Business Standard

Sreelatha Menon: The bollworm returns

The decade of Bt cotton has seen cotton bollworms perish, turn immune and now return with new fangs

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No one minds the elimination of the smallpox virus or the near decimation of the polio virus. In the last decade, millions of cotton bollworms were taken out of mortal circulation by the Bt gene and vaccinated into cotton seeds.

Bt stands for Bacillus Thuringiensis, a soil-dwelling bacterium with pesticidal properties. Its gene has been injected into to make cotton plants immune to bollworms.

Surveys have demonstrated the good done by by the sheer act of eliminating bollworms. But there is a twist in the tale. The bollworm is back. It has transformed itself into a stronger entity that can overpower the Bt gene. This is confirmed by farmers as well as the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). The worms are back and Bt gene might lose its magic, says Director K R Kranti.

In fact, Kranti recently wrote a treatise — a testimony to the fact that CICR does not believe it is a great idea to put all eggs in a single basket, viz. Bt cotton. While praising Bt for the heaps of dead bollworms, Kranti dilutes his praise with a suggestion that farmers in rainfed areas deserve something more than Bt gene. While Bt gene has done a good job, cotton yields have also been possible because of fine micro-irrigation projects in Gujarat and massive seed treatment conducted nationally, much before the advent of Bt cotton seeds, he adds.

But the question is not whether the Bt gene deserves praise or not. It is whether the Bt gene has anything to do with the distress of cotton farmers and their suicides. People who do not celebrate the Bt cotton and blame it for such repercussions have at least one point to their credit. Ninety per cent of cotton seeds sown today are Bt cotton.

Another less-emphasised point of the golden age of the Bt cotton, spanning from 2002 to 2012, is while 780 hybrid Bt cotton seeds were approved by regulators during the decade, not a single Bt variety seed got approved. A hybrid makes the farmer dependent on seed companies. He is bound to buy the seeds (quite expensive, unlike non-Bt varieties) every year. The variety seeds can be generated in the fields by the farmers themselves.

Kranti, in his paper on the 10 years of Bt cotton, misses this aspect, but he blames regulators and companies for leaving farmers to deal with Bt technology without any help. He says the issues that surround the Bt cotton are related to ‘stewardship’ of the technology and have nothing to do with either the technology or biosafety.

Stewardship means guiding farmers on practices for hybrids for specific agro ecological areas. Neglecting this has resulted, he says, in stagnation of production and productivity.

Farmer activist from Vidarbha’s says the burden is the price of the hybrid seeds and extra pesticides and fertilisers it necessitates. Besides, in rainfed areas, getting extra water is also a life and death affair.

The way out would be to make available non-hybrid varieties of Bt cotton seeds, he says. The only effort by the government researchers in the form of was a fiasco and had to be withdrawn. But nothing stops regulators from insisting on variety seeds from private companies, something that most developing countries are doing.

So, as the bollworm makes a comeback, may be the strategies this time should take into account the well-being of farmers, and not just the death of the worms.

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