Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mealy bug infestation : Bt cotton falls flat in Punjab

Mealy bug takes away glory of Bt. Cotton

By Umendra Dutt

So, once again it is boom time for the pesticide manufacturing companies in Punjab. Harping on the desperation and fear psychosis among the farmers over the attack of a new pest-Mealy Bug- on the cotton crop, the pesticides have already sold pesticides over worth Rs 500 crores in Punjab, in the last three months.
Not making only a big whole in the pocket of already distressed farmers, the mealy bug has demolished the so called hype over the Bt Cotton. While the governments and the Bt cotton manufacturing and distribution companies were claiming panacea for the farmers in the introduction of Bt cotton, claiming there will be no attack of pest on Bt but the mealy bug has broken the hype and illusion. As mealy bug is destroying cotton crop in Malwa region of Punjab, in desperation the farmers are making intensive pesticide spray on cotton, which are toxic and even costly. A major portion of the profit which farmers hoped to reap from the cotton crop, has already gone into pocket of pesticide companies, thus making the farmer once again the ultimate looser. First he purchased expensive Bollgard Bt seeds, believing its resistance towards pests and after mealy bug made meal of it, the farmer made huge investment on pesticides. The seed companies had already cornered lion share in the cotton crop by selling the farmers expensive seed and now it was the turn of pesticide companies to squeeze the farmers. Our farmer is surrounded by merchants of Venice; there are Shylocks all around him. There are more tragic situations with mealy bug attack on crops. When the farmers were gripped with mealy bug panic, and some of them started ploughing their fields, the Directorate of Agriculture, Punjab published advertisements in vernacular daily papers with official photo of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Agriculture Minister Sucha Singh Langah, prescribing a list of pesticides for spry to control mealy bug. The advertisement has heading "To Control Mealy bug attack on cotton" and then it gives the list of pesticides namely Carbryl, Thiodicarb of Carbamate group, Quinalphos, Prosenofos, Chloropyrifos and Acephate of Organophas group. Even the advertisement suggests using Holocon nozzles while spraying. This advertisement is look-alike of any advertisement placed by pesticide companies. It is a tragedy that two years back the Punjab government had published similar advertisements having photo of then Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, describing the introduction of Bt cotton as great achievement. At that time government advertisement has made tall claims about advantages of Bt cotton, stating increase in yield by 25% to 28% per hectare, net increase in income by Rs 10,000/- to 15,000 per hectare, Saving on agro-chemicals upto Rs 1000/- per hectare. But, this season, which is third year of Bt cotton introduction in Punjab, the things goes just opposite way.
Surprisingly, Punjab is the only state where one could find government advertisements with CM's photos either for the promotion of Bt cotton or for propagating use of pesticides. Apparently, the agri business companies could not find state patronage more then this. Punjab seems to be heaven for these companies. The agriculture establishments here are advocating all sorts of, agrochemicals, Hybrid seeds, Bt seeds and whole lot of poisons more loudly then the manufacturers. The Government has very right to issue advertisements about its achievements whenever they want to communicate to the people, but how do a government advertisement can do propagation of Bt cotton or pesticides? We have to question the very mind set and thought behind these advertisements. The agriculture establishments in Punjab are looking for solution of every problem with the eyes of farm input companies and agribusiness corporations. This indicates the intellectual bankruptcy of the peoples at the helm of affairs in the state. What could be more ironical that solutions which they are suggesting are not only more problematic but also totally unsustainable. These solutions bound to bring more and more devastation. Those who are prescribing these solutions are not legally bound to any action if their prescription brings any adverse effects after few years. The, so called agriculture experts will go scot-free but poor farmer will certainly loose his money, land, health and may be life too. After break of mealy bug infestation pesticides were sold like any thing. The pesticides such as Prosenofos, Acephate, Methyalparothion, Monocrotophos, DDVP, Acetomiprid, Chloropyrifos, Imidachloprid and Clothidin sold in 100s of Kiloliters or Metric tons. Within two months span these pesticides sold up to the tune of Rs 500 crores and if the trend continues the total sum may surpass Rs 800 crores. It is notable that farmers apart from these pesticides farmers had also applied chemical fertilizers like DAP and urea. The economics of Bt cotton has already lost its shine. The tall claims made by Government, Agriculture University and companies regarding increase in yield and profit have washed away by one attack of mealy bug. But, no body is talking about the loss to farmers. The farmers who sow Bt cotton seeds are now feeling being cheated. Their dreams have turned into nightmare. Mealy bug had destroyed large portion of cotton crop this year. Even the Director Agriculture himself apprehend drop in cotton production despite increased area under cotton cultivation this year. Last year the cotton crop was cultivated in 5.70 lakh hectares and this year it is 6.48 lakh hectares, thus it increased by 78,000 hectares. However cotton production is expected to be 22 lakh bales this year against 27 lakh bales of last year.
Mealy bug attacked cotton in all most whole of Malwa. The white sticky bug made cotton fields as they were covered by snow. Even it has entered the house and kitchen gardens. Though it has attacked cotton last year also but damage remains in a limited scale. But this year it becomes so widespread that in hundreds of villages' farmers after farmers ploughed their Bt cotton field to get rid of mealy bug. The phenomena can be found in all pockets of cotton belt. There is large number of farmers across the cotton belt who had ploughed their fields to sow paddy.
A farmer in Rori Kapura village ploughing his Bt cotton field infested by mealy bug
The government departments pressed the panic button, they had worked on Sundays even, discussing which pesticide is better and how to made pesticides available to farmers. They declared war against mealy bug but ammunition is being provided by a private company, Syngenta. And it is the poor farmers who are bearing the cost of this expensive ammunition. The agriculture development officers had become brand campaigner for Actara, another pesticide manufacturing company. The entire agriculture establishment of Punjab seeks asylum in poisons only. While promoting pesticides they had also advised farmers to spry Weedicides all along the farm to prevent weeds. This means more poison load on all ready devastated eco-system of Punjab. The chemicalisation and monoculturing of agriculture in Punjab has made its agriculture experts bounded royal labours of chemical farming paradigm. They can not think and see beyond that and even they do not want to think and see. They had fixed notions, theirs no desire to break the present agriculture thought process and paradigm. They can not dare to do so, as it does not suit to masters of present agriculture system. Today the monoculture is at gene level ‘bt’ gene fighting lepidopteron pests across crops.

Unfortunately the agriculture scientists in Punjab cannot think any solution other than poison. That is why, now they had brought amusing justifications for mealy bug infestation. According to Head of Entomology department of PAU Dr N S Bhutter, "Prior to the introduction of Bt cotton, we used to spray the crops with chemicals which killed these pests. Now as the pest umbrella has been lifted because Bt cotton does not need so many sprays, these pests are becoming dormant". He is responding to Indian Express correspondent. He goes further when asked by journalist why PAU didn't think of this attack when it was rooting for Bt cotton as a panacea for Punjab farmers' problems, the reply given by him reflects that there is some thing seriously wrong with the vision of Punjab agriculture establishment. Dr Bhutter says "At that time there was no mealy bug, and we were dealing with just American Bollworm. With chemicals, we will be able to control this bug too" This is approach of not only PAU but also of department. The agriculture experts encouraged farmers to spray pesticides, resulting misshapings and accidental exposure of pesticides. Large number of farmers and labours who got exposed to deadly pesticides hospitalized at several towns in Cotton belt. Two deaths were also reported due to pesticide exposure. Mobile vans carrying big banners of pesticide companies are criss-crossing villages to educate farmers about mealy bug attack. But educating farmers is a money minting exercise for pesticide companies.
This means there neither is any holistic approach, no farsightedness, no concern about destruction done by chemicals, nor was any thought for ecological, economic and social implications of this highly toxic agriculture. It is very disgusting that agriculture establishment does not want to come out of vicious cycle of pesticides and agrochemicals. Now they take refugee in blaming adverse weather for mealy bug menace. The agriculture establishment has become selective dump, deaf and blind and do not want to see what is happening elsewhere. When lakhs of farmers are successfully growing cotton without using any sort of chemicals and even without Bt seeds, why this cannot be happen in Punjab. But our politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and planners all are hypnotized by companies. Even companies are powerful enough to demolish every type of political difference. All main parties of Punjab become mad in the craze for Bt is so much so that every one want to claim on credit for Bt cotton release and its further expansion.
A Farmer in Chaina villages showing his Bt cotton crop destroyed by mealy bugs

It is also quite interesting that both main political parties had a fight over credit of bringing Bt cotton into state. Not only this, after assuming power the new Akali Dal regime has declared that they shall sell more packets of Bt cotton then previous Congress government. The euphoria for Bt cotton not ends here, despite mealy bug attack on Bt cotton the agriculture minister Sucha Singh Langah proudly announced in his Independence day address at Muktsar on 15 August at Muktsar that his government is proud of distributing 15, 35, 500 packets of Bt cotton seeds at the rate of Rs 760 per packet. But question is who is paying the royalty for these packets. Certainly neither Mr. CM or Agriculture minister nor VC, PAU or Director Agriculture is going to pay . The Farmers of Punjab had already paid some 100 crores rupees to Monsanto as royalty in last three years and this process may continue till farmers dare to come out of Bt seeds deceive.
But in this darkness of chemical farming, there is a ray of hope also. The natural farming is making inroads in Punjab. Mealy bug does not worry natural farmers at all. The farmers who are practicing natural farming neither use Bt cotton nor do any pesticide. But still their cotton crops are healthy and free from any destruction caused by mealy bug. First of all they witnessed very mild mealy bug attack, courtesy multiple cropping system. Their cotton field has as many as 8 crops to 15 crops. Secondly if mealy bug even attacked their crops they controlled it with neem, dhatura and cow urine. There are large numbers of farmers who are proud owner of naturally treated farms. These farmers are erecting the foundation for paradigm shift in Punjab. A constructive change is taking place but minus experts and the establishment. It is a community initiative and farmer driven movement called Kheti Virasat Mission. The growing numbers of farmers practicing natural farming is an indicator that society wants a change in agriculture perspective and paradigm. These farmers are already walked out of Bt and pesticide trap and now leading the Punjab for a imperishable prosperity, free from exploitation of farmer as well as Mother Nature.
The mealy bug gives a lesson to agriculture establishment and protagonists of chemicalised agriculture that their pest control design is faulty. The small insect dares the agriculture scientists to change their view, but who has guts to do so? Punjab devastated by ecological crisis, debts, suicides and cancers waiting for this.