Bt cotton fails farmers in Tamil Nadu

Bt cotton fails farmers in state

CHENNAI: For Arul Venkatesan, a cotton-growing farmer in the Aroor block of Dharmapuri district, the stand that Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa took in the Assembly in August, that her government will not “promote” GM crops in the State, “struck the ears like music”.

Venkatesan was one among the thousands of farmers in the State who shifted to Bt cotton in 2005, after it was widely publicised as a “pest-resistant” and “high-yielding” variety by “scientists”, who held orientation programmes in the villages. While the first season went on smoothly, fortunes shifted in 2006.

“I sowed all my four acres with the 6,918 variety seed that they guaranteed would give huge profits. The plant grew well as we devotedly followed every instruction. But the crop never flowered. Zero yield pushed the entire belt of 2,500 hectares where farmers like me had cultivated Bt cotton, into distress,” he recalls.

Following the incident, the then DMK government decided to hold Mahyco, the supplier of the seeds produced by Monsanto, responsible for supplying “improper seeds.” Though there were attempts to blame the soil conditions and excessive rainfall for the crop failure, the company finally conceded the demands of the farmers and paid a compensation of `5,000 per acre.

Farmers and activists vehemently opposing GM crops now argue that none of the promises made during the introduction of genetically-engineered seeds have come true. In fact, in certain cases, the opposite has happened.

Official statistics reveal that in 2009-10, the amount of land under cotton cultivation was 1.370 lakh hectares of which 58.4 per cent were of the Bt variety. In contrast, a mere 0.11 lakh hectares were under Bt cotton in 2004-05. While more than 30 companies sell GM seeds in the State, officials from the cotton-growing belts told Express that Monsanto technology seeds hold “absolute monopoly” in the market.

The yield data put up on the website of the Ministry of Agriculture for cotton adds credence to the claims of those opposing Bt cotton. Between 2002 and 2008, the six years since the GM variety was introduced, Tamil Nadu reported an average yield of 272.17 kg per hectare, down from 290.17 kg per hectare in the six years preceding introduction of GM variety.

The cost of cultivation has also seen an upward trend even when inflation rates are adjusted. For example, official statistics say that the average cost of cultivation for cotton has increased from `31,062 per hectare in 2003 to `42,145 in 2009.

Also, a report by the National Level Monitoring Team for 2007-08 pointed to an almost stagnant trend in the amount of insecticides used — between 14 and 15 million metric tonnes. Even within the per hectare cost, farmers are now spending anywhere between `1,300 and `1,500 on pesticides, as per official sources.

Ground reports suggest that seed costs have also multiplied over the years as the market has been saturated with GM varieties with very little choices for the farmer. A senior official said that many of the Bt seeds now cost between `1,300 and `1,500 per kg, up from about `800 a few years ago.

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