For the beleaguered cotton farmers who overdose fields with harmful pesticides every year and are now being lured to adopt genetically modified cotton, there is finally a silver-lining on the dark and polluted horizon.

No pesticides, no Bt cotton and there are no pests!

A tiny village in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh in southern India has successfully charted an easy and simple escape route from the multiple rings of a chakravyuha (trap) that the agribusiness industry had very conveniently thrown around the neck of cotton farmers. Like the legendary warrior Abhimanyu in the great Indian epic Mahabharata, cotton farmers were being pushed into a chakravyuha from which there was no way out. The greater the attack of insect pests, the greater the use and abuse of potent chemicals. Thousands of cotton farmers, unable to loosen the tightening rope around their neck, had in the process taken the fatal route.

Punukula village, about 12 kms from Kothagudem town in Andhra Pradesh, and with a population of about 860, was also a victim of the vicious circle of poison. Indiscriminate application of pesticides on cotton and chili had brought in a horde of problems, including deaths resulting from acute poisoning and suicides by debt-ridden farmers. While the sale of chemicals soared, pesticide traders raked in Rs 2-3 million annually from only about 500 acres of land holdings in the village. Farmers continued to slide into debt following the devastation inflicted on the natural resource base. If only the sale receipts from unwanted pesticides had remained within the village, the village economy would have been on an upswing.

It was in 1999 that a few farmers began experimenting with Non-Pesticidal Management (NPM) practices. A year later, in 2000-01, a local NGO Socio-Economic and Cultural Upliftment in Rural Environment (SECURE) with technical support from the Centre for World Solidarity in Hyderabad was able to convince 20 farmers to opt for NPM. The highly contaminated environment began to change for the better. Soil and plant health looked revitalised, and the pests began to disappear. Such was the positive impact both environmentally and economically that by 2004 the entire village had stopped using chemical pesticides. Restoring the ecological balance brought back the natural pest control systems. Along with the pesticides, the pests too disappeared.

If the Ministry of Agriculture and the ICAR were to instead promote the Punukula model of sustainable cotton cultivation, farmers wouldn't be exploited by the seed industry.
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With no pests to worry about, Punukula had no reason to go in for Bt cotton.

At a time when more than 55 per cent of the total pesticides used in the country are applied on cotton alone, the story of Punukula is a reminder of the dangers of a silent spring. First pesticides, and now Bt cotton, is being promoted to reduce crop losses from the dreaded bollworm pests. The idea behind Bt cotton is that pesticides are harmful to the environment, and any reduction in its usage (with the cultivation of Bt cotton) is a saving from chemical contamination.

As Punukula shows, NPM practices have not only restored the ecological balance but also reduced the dependence of farmers on external inputs. This in turn has minimized the debt trap and thereby the resulting spiral death dance. Punukula today stands like an oasis in the highly pernicious and contaminated farming systems being promoted by agricultural research and the agribusiness industry.

What the industry, as well as agricultural scientists, however, refuse to accept is that the pest population multiplies only because of the unwanted application of chemical pesticides. In the early 1960s, only six to seven major pests were worrying the cotton farmer. The farmer today is battling against some 70 major pests on cotton. Therefore the solution is not to push the cotton farmer deeper by strengthening the multiple rings of poison (and now the biological treadmill of Bt cotton) but to pull farmers out of the pesticides trap.

Punukula however does not figure in the research agenda of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the umbrella organization that controls farm research in India, as well as the National Academy for Agricultural Sciences and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. So much so that the Union Agriculture Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar, and his colleague, the Science and Technology Minister, Mr Kapil Sibal, continue to blindly beat their drums in support of GM technology. Like the mainline agricultural scientists, they too remain removed from the realities of farmers fields while always having a ready ear for the agribusiness industry.

Mr Pawar had recently said: "GM crops are necessary for ensuring food and nutrition security and increasing farmers' income. Like the IT sector, India has to exploit its potential to emerge as a leader in agricultural biotechnology." Mr Pawar's misplaced emphasis on a risky and faulty technology is essentially to help the commercial interests of the biotechnology industry. What Mr Pawar is not aware of is that in 2003-04, the total acreage under NPM cotton went up to 1200 acres in Punukula and the neighbouring Pullaigudem villages. With an average yield of 7500 kgs per acre (reaching a maximum of 12000 kgs per acre) against an average of 5000 to 7500 kg for Bt cotton, farmers in Punukula have emerged free from the recurring cycle of pesticides, debt and death.

Another NGO, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Hyderabad, has clearly demonstrated the economics of Bt cotton and hybrid cotton in some of the selected pockets of Andhra Pradesh. It has established that the cost of pest management in Bt cotton was 690 per cent more than the NPM farming systems. This was over and above the seed cost, which was 355 per cent higher in case of Bt cotton seeds. Who gains from the promotion of Bt cotton seeds, therefore, is quite obvious. Unfortunately, agricultural research infrastructure in India and for that matter globally is being used to ensure the viability of the seed and agribusiness companies. The farmer is just an incidental beneficiary in the reductionist economics that is worked out in support of such farming technologies and approaches.

The Indian biotech industry claims to have sold Bt cotton seeds sufficient for planting in 500,000 hectares in 2003-04. Interestingly, at Rs 1600 per acre as the seed price, including Rs 1200 as the technology fee that the industry is willfully charging, the seed industry and trade has very conveniently drawn out Rs 1400 million from the rural areas (in technology fees alone). If the Ministry of Agriculture and the ICAR were to instead promote the Punukula model of sustainable cotton cultivation, farmers wouldn't be exploited by the seed industry. In simple words, Rs 1400 million would have stayed with the cotton farmers. Every rupee saved is an additional rupee earned. Rural poverty, hunger and farm suicides would then be a thing of the past.

If Punukula too had taken to Bt cotton, the village would have been forced to fork out Rs 600,000 as additional seed price (at Rs 1200 per acre as technology fee) for the 500 acres under cotton cultivation. The farmers would have then remained eternally in debt, a victim of the cutting-edge technology that is actually benefiting the agribusiness companies. It is therefore quite obvious that in connivance with the agricultural scientists and policy makers, the Bt cotton seed industry is thriving at the expense of farming communities.

Punukula village has the potential to pull out cotton growers from the chemical and biological chakravyuha. A beginning has to be made, the sooner the better.