 last year when 40-year-old Chakradhar Choudhary hanged himself in his house. Chakradhar owned three acres of land and cultivated Bt cotton.

“He never told me what he was going through but his frustration with farming was visible on his face,” says Jyoti, Chakradhar’s widow.

Jyoti is now left with a three-year-old son, a seven-year-old daughter and three acres of cotton field to look after which she does not want to visit. “Since our marriage, I worked in our field with my husband. Now without him, I don’t want to go there,” she says with tearful eyes.

“Depression due to debt was the main reason behind my husband’s suicide,” says Kavita Maroti Lohghare, whose husband Maroti committed suicide by consuming pesticide in 2008. “Every year, he hoped for profit but we could hardly recover the input cost of the BT cotton. He had taken a loan of Rs. 50, 000 from a bank and that year our bull also died,” adds Kavita.

Kavita received no help from the government and according to her the police did not count her husband’s suicide as a farmer suicide for “lack of documents”.

When asked about the reason behind the suicides, Mahesh Ingole, a farmer from the village who owns 30 acres, says: “Fluctuation in the prices of cotton seeds and fertilisers is the main reason for these suicides, because it increases the production cost of cotton.”

According to Mahesh, on a half-an-acre cotton field, a farmer has to spend Rs. 930 for a 450 gm seed bag of Bt cotton, Rs. 3,500 on DAV (fertilisers), urea and pesticide of around Rs. 2,500. “Including the labour cost, a farmer spends around Rs. 13,000 to Rs. 15,000 on half-acre from which he gets four quintals of cotton if the weather is conducive; otherwise it is 2.5 quintals. The market price of per quintal of cotton is Rs. 3,900 this year. So you can see the farmer is not getting even the production cost. A farmer gets into a debt trap due to this and ultimately decides to take an extreme step.”

Apart from Chakradhar and Maroti, 13 more farmers have killed themselves in Mansawali in the past few years. Chakradhar’s uncle Padmakar Chaudhary committed suicide in 2001. Padmakar’s 25-year-old son Vaibhav killed himself in early 2012.

Suresh Sabale (2004), Tukaram Balaji Bawane (2005), Vinod Kamble (2007), Gangubai Bhoir (2009) and seven other farmers have committed suicide in the last 15 years whose names Ashok Khadase do not remember.

According to some elderly villagers, Vinod Dadaji Khaire, Ganesh Gangadhar Bawane, Kawadu Pandurang Bonde, Chandu Tukaram Bawane, Sharad Janardan Kamble and Nitin Bawane are the other farmers who decided to end their lives.

Chandu Bawane’s wife Nirmala also killed herself three years ago.

There was a suicide of Ritesh Khateshwar Jawade, but the reason could not be confirmed.

According to Ashok, Bt cotton crop requires large quantities of water but irrigation facilities in the village is very limited. Though the seeds companies promised that there won’t be any need to use pesticide, farmers have to spend more on pesticide. Padmakar Choudhary’s elder brother Vaikunth Choudhary, who has seen three suicides in his family, says, “None of the three had any addiction or any dispute with other villagers. The mains reason is the inability to even take out the production cost which drives a farmer into debt trap.”

Vijay Jhawandia, a farmer and a social activist, says “You can see farmers killing themselves. But one should also look into the conditions of farmers who are continuing with the farming. Their condition is no better.”

By: Pavan Dahat/The Hindu

What is BT Cotton?

Bt cotton is an insect-resistant transgenic crop designed to combat the bollworm. Bt cotton was created by genetically altering the cotton genome to express a microbial protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. In short, the transgene inserted into the plant’s genome produces toxin crystals that the plant would not normally produce which, when ingested by a certain population of organisms, dissolves the gut lining, leading to the organism’s death.

Even though India‘s total cotton production ranks 3rd internationally behind China and the U.S., the acreage under cotton cultivation in India is about 25% of all agricultural land, the highest of any country. One main reason is that the production of cotton per hectare is very low, and India ranks 70th in the world in the kg/hectare production of cotton. The reduced productivity of Indian cotton is often attributed to intense and diverse pest pressure and the lack of irrigation infrastructure. The hope was that the introduction of Bt Cotton would largely take care of the main pest problems and reduce the use of pesticides.

The use of BT cotton in India has raised a lot of controversy even before its official introduction in India. It all began when Monsanto partnered up with an Indian seed company MAHYCO in 1993 in a bid to introduce Bt cotton seeds in India. After a slow start with the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology, a 50-50 joint venture called MAHYCO-Monsanto Biotech (MMB) was formed in 1998. They managed to acquire permission for field testing of Bt cotton seeds countrywide, and in 2001, they finally approached the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee) for the commercial release of Bt cotton varieties. GEAC withheld large scale cultivation and MMB was told to do more field trials for another year. In a press statement, the GEAC said, “MAHYCO may like to conduct field trials on farmer’s field in an area of about 100 hectares under close supervision of GEAC and Monitoring and Evaluation committee.” It also advised collection of the complete evidences and data pertaining to impact of transgenics on human and animal food, spread of the cry protein resistant boll worm and impact on non-target soil microflora and other fauna. However, in 2001, Gujarat faced a bad bollworm attack which devastated many acres of cotton fields. But some fields, remarkably, were mostly immune. This made MMB suspicious and they realized that the Cry1ac gene they had patented had spread out into the hands of the local seed company, Navbharat. The owner of Navbharat, D.B. Desai was taken to court by the infuriated MMB and questioned about this. D.B. Desai was later arrested and Navbharat was forbidden from selling these seeds, but the effectiveness of the Bt technology resulting in higher yields and reduced use of pesticides has nonetheless been proved.

Bt cotton has great promise as it is resistant to one of the major pests that decreases crop yield. However, the seed does come at comes at a much higher price. Seeds are purchased with loans from local money-lenders that charge very high interest rates, so farmers incur big debts to obtain the seed. Also, the seeds are resistant to the American bollworm but are not completely resistant to all pests, a fact that is not known by all farmers. If they do not have additional pest control strategies, even a Bt crop may be lost to pests. The situation is greatly worsened by counterfeit seed on the market that does not contain the Bt gene, so is susceptible to the bollworm and has no yield benefit. Even worse, if farmers do not know to spray pesticide on their counterfeit Bt fields, they may lose the entire crop to pests.

While Bt seeds have been successfully used by some farmers in India, others have been caught into vicious debt traps and low yielding harvests, as described above. This led to some poor marginal farmers committing suicide over the losses they have incurred. The farmer suicides happened in large numbers around 2004-2006 in the areas that cultivated cotton and a lot of these farmers drank the pesticides they sprayed on their crops out of despair.

Because of all the complicating socio-economic factors in a developing country like India, including trade laws, seed prices, counterfeit seeds, and high interest, as well as the high pest pressures that already exist, it is difficult to determine the role that the introduction of Bt cotton played. There are no reliable data sets available of the number of farmers that have committed suicide that were or were not using Bt seed. The low acceptance level of GM technology by the public makes it more difficult to tease out the many factors, since Bt has already been publically blamed as the cause. More thorough and unbiased ground-level research will have to be done to get a clear picture of whether Bt technology has really caused all the adverse effects on the lives of farmers or if surrounding social, political, and economic factors are responsible.

Looking through the magnifying glass – Has the introduction of Bt cotton worsened poverty, debt and farmer suicides in India?

The factors surrounding the socio-economic problems being faced by farmers and how these problems may be affected by Bt cotton are discussed below:

1. Economic effects: Can people afford the technology?

65-70% of India’s population work in agriculture. Many of these people are poor farmers working on a small plot of land, mostly by hand and other basic farming methods, machines and technology. Many are grappling with the problems of illiteracy and feeding a large family with the limited land they own. The mechanisms to obtain low-interest loans without collateral, including microfinance, are not yet established in very rural areas of India. In such a setting, the only source of loans are the local money-lenders who charge exorbitant interest rate for their services, up to 100-120% per annum. A small farmer who buys expensive seeds and pesticides gambles on having to high enough yields that he will be able to pay back a loan with interest while still making enough to live on. This is very risky when yields are variable, there is no irrigation, and there is only a minimal concept of crop insurance. In summary, the restricted flow of capital to small farmers plays a big role in the use of Bt technology.

2. Social effects: Can people use the technology?

Illiteracy is a rampant problem among the poorest sections of society in India. The proper use of Bt is not explained to the farmers, and they are not educated enough to find out on their own. They are unable to adopt the technology in ways that will supply the highest yields in the safest ways. For example, farmers do not know that additional pesticides may be needed to combat pests that are not susceptible to Bt. They do not know to plant non-Bt refuges to combat insect resistance or to plant 5 rows of non-Bt cotton around their fields to prevent pollen flow to nearby non-Bt fields. There is no enforcement machinery in place in India to ensure proper implementation. The lack of education and of enforcement has led to apprehension about Bt, including unfounded rumors about things like cattle dying when they eat Bt cotton plants. An additional problem is that people have left behind traditional knowledge that had been used in farming, including pest control strategies, instead of integrating Bt into already existing systems.

3. Socio-economic effects: What happens when a crop fails?

India’s agriculture is mainly rain-fed and low-tech. If a farmer loses his crop due to drought or other extraneous factors, there is no mechanism to help pay back loans and interest. This can lead to the farmer committing suicide. Though the government may on paper have some mechanism of supporting a farmer whose crop has failed, many farmers are not compensated due to corruption, bureaucracy, and the sheer volumes of farmers that need help.

4. Socio-ecological effects: Is the seed pure?

In order for Bt cotton to be effective, the plants in a field must all contain the Bt gene, because plants without the gene are not resistant to bollworm. Counterfeit seed that contains either some or no Bt seed is sold by unscrupulous or unknowing seed dealers at prices lower than those offered by Mahyco-Monsanto, and under the same technology name. One source of counterfeit seed is to collect seed produced by Bt plants. Since the seeds may be fertilized by pollen from non-Bt plants, the resulting seed will not all contain the gene. Farmers do not spray pesticide on their counterfeit Bt fields, so may lose the entire crop to pests. This misleads farmers about the efficacy of the technology.

 Source: University of Montana

Published by CityFella

Moved to the Big Tomata in the nineties from San Francisco. No Suburbs for me with its single colored houses and lawns and the excitement of pulling out my trash can once a week. I'm a CityFella , a part time New Yorker. I'm happiest in the Center City where people the streets and people are alive. I'm still waiting to buy a 34th floor condo somewhere downtown/Midtown with a nightclub. "Hurry I'm old" My politics are somewhere in the middle with a needle that constantly moves. I'm too liberal to be a Republican and too conservative to be a Democrat. Everything interests me . I've come to love Sacratomato, Its a nice town in cheap sensible shoes .

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