Bt for Better Times?
Whatever the Bt cotton experience for farmers in other parts of India, it seems that it has given their counterparts in Punjab a new lease of life. After being plagued by continuously declining productivity and escalating input costs for years, farmers had been going off cotton in a big way. But Bt cotton is bringing them back, if the 2005 crop is any indication. And it's happened mainly because of better harvests and substantial savings on pesticides.
That doesn't mean all's well in the Bt universe. Illegal seeds from Gujarat, new diseases, violation of bio-safety norms in trial plots and the need for more water are serious problems. Also worrying is the impact on small farmers; one farmer has committed suicide after failing to sell his produce.
Even then, the total area under cotton cultivation in Punjab this year has been about 580,000 hectares (ha) compared to 509,000 ha in the 2003-04 season. According to the Union ministry of agriculture, the area under cotton in Punjab is up 81,000 ha this year, though cotton area in the country has fallen by 37,000 ha. Jasbir Singh Bains, joint director (cotton), ministry of agriculture, Punjab, calls this the Bt factor. Bt cotton is being grown in almost 200,000 ha in the state, approximately 30 per cent of the total area under cotton, he calculates.
Late beginner Punjab caught up with the Bt revolution three years after Andhra Pradesh (ap). Punjabi farmers experimented with Bt despite the fact that Maharashtra and Gujarat had had mixed results from the so-called wonder crop and ap had banned some varieties. As a late beginner, Punjab had the advantage of learning from others' experience and the numerous studies published on the crop's performance. On March 4, 2005, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac), the regulatory authority for genetically modified crops, approved six cotton varieties for comercial cultivation in Punjab, namely: rch 134 Bt, rch 317 Bt, Ankur 651 Bt, Ankur 2534 Bt, mrc 6301 Bt, and mrc 6304 Bt. The above-mentioned varieties carry the Bt gene developed and patented by Monsanto, one of world's biggest agribusinesses. Three companies sell licenced Bt cotton: Rasi Seeds, Ankur Seeds and Mahyco-Monsanto. While the first two are sub-licensees of Monsanto for the Bt gene, the last one is a joint venture between the two companies.
Unlike other states where civil society organisations and political parties opposed Bt cotton, the companies had a smooth passage in Punjab. Chief minister Amarinder Singh, who has long been a supporter of Bt cotton, described it as a gift for the state. He declared his approval of these varieties at a function organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (cii) in Bathinda on May 6, 2005. He even did a decent marketing manager's job by endorsing four varieties sold by Rasi and Mahyco through publicly funded advertisements. This was done after the companies struck a deal with the Punjab State Co-operative Supply & Marketing Federation (Markfed) for marketing their seeds through the latter's vast network. The ad issued by the state government says: "The cultivation of Bt cotton will result in a net saving of Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 per hectare (ha) on pesticides. Besides, an increase of 25-28 per cent in the yield as compared to the normal hybrids could also be expected.'
This endorsement smoothened Bt's path. The path was further smoothened because dissent was circumvented: if the companies had sold their product themselves there was a possibility they would have faced opposition. "By leaving the marketing job to Markfed , which is Asia's largest cooperative marketing federation, possible dissent was pre-empted,' says Umendra Dutt, executive director of the Faridkot-based non-government organisation Kheti Virasat Mission (kvm).
Markfed entered into arrangements with the private companies to supply 150,000 packets of Bt cotton through its branches, which, incidentally, translated into Rs 18 crore in royalty for Monsanto (at Rs 1,200 per packet of 450 gramme).
Though Bt has been a success in Punjab that does not necessarily translate into a big success either for Monsanto or its licencees. That's where the Gujarat factor comes in. Despite the advertising blitz and Markfed 's reach, illegal Bt seeds from Gujarat are outselling the official variety
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