Punjab whitefly epidemic: We need a new agriculture policy

Instead of having to ask farmers to withdraw their agitation, CM Parkash Singh Badal should create conditions that they do not have to agitate.

Updated: October 15, 2015 3:20 pm
Farmers harvest cotton in a field in Nana Viramgam village in Gujarat. File Photo/Reuters Farmers harvest cotton in a field in Nana Viramgam village in Gujarat. File Photo/Reuters

By Dr Vandana Shiva

When we became independent, Punjab was the most prosperous agricultural state, with five rivers, fertile soils, proud and hard working farmer cultivators.

Unlike the East, where Zamindari had turned the cultivators into landless peasants ,exploited by the zamindar on behalf of the British Empire, in the North Western Provinces, farmers movements had fought for farmers rights. Sir Chotu Ram as governor had passed the Land alienation Act, which protected the farmers land, home and cattle from alienation for debt. Preventing debt induced land alienation kept land in the hands of farmers. This was the secret to Punjab’s prosperity.

First the Green Revolution, and now the 2nd Green Revolution (GM crops like Bt cotton) have exploited the land and farmers of Punjab . I wrote my book ‘The violence of the Green Revolution’ for the United Nations University after the 1984 violence to understand why the green revolution, which had been given a Nobel Prize for Peace, had created conditions of violence in Punjab.

The reasons are clear. Punjab’s agriculture has been reduced to a market for chemical corporations, which are now the seed corporations. High cost seeds and chemicals are a recipe for debt creation. This is the first aspect of the agrarian crisis in Punjab today. Chemical agriculture is also very water intensive. It also reduces the capacity of the soil to hold water and needs more irrigation. It destroys soil fertility by destroying soil organisms which makes soil fertile. There are no earthworms, no mycorrhizal fungi that make humus. Punjab soil is degraded and dying. When soils die, they take with them the prosperity of society.

External inputs in agriculture also converts agriculture into a monoculture. Today, the government is failing to procure rice and wheat from Punjab farmers at MSP. And the invasion of GM Bt cotton has made the crisis worse.

A whitefly epidemic has devastated 60 per cent of the Bt cotton crop in Punjab and farmers have used 10-12 sprays, each costing Rs 3,200. In addition, there is the high cost of Bt seeds sold by Monsanto Mahyco. In Maharashtra, Haryana, and Punjab, farmers growing non Bt desi cotton have not been impacted by pests like Bt cotton has. Organic farmers in Punjab, too, had no whitefly attack.

A scientific approach to what is happening in Punjab would draw the inference that pesticides and Bt are creating pests, while non Bt seeds and organic practices are controlling them.

The second step would be to identify the ecological processes that create pests in Bt crops, and in fields using heavy doses of pesticides.

The third scientifically enlightened step would be to promote effective and sustainable pest control technologies such as ecological agriculture, and stop pushing failed and costly technologies like Bt and pesticides.

Ecological science teaches us that pests are created by industrial agriculture through the following processes.

* Promotion of monocultures

* Chemical fertilization of crops which makes plants more vulnerable to pests

* Emergence of resistance in pests by spraying of pesticides

* Killing of friendly species which control pests and disruption of pest-predator balance

* GMO Bt cotton which is engineered to produce a Bt toxin in every cell of the plant all the time, makes the plant vulnerable to attack by non target insects.

Bt. crops are not an alternative to these pest creating systems. They are a continuation of a non-sustainable strategy for pest control which instead of controlling pests creates new pests and super pests. Monsanto advertised that Bt cotton would not need pesticide sprays. The primary justification given for the genetic engineering of Bt traits into crops is that Bt will reduce the use of insecticides.

A Monsanto brochure showed a picture of a few worms and stated – “You will see these in your cotton and that’s O.K. Don’t spray” Even today, Monsanto apologists claim that Bt has reduced pesticide sprays. The Punjab devastation shows this is not true.

Bt crops are pesticide-producing plants that are supposed to control pests. In the US, where Bt technology is from, Bt crops are registered as a pesticide.

Genetically engineered Bt. crops are being touted as a sustainable pest control strategy. However, the Bt. crops are neither effective nor ecologically sustainable.

Instead of controlling pests, Bt crops are creating pests, as is evident from the outbreak of whitefly which destroyed more than 80 per cent of the Bt cotton crop in 2015.

Since Bt was introduced in India, pests that had historically never affected non Bt cotton have become major cotton pests. Massive outbreaks of aphids, jassids, army bugs, mealy bugs have compelled farmers to use more pesticides than before. When I sued Monsanto in 1999 for its illegal introduction of Bt cotton into India without the mandatory approval from the GEAC, the data from the open field trials that they were compelled to submit to Supreme Court revealed that even at trial stage Bt was increasing aphids and jassids by 300 per cent.

Given that science informs us Bt crops create pests, the government should immediately ban Bt cotton which is killing our biodiversity and our farmers. The No objection to GMO field trials that the Punjab government has given should be withdrawn.

Instead of having to ask farmers to withdraw their agitation, CM Badal should create conditions that they do not have to agitate. The government should demand compensation from the company which misled farmers, trapped them in debt through crop failure, and high costs of seeds and pesticides.

Punjab needs to move from monocultures that create pests, to mixtures that control pests. Next year is the year of pulses. Punjab should initiate a programme to reintroduce growing pulses as mixtures with cereals. Pulses fix nitrogen and reduce the use of urea. They also provide more nutrition, and will increase farmers incomes.

The government should promote agroecology which produces more food with no external inputs, and reduces farmers debt to zero. The Punjab agricultural University should immediately start a program on Agroecology.

The government should enact a land alienation law like the one passed by Sir Chotu Ram. Next year is Sir Chotu Rams’ birth centennial. It would be a good way to remember and honour him and return Punjab to its glory.

– Dr Shiva is a trained physicist, author and an environmental activist. She serves on the board of International Forum on Globalization. Views expressed are personal.

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  1. A
    APINDER SINGH
    May 31, 2016 at 7:49 am
    SAT SHRI AKAL Glt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;6 JUNE IS NEAR. WE HAVE MAKE A SITE THAT IS FULLY DEDICATED TO 6 JUNE 1984. IN THIS SITE WE TRIED TO PROVIDE ALL INFORMATION ABOUT SIKHS AND SIKHISM. lt;br/gt;PLEASE VISIT AND GIVE YOUR SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE MORE...
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    1. A
      APINDER SINGH
      May 31, 2016 at 7:49 am
      SAT SHRI AKAL Glt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;6 JUNE IS NEAR. WE HAVE MAKE A SITE THAT IS FULLY DEDICATED TO 6 JUNE 1984. IN THIS SITE WE TRIED TO PROVIDE ALL INFORMATION ABOUT SIKHS AND SIKHISM. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;PLEASE VISIT AND GIVE YOUR SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE MORE...lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;
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      1. K
        Krishna Gokhale
        May 3, 2016 at 1:17 pm
        White fly infestation in Cotton: How many peaple know that the main cause of attack of this pest is because of Leaf Curl Virus - a viral infection in plant. The Virus is a feed of these flies and hence, they multiply in number in geometric proportion. lt;br/gt;The only way to control white fly is to prevent young plants from Virus entry in to the plant body. We have developed a treatment to prevent Virus entry and simultaneously control white fly potion. Everything is achieved using Natural Active ingredients from plant origin.
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        1. A
          Avinash
          Oct 16, 2015 at 9:24 am
          Bt cotton requires farmers to plant refuge seeds around the field (non-Bt seeds, so that the pests do not develop resistance). No one says that pests would not develop resistance to Bt cotton.
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          1. T
            Tarun Durga
            Oct 15, 2015 at 3:40 pm
            I do agree that farm land needs to be protected from debt induced s but the logic BT is responsible is irrational. The pest pattern change with time and definitely pesticides do induce new resistant stains like antibiotics use.The solution is not blanket ban but more rational use of pesticides and my argument for the agriculture crisis is use more of agriculture science rather than less. NOTHING SHOULD BE PARIAH NEITHER BT NOR INDEGINOUS METHODS.A healthy combination of techniques will help solve the problem.
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            1. N
              NSSingham
              Oct 16, 2015 at 4:43 pm
              Good article Vandana
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              1. N
                Niya Sharma
                Dec 30, 2015 at 6:52 am
                Your blog seems interesting. I do have a similar website relating Organic Vegetables
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                  Prof.Rais Akhtar
                  Oct 15, 2015 at 4:28 pm
                  We must remember that each crop require a specific environmental condition.For instance saffron is grown in specific location in Kashmir valley, not everywhere.For cotton ,black soil is essential and these soils are found in Karnataka and Maharashtra.Since cotton farming pays huge money ,farmer in the north particularly in Punjab,change cropping pattern from wheat to cotton,seek loans from Banks use pesticides and chemicals to grow cotton,BUT a slight fluctuation in climatic conditions crop is lost my opinion most suicides by farmers are ociated with the greed to earn more profit from land .Country's food security is compromised when instead of cultivating food crops, farmers replace them with commercial crops.Besides the danger of chemical farming in Punjab has resulted in huge number of farmers suffering from cancer, and CANCER TRAIN travel to these affected areas. Prof.Rais AKHTAR GEOGRAPHER .
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                    Vikram Rajapure
                    Oct 27, 2015 at 12:03 am
                    It is obvious that BT cotton will target only a set of pests (chewing type, lepidopterans). Mechanism of infestation of sucking pests is completely different. This tussle between crop science & pests will always remain due to evolution and the only solution is co-evolution of technology alongwith. There is no scientific reason to believe that Organic farms are not infested by whitefly. Recently, CSIR-NBRI, Lucknow has developed a transgenic cotton variety (patented, publication communicated) which can resist whitefly attack significantly. It has been tested till 4th generation in lab polyhouse and ready for technology transfer. If it proves itself in multilocation field trials, it will be the first technology in the world against whitefly and first fully indigenous technology as well. So instead of just misleading the farmers & policy makers, we need to offer scientific solutions for the crisis.
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