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.