Intrigued that Bt cotton was being blamed for farmers’ suicides when more than 90% of India’s cotton acreage was under the genetically-modified crop, this author visited Vidarbha, supposedly the epicentre of farmers’ suicides, in October to find out for himself.
Not only was there no clamour against Bt cotton, I was surprised to hear a farmer admit casually on his own in the course of a conversation that he was growing Bt cotton that has been genetically programmed to be resistant to herbicide, even though such a variety has not been approved for commercial use in India, and an application for permission to do so is pending with the regulators since March.
The well-off and politically-connected farmer in Yavatmal, who wishes not to be identified, soon showed me proof: weeds in a field sprayed with the herbicide were wilting while cotton plants were swaying in photosynthetic delight at the plight of their former tormentors.
The farmer says he had sown six acres with this variety. He was doing this for the second year in a row. “If the government does not give permission for new technology, we must adopt it by stealth or agitation to send a message,” he said. According to him (not independently confirmed), about 60,000 packets, enough to cover as many acres, had been sold in Hinganghat, Warora, Wani and Rajura talukas of Maharashtra’s Wardha, Chandrapur and Yavatmal districts. They had been smuggled in by Gujarat dealers from Argentina and the US, he said.
This episode takes one back to 2001 when Navbharat Seeds sold unapproved Bt cottonseed a few months before Mahyco, the Indian affiliate of the US seed MNC Monsanto, could bring the approved version into the market. The central government ordered the pirated crop to be burnt, but the Gujarat government did not oblige, fearing the wrath of farmers.
One cannot approve of the freelance action of farmers, but can they be blamed if government and lawmakers play political games disregarding scientific opinion? Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh turned the approval process for Bt brinjal into a spectator sport with countrywide public hearings, where the sane voice of science was drowned by the clangour of NGOs, resulting in an indefinite moratorium on trials of genetically-modified crops. The present environment minister has gone along. Farmers are rebelling by planting pirated herbicide-resistant Bt cotton. They cannot afford the cost of manual de-weeding, or bear the output loss that results when labour