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Bt cotton exacerbating soil health crisis in India's farm suicide belt
"Bt cotton is a high-cost, energy-intensive technology," said farmers' leader Vijay Jawandhia. In an arid and rain-dependent agriculture region like Vidarbha, he said, this technology comes with huge risks. "Costlier the technology, higher the risk."
Soil in Wardha district deficient in 18 micronutrients: Study
DNA, December 6 2009
Mumbai: From a corner of his farm in Jhamkola, Daulat Mahure, 45, could see what Laxman Chelpelwar, 55, must have seen on his own field, some miles away in Mukutban village: stunted and wilting cotton plants, leaves red as dried blood, and hardly any cotton bolls. The two farmers were from South Yavatmal villages in the Painganga river basin along the Andhra border.
On November 16, Chelpelwar went out, apparently to inspect what must have looked to him a forlorn six-acre crop-less farm. According to his wife Pochubai, he returned home four hours later, and lay down on his bed without uttering a word. Minutes later he began to convulse violently.
"I was alone, I was frightened, and cried for help," she remembers. By the time her sons and some neighbours arrived, it was over. The post-mortem report revealed that Chelpelwar had consumed Endosulfan, a pesticide.
Five quintals. That was Chelpelwar's cotton yield in the first picking. His income from it: Rs15,000. His expenses: Rs50,000.Back in Jhamkola village, about 45 km from the cotton trading town of Pandharkawda, Mahure's cotton yield stood at one quintal: worth about Rs3,000. "I'm not lying," says his mother Jiblabai, who at 70 must work as a farm labourer, picking cotton, so that the family can eat.
Jiblabai says she came home from work on November 23 to find her son hanging from the ceiling of their two-room hut. He had killed himself when nobody was at home. "Daulat was devastated by the failed crops," says his father Kashinath.
Mahure's death left a trail of unanswered questions. The answers, like in Chelpelwar's case, lie buried in his seven-acre field where the cotton plants are drooping, and many are yet to find roots. The soil, says his farmer friend Datta Upre, has nothing in it to feed the plant.
Lalya, the destroyer
"Lalya wrecked us with the drought," said Upre. Lalya, a local term for the reddening of the cotton plants, has become a regular feature ever since the Bt cotton replaced hybrids, according to a number of farmers The Mag spoke to. The Maharashtra government has been compensating farmers in the region for 'lalya' almost every year since the Bt seeds came in.
Agriculture scientists say 'lalya' points to a lack of micronutrients and moisture content in soils, which are fast degrading. This year's scanty rainfall exposed the soil's deteriorating health. Bad soil health, says a senior soil scientist from the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) at Nagpur, mires plant growth and leads to low yields.
A recent study by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) found, as a sample, the soils in Wardha district heavily deficient in 18 micronutrients that breathe life in plants and dictate the yields.
Farming in the rain-fed areas has become even more intensive after the onset of Bt technology. Intensive agriculture, while increasing productivity, has caused fresh problems in respect of nutrient imbalance, experts say. "No moisture and no nutrition in soil," said a CICR scientist, "is a certain recipe for crop failure." True in both, Mahure and Chelpelwar's cases.
A complex process, lalya unfolds with pest attacks, moisture stress and lack of micronutrients in soil. Temperature variation in the day and night accentuates its gravity.
Finally, the plant's chlorophyll content (which gives leaves its green colour) decreases with nitrogen deficiency, giving birth to another pigment called Anthocynin, which turns the foliage red.
If reddening starts before boll formation, it results in a 25 per cent drop in yield, said the CICR scientist, on condition of anonymity. "lalya," he declared, "is here to stay."
Lalya & Bt Technology
The disease, agriculture scientists say, has its roots in the American Bt technology that India imported on the pretext of improving productivity. Almost all the 500-plus Bt seed varieties sold in India this year are of the same parentage -- the American variety of Coker-3, a top CICR scientist said. "It means every seed has half American blood and half of Indian variety cross-pollinated with it."
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