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Greening cotton: Finally, a loss of faith in chemical agriculture

By Meena Menon

Meena Menon travels through the cotton fields of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh where, hurrah, farmers are slowly switching back to organic farming

"The great thing is that organic farmers do not have to commit suicide," says Muljibhai Bhalani, a small farmer and schoolteacher near Bhavnagar in Gujarat.

While some feel that only large farmers can take up organic farming as the risk is much higher for smaller farmers, there are a few who prove this a misconception.

Muljibhai, who lives in Shampara village near Bhavnagar, is an example of how seven acres can make for a profitable farm. He and his family have promoted and practised organic farming over the last eight years.

"The Gujarat agricultural university told us what to do and how to farm till 1990. I believed them. The production capacity of land is not endless and soon it was obvious that I would fail. I tried growing fruit for a while but there is very little water here. I decided to experiment, and tried growing crops with and without chemicals. In my organic plot, I saw that less water was needed, insects were fewer and pests were better controlled."

"I also learnt to prepare and use bio-fertilisers and found that expenses were less for organic cultivation. Nobody told me all this -- I saw it for myself during four years of experiments. In the first year, production was 400 kg per bihga (here one bhiga = 2.5 acres) and it was more or less the same over the years. I found that more chemicals or pesticides meant more pests."

"Then in 1994 I totally stopped using any chemical fertilisers or insecticide sprays on my land. I grow cotton on an average of one or two acres every year. I felt I had to prove myself in cotton since it was the local cash crop and the main crop of the region. I grow cotton along with dudhi (white gourd) as the leaves attract pests of cotton, as does maize." His farm is quite delightful. There are plenty of birds -- large babblers, parrots -- and scores of insects which go about their work. He claims he was the first organic farmer in the whole of Saurashtra and slowly the movement has grown to about 30-odd farmers in the district.

It is not unusual to see Muljibhai selling his bio-fertiliser concoction to farmers or advising them. His farm is a museum that many people visit. But the majority of the locals are still sceptical about his techniques.

Muljibhai and his wife Manjulaben have worked hard to improve the soil quality -- most of the soil here is saline, and not even quality grass grows here. "We had to focus on improving the soil and at first people used to laugh at us. They don't know that the secret of a good crop is healthy soil."

Water levels are below 700 feet in this region and Muljibhai is recharging a borewell using a small pond nearby. He uses vermicompost and exchanges fodder for cowdung from a cattle pond nearby.

Muljibhai has been searching for a local variety of cotton suitable for this region and travelled all over Gujarat in 1994 in his quest. Wherever he saw good cotton plants he brought them home and cultivated them. He finally settled on one variety, improved it and called it Nisarg. In 1997 he distributed the seeds to several farmers but the crop failed due to drought and he lost the seed totally.

To select the most suitable variety for the farm, he conducted his experiment on ten gunthas where he grew ten varieties and found that H8, a cotton hybrid, gave the best yield of 37 kg. But a desi or local variety was close behind with 36.5 kg. His profits have gone up from 30 to 50% and he no longer sustains any losses.

Farmers inspired by him have stopped using pesticides but still use some quantity of urea. In Ishwariya village, Virsingh Solanki also grows desi cotton and he gets 250 kg a bhiga. Next year he wants to stop using even urea and grow organic cotton on four of his 20 acres. Others in Pipardi and Zariya villages in Bhavnagar district are trying to grow crops organically but some of them still use urea, which they believe is organic!

Many farmers are realising through experience the ill-effects of chemical agriculture and it is the big farmers who are setting the trend, adopting low-cost techniques and reducing dependence on external inputs. This is a healthy trend that is being slowly adopted in many parts of the country by discerning farmers. The prospect of selling certified organic cotton which fetches premiums of 10 to 30%, is a major attraction in certain areas where organic cotton projects are underway. After the initial euphoria over hybrid cotton and the extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides, there is a loss of faith in the magic of the early years and now farmers are prone to experimenting and even reducing the extent of chemicals and pesticides on their farms.

Intensive cotton farming has led to depleting yields and mounting expenses. Large farmers like Baburao Wankhede from Amravati and Anandrao Subedar from Yavatmal (both in Maharashtra) were intelligent enough to see by the 1980s that a change was called for in the way cotton was being farmed. This was the time when farmers were hearing about Bhaskar Save or Masanobu Fukuoka, proponents of natural farming, and trying to experiment on their own. Farmers found they did not have to look elsewhere for natural farming as it was part of Indian tradition and had nurtured her soils for centuries since the days of rishi kheti. They found that organic farming is not some esoteric idea but a way for the farmer to spend less and ensure he/she gets a good yield which also does not deplete soil fertility.

For smaller farmers especially, it can be the difference between life and death as Muljibhai has said.

Cotton is a crop most suited to drylands. It has flourished there despite poor monsoons. The old cotton varieties (herbaceums or arboreums, called desis) were suited to each region and its peculiarities. Hybrid cotton with its promise of high yields changed all that, but now in some places, farmers are convinced of the need to develop and grow varieties which are locally suitable.

The spate of suicides, mainly among cotton farmers in the last decade, the resistance of pests to insecticides, the high cost of cotton production, low returns -- these are the wages of progress. Farmers in debt have sold their tractors, their houses, their valuables, even their kidneys in Andhra Pradesh, to survive. And many of them have paid for cotton farming in blood.

Cotton, once famed in India as 'webs of woven wind', had to be made suitable for the textile mills in Britain which were geared to process longer stapled cotton, and the traditional short stapled herbaceum and arboreum cottons were slowly replaced by hirsutums (medium and long stapled cottons). Cotton, once known as white gold, has replaced much of the traditional food crops and is mono-cropped. Erratic rains, poor quality seeds, increasing pest resistance, degrading soils and indiscriminate use of pesticides have led to mass crop failures. The resultant suicides by farmers who have consumed the same pesticides they used futilely against cotton pests, are acts of desperation by a community pushed to the wall.

In Punjab, a study conducted by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), in seven villages of Bhatinda district of Punjab (Pioneer, April 26, 1999), found that 85% of the cotton farmers were in debt. In Bhatinda over 100 farmers are reported to have committed suicide in 1998-99. In Dharampur village, taluka Savli, Baroda, of 32 farmers, most are in debt. In Vidarbha in Maharashtra, since May 2001, over 80 farmers are reported to have committed suicide.

Why has cotton become a killer crop in the land where it was born and grown and famed the world over? Hundreds of crores have been spent on cotton research in this country and instead of the native short staple cotton today almost 45% of the total area in India is planted to intra and interspecific commercial cotton hybrids (Cotton Production Practices Report prepared by ICAC secretariat for the 61st plenary meeting Cairo, Oct 2002). Yet cotton today is low in productivity, and does not give sufficient returns to the farmer who has to spend anything above Rs 3,000 per acre to cultivate it.

While agriculture overall has reached stagnation with the miracle of the Green Revolution now officially declared a failure, cotton has been the worst-hit. Pests, notably the American bollworm, have become resistant to insecticides. Cotton is grown on 5% of the land in India, the largest cultivator of cotton in the world, but consumes about 54% of the total pesticides in the country. Soils have been the worst-affected by chemical pollution and farmers are realising that unless their soils are enriched, farming will become a thing of the past.

Proponents of intensive farming have dismissed organic agriculture but farmers on their own, in many parts of the country, are rejecting chemicals and fertilisers and trying to salvage their degraded lands using sheer common sense. Growing cotton without chemicals and pesticides is not only possible, as several farmers have shown, but highly beneficial for the soil and for bringing back birds and other natural predators. Many of the farmers who are growing cotton organically do not feel the American bollworm or other pests are a problem and many have also understood how to deal with pests naturally.

"It is estimated that about 14,000 tonnes of organic cotton were produced in the world during 1999/00.Turkey was the largest producer of organic cotton, followed by the USA and India. (The ICAC Recorder, Vol XIX No 1, March 2001). The ICAC Recorder of December 2000 lists India as having produced 1,169 tonnes of lint in 1999/00.

Today, certified organic cotton is grown in 10-15 countries. Production is concentrated in Turkey (1,750 tonnes of cotton fibre, 29% of the total) and the USA (1,625 tonnes, 27%), but significant amounts of organic cotton are also produced in India (1,000 tonnes, 17%), Peru (550 tonnes, 9%) among other countries.

 Not all farmers have switched to organic cotton for the high premiums. Farmers like Yellappa (though not an organic farmer fully) in Asifabad , Adilabad district, Andhra Pradesh, who do not use pesticide sprays and have reduced the use of chemicals, are not troubled by the bollworm. Pathubhai Rathod, an organic farmer in Surendranagar, is content to let the bollworm chew up his cotton crop - after the assault, he finds the crop grows back and gives him an average yield. Most farmers who have stopped using chemicals and pesticides find the pests have reduced or do not appear. They also see that natural predators are back on their farms and even birds prey on the worms once they stop using all toxic chemicals. Farmers who have experimented with organic and chemical farming find that pest attacks are more on chemicals plots and they have to spend more. Many of them are going back to desi varieties where this problem of bollworms did not exist. The issue here is availability of seeds.

According to the report of the working group on Organic and Biodynamic Farming for the Tenth Five-year Plan (GOI, Planning Commission, September 2001), "Although as yet in its infancy, organic farming is becoming important in the agriculture sector in India, largely through the efforts of small groups of farmers. It has come out of the exploitative agriculture that has been followed all these years, resulting in damaging impacts on environment, human and animal health, soil and water resources. It is well-known now that increased use (or abuse) of chemical pesticides and fertilisers has created a chain of problems of soil, environment and water degradation. The intensive chemical agriculture that has been followed after Green Revolution successes is causing heavy pollution of our food, drinking water, air. Life expectancy has improved, but the quality of life has substantially deteriorated."

Over the last 20 years there has been a slow recognition that soil is the key to productivity, not adding tonnes of chemicals to it. There is a small but not insignificant effort to cleanse the air, bring the soil back to its nutritional level and improve productivity, and this effort is coming from the farmers themselves. Though there is scientific endorsement for organic farming, farmers are not looking to the government for solutions.

While this is hardly a sweeping revolution, the organic seeds have been sown. It remains to be seen whether the damage done in three decades of chemical farming can be arrested or even undone.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2003