Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cotton crisis goes much beyond Bt and those two villages

This one’s not to argue, but debate (which is significantly different a notion than argument) Mr Milind Murugkar’s observations in his piece published in the Economic Times of September 27, 2012.

First, the two villages Mr Murugkar quotes in his piece – Bhambraja and Antargaon (in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha) – are torn between the Bt cotton-seed producing companies and a section of Bt-cotton critics; more due to the former lobby's insistence that GM cotton has helped farmers reap a harvest of gold!

They have been the showcase villages for Monsanto in a sense that some journalists and writers have been taken by the company in the past to visit them as a successful project. For local journalists (including me) covering Vidarbha for over a decade, it’s a matter of great astonishment of how these companies successfully manage to co-opt a section of influential writers. The two villages are used as models to make out a more generalized case in favour of Bt, or genetically modified, cotton, never mind though that the facts fly in the face of those claims.

Mr Murugkar is the latest to join the party! He argues that the “critics’ concern about monopolies is understandable, but this should not prevent recognition of the popularity of Bt cotton varieties.” But much through his piece he doesn't furnish any data to push his claims, barring quoting a few recent studies that have not been peer-reviewed. The piece seems like one to defend those PR stories in the newspaper than even defending Bt-cotton.

That he travels to the same two villages that have been at the epicenter of a paid-news controversy is intriguing. Economic Times in which the piece appears is a paper from the same stable that found itself embroiled in the controversy. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture has earlier this year mentioned how it found in the very two villages a different story, contrary to what the ToI full-page Monsanto-sponsored feature on the success of Bt stated. Mr Murugkar’s piece now contrasts Standing Committee’s findings in the two villages (I had attended meetings in both the villages). The debate therefore is again wide open.

Nevertheless, as a reporter who’s covered Vidarbha for a decade, I offer a few points, which to me are crucial to the debate. I shall come to the technology later; the central point is that the rain-fed marginal ‘cotton’ farmer of Vidarbha (perhaps that of the entire country) is in crisis, an acknowledgement to which lies in a 2003-04 door-to-door study of the state government. That study pointed out that over 13 lakh of the 18 lakh cotton farming households in this western Vidarbha region are in crisis, nearly a third in acute crisis. It identified a multiple reasons for the crisis: declining farm incomes, growing indebtedness (70 per cent of Vidarbha farmers are out of formal credit network, according to the Planning Commission’s Adarsh Mishra-fact finding committee report), and increasing living expenditure in a highly inflationary economy in which the government takes out money from rural India but subsidizes the urban living. Successive studies vindicated that study more or less. The crisis goes beyond suicides and Bt cotton.

Mr Srijit Misra of the IGIDR led one such study commissioned by the then Vilasrao Deshmukh-government in Maharashtra. His findings have underlined the faultlines and were in line with that of many other studies, including that of TISS.

Suicides to me are but one symptom; migration and shift away from agriculture (not as an option or choice but desperation) are far more serious problems than farm suicides per se.

Antargaon and Bhambraja – quoted by Mr Murugkar to clinch his point – have both, suicides and migrations. Last year, vast stretches of land in the two villages were kept fallow. So much for the success of Bt. It meant less losses.

Where had the farmers gone? To work in sugar mills in Satara! They still do. Why? Working there is financially more rewarding than growing cotton (Bt or otherwise) in a volatile economy even if it meant keeping the land fallow. In both villages, farmers don’t cultivate cotton alone. Nearly half of them sow soybeans, despite an overwhelming presence of Bt cotton.

Vidarbha farmers depend solely on one crop (as in one crop season, no winter crop), with no allied agriculture income to add to the family finances. It was against the backdrop of a raging crisis, drop in incomes, increase in the production costs and generally a bad agriculture scenario that the government allowed introduction of the Bt cotton technology. That was in 2002. What were the other coinciding policy steps taken? The following season, 2003 that is, Maharashtra suspended its monopoly cotton procurement scheme (and with the advance bonus system) and allowed private buyers to buy cotton.

Those were the NDA years in the Centre. Between 1998 and 2004 we imported around 8 million bales of cheap and subsidized cotton from global markets flooding Indian cotton markets resulting in a glut and subsequent crash in prices. Check for data, those were the best years for Indian textile mills: cheap and subsidized cotton at their command, they made a killing.

The NDA also, in order to keep inflation in tact, devalued the rupee, handed over liquidity to government employees through fifth pay scale and opened up IT revolution.

From then until 2004, the NDA successively withdrew money from rural economy (several economists have pointed that out) and put that into the urban and service sectors.

In 2001, Indian cotton acreage stood around 8.5 million hectares (nearly 70 per cent of it was hybrid cotton). Bt cotton was introduced the following year. That year the Vidarbha acreage was close to 1.8 million hectares. The following two years: 2003 and 2004, the acreage of cotton countrywide actually dropped below the long term average of 8 million hectares; in Vidarbha soybean came in. This, when the much-hyped pest-resistant Bt cotton that promises high productivity and income, entered the fray. Farm suicides picked up in the region after 2003. Not just because of Bt, fair enough. There were larger policies at play. But the Bt gets introduced as a soothing panacea. I have witnessed their campaign every single year with astonishment. Some years the Bt cotton propaganda has even dwarfed poll campaigns.

What was the promise? In one advertisement in which Nana Patekar arguably posed as a model (only to withdraw a year later when he realized “his mistake” of “misleading the farmers”): Sow this and you get double your yields and incomes. The state government pushed Bt through its own systems too. Between 2002 and 2008, Bt cotton hybrids had well-ensconced itself in Vidarbha, nay across the country, from some 7 per cent first year to over 85 % of the total seeds. In those very years, India lost its straight line varieties and companies stopped producing non-Bt Hybrids. Shops did not display those even if farmers went begging for non-Bt hybrids. In any case, since companies did not insist on keeping buffer, who will sow non-Bt if your neighbourers are all Bt? It’s a technical issue, but experts have explained to us over the years, that neither the state agriculture department nor companies ever educated farmers to keep a buffer between Bt cotton crops. That was not ignorance. That was deliberate. Now for a farmer to make a fair choice, he needs Bt, non-Bt hybrids, and straight line varieties. And cotton varieties of all staple lengths. Where was the choice? And who decides what farmers will grow: short staple or long ones?

Anyway, the first three years, yields shot up, and then, as a region-wide data (available with three agencies, agriculture department, Maharashtra state cooperative cotton growers’ marketing federation, and the seed producing companies) show, declined steeply. Not only that, the BG-I hybrids became pest tolerant. That’s when the companies prepared for the introduction of BG-II.

Between 2006 and 09, they sell both I and II, and now it’s predominantly II; we understand BG-III is on the anvil and round-up ready weedicide is already in the market.

Between 2001 and 2010, how much has been the increase in cotton acreage and coinciding yield?

If one is to believe Murugkar’s ‘poor’ farmer (Pankaj Shinde), his yields doubled. He’s indeed a rare exception. Because Vidarbha-wide data shows that it hovers between 250 and 300 kg of lint per hectare – that’s about 5-7 quintals per hectare or 2-3 quintals per acre, on the higher side. In 2001, it was between 140 and 200 kg/ha (depending upon soil and water conditions; Vidarbha has mostly shallow medium soils). What’s the country-wide data (available on Cotton Corporation of India website and collated from various papers of the CICR scientists)?

In 2001, from 80.95 lakh hectares, India produced 152 lakh bales (309 Kg lint/ha); In 2007, it peaked with 567 kg lint/ha (introduction of Bg-II which consumes 56 per cent of the Bt acreage) and produced 315 lakh bales from 95 lakh acres.

In Vidarbha, cotton acreage stood around 12-13 lakh hectares, much below the long –term average. 2011, the national cotton productivity stood at 496 kg/ha while the cotton acreage hit an all-time high of 120 lakh hectares and India produced 356 lakh bales.

This was when Bt cotton consumed 92 per cent of total cotton acreage. It could not get any better from here. In Vidarbha the current productivity, according to Mr Sharad Pawar’s reply to a parliamentary question last year, stands around 300 What was the productivity in 2004? It stood 463 kg/ha, and Bt cotton acreage then was roughly six per cent. In Haryana, Punjab, and large swathes of Gujarat’s newly watered areas, Bt was yet to reign.

So, from 2004 the country’s cotton productivity went up and down sharply – as if it were a green revolution squeezed in five-year-period – and the companies begin to switch to BG-II.

Productivity has meanwhile plateaued causing enough worries for the establishment, a reason why even agriculture minister Mr Sharad Pawar agreed for a three-member committee to travel to Brazil earlier this year to find out what they had done to take their productivity ahead of China and all other countries.

India, with all its BT success stories, stands abysmally low in productivity than 15 other countries that don’t plant Bt hybrids, including Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso. Mind you, Brazil did not allow Bt cotton, or for that matter any other GM crop. It has cautiously looked at field trials to see the results before saying that their systems were probably better than the GM crop technology. Brazil grows cotton in high density planting system (HDPS). Agreed, it has different agro-climatic features than that of India, but still...

If researchers were to spend little more time in Vidarbha and interact with old farmers, they will know that they grew cotton in high density planting system till mid-70s. Vidarbha farmers grew cotton plants that had less leaves, less bolls. (What prompted for cropping pattern changes is a matter of another article). Brazil’s HDPS is better and so the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) has insisted upon Pawar (and to its surprise has even got a favorable response) that it’s time to look for alternatives beyond Bt cotton.

If we have to move forward and bail farmers out of this crisis, HDPS might be a better option, the CICR has said. Field trials have begun across the country. Scientists are eagerly awaiting the results.

For a fair choice, farmers don’t just need a variety of good quality seeds – hybrids, straight-line, Bt or even non-Bt hybrids – but they need a choice for technology as well: a range from organic to natural to chemical. Give him a fair choice, a farmer will take a call on what suits best to him. Policies and markets have ensured you get the same burger in different brand-stores.

Murugkar says, and I quote: “The recent issue of Nature, a prestigious international weekly journal on science, has reported significant benefits of Bt cotton to Indian farmers. Citing a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it says that data collected from 533 farm households during 2002-08 shows that Bt cotton raised the yield by 24 per cent. This translated to a 50 per cent increase in profits, and during 2006-08, families that adopted Bt cotton spent 18 per cent more money than conventional farming households, suggesting an increase in living standards.”

Indeed preceding June, there was a flush of new reports arguing that the Bt yields have resulted in big income gains for farmers. That an important bill was before the Parliament – one that would open GM trials in other crops without much regulation – was just a coincidence!

Let’s take the time span though: 2002-2008, the first two-three years were not entirely Bt cotton years. Yet if one believes that yields were up by 24% cumulatively it’s not entirely due to the magic of Bt. See a comprehensive study done by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US corn. It’s on their website. The notion that Bt cotton has led to huge rises in productivity doesn’t not match up. Indeed, while there is a significant increase in productivity in the pre-Bt hybrid era, there is actually a decline in the latter half of the Bt period, a decline which continues. Let us not take a one-off single year for the data. Let us take two equivalent five-year-periods: i.e. 2001-2005 and 2006 to 2010 (the whole of the last decade) for which final official figures are available.

It is only from 2006 that Bt cotton begins to account for significant acreage of cotton under cultivation. Even as late as 2005, it accounts for less than 12 per cent. For the five year-period from 2001-2005, it accounts on average for 3.73 per cent of cotton acreage under cultivation. Or, at best 4.67 per cent if we exclude 2001 when Bt did not exist at all.

Yet, in this period cotton productivity rose from 309 kg per hectare in 2001 to 467 kg/hectare in 2005. That is an increase of 51.13 per cent.

In the period 2006-2010, when Bt accounts for over 72 per cent of cotton acreage, the per hectare yield drops from 519 kg to 495 kg, That is a decline of 4.62 per cent. Also note that the yield in 2006 (519 kg) and in 2007 (567 kg / Ha) - when Bt still accounts for just 42 % and 67 per cent of acreage, is much higher than that of 2009 (486 Kg/Ha) and 2010 (495 kg/Ha) when Bt accounts for 82% and 91 % of cotton acreage respectively! As Bt acreage goes, up, productivity in fact slides. The trend is also one of decline: there is an initial burst which sees yields of 519 and 567 kg and then it is a decline.

Indeed, the 2010 and 2011 (provisional figures) bring it back to pre-Bt hybrid yield figures - and the decline has only begun. Secondly, to bring us to the same level or range of yield after five years, input costs have doubled and trebled. Third, the 2001-05 figure is a steady climb. The 2006-2010 are a volatile roller coaster that now seems unable to hit a high again. Fourth: there are reasons beyond seed that also affect productivity in any period. Including monsoons, irrigation, pest etc., Note that in Vidarbha, for instance, irrigation from 2006 went up to around 8-10 per cent from the earlier 3 %. The Agriculture Commissioner of the period clearly stated that 97 per cent of Vidarbha’s cotton cultivation is rain-fed. Which means the benefit of expanded irrigation came in the Bt-dominance period and some of the initial productivity would have to be credited to that plus two or three good monsoons.

The data are damning. The pre-Bt hybrids were raising productivity at a fraction of the cost. Bt’s five year period has seen no comparable increase. A pre-Bt hybrid packet of seed (450gms) cost Rs. 350 to 425, as against Bt’s cost of Rs. 925 for a packet of the same size, a price abut to be raised again.

The point is, if there were gains, how come some of the major relief packages and loan waivers to farmers had to be given during this very period. It was also a period when farm suicide rate went up steeply in cotton producing regions where Bt cotton had been introduced as a panacea to crisis.

Farmers are spending more money, some studies point out, but on what? And what is the source of income? These two questions need a deeper inquiry. The NSSO data shows the money is being spent more on health now than even on food. And indebtedness is limping back on farmers since the 2008-9 waiver; as the public sector banks said earlier this year.

In Wardha, where a comprehensive study by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation is available, over 17 per cent land is now kept fallow by the farmers; indeed fallowisation process is deepening and it needs an immediate attention of the public-policy makers.

Ultimately, who are we growing cotton for? Where's the end-user? Over the past thirty years, Vidarbha has lost its textile mills to other regions. So what farmers grow here is of little use. They lose the money to be made in its high-end value-chain.

Another moot question is: Does Bt improve yields? It doesn't. The technology is geared to take care of boll-worm, not productivity. Two, it doesn't take care of sucking pests, which is now a bigger pest-management problem in the region.

Lastly, the more significant issue is the question of price. Cotton prices, both the market price and the minimum support price, went up in 2008, just before the 2009 Parliamentary elections. That’s when you see a shift of farmers even in non-cotton areas (ex: northern Maharashtra) towards cotton. That the steep rise in production could be offset with that rise in prices is well-established. If you note the rise and fall in the prices, you see the rise and fall in the cotton acreage. This year cotton acreage has stayed stagnant. That was because prices held on to their levels toward the end of the last season after declining sharply in the first half.

If the prices remain robust this year, as the indications and predictions are they will, expect the acreage to go up next year.

If the choice is soybean or cotton, what will a farmer grow? Even in Antargaon or Bhambraja, it depends on relative prices of the two crops and a farmer’s judgment about them in the context of resources, money and labourers, available to him, Bt or non-Bt. Since non-Bt is not to be seen anywhere on the shelves, the obvious choice is for a Bt-hybrid: We have over 3000 hybrids of them now: from Bt-Mallika to Bt-Bipasha!

Reducing the issue of a skewed choice to the issue of popularity presents a wrong picture of a more complex market dynamic. If it were indeed a paying option, Vidarbha farmers would be enjoying cotton yields, not killing themselves on its hay or giving up farming, as they do, at an alarming rate.

Traveling beyond Antargaon and Bhambraja tells us that.

(Correction: I stand corrected on Brazil. That country has about a million hectare land under GM crops, but it has adopted a cautious approach since and has restricted the spread of GM crops following its experiences so far. Meanwhile, Russia has banned use and import of Monsanto GM corn following a recent French study.)

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