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Wednesday, Jul 17, 2002

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Monsanto cotton seeds a sell-out with farmers

Harish Damodaran

A farmer in Maharashtra surveying his Bollgard cotton field after germination.


JUDGING by the initial response from farmers and seed dealers, the `Bollgard' (Bt) cotton of Monsanto and the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co Ltd (Mahyco) has been a total sell-out in its very first season of commercial planting.

In the current kharif season, Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech India Ltd (MMB), the 50:50 marketing joint venture between the two companies, has sold 1.05 lakh packets of Mahyco's cotton hybrid seeds, genetically engineered to confer `in-built' resistance to the dreaded American bollworm pest.

``Given the limited quantity of seeds available, 80 per cent of our sales were made to farmers located in cluster villages around our trial locations. Being already familiar with the product, they were the most keen to plant them. Only the remaining 20 per cent was supplied to new farmers'', said Dr M.K. Sharma, Managing Director of MMB.

Of the 1.05 lakh packets sold — likely to touch 6-7 lakh packets next year — around 39,200 were allocated to Maharashtra, 21,000 to Karnataka, 15,000 to Gujarat, 14,000 to Tamil Nadu, 11,000 to Andhra Pradesh and 4,500 to Madhya Pradesh. ``We are looking at this year more as an opportunity to send the right communication to the farmer, which will create conditions for its eventual large-scale adoption,'' Mr Raju Barwale, Managing Director, Mahyco, said.

The Bt hybrids were sold to farmers at Rs 1,600 per packet, each containing 450 gm of seeds to cover one acre. This is against a maximum retail price of Rs 380 for a similar packet of Mahyco's non-Bt cotton hybrid versions.

According to Mr Gopal Bharuka, MMB's distributor for Aurangabad district, the high price was not a deterrent to Bollgard's sales. ``This year, I distributed 453 packets. I am confident of selling 50,000 next season and capturing a fifth of the district's market of 2.5 lakh packets for all hybrid cotton seeds,'' he claimed.

Mr R.M. Arora, a leading seed dealer here, too, felt that the price of Rs 1,600 was reasonable. ``The packet costing Rs 1,600 contains not only a 450-gm composite can of Bt seeds, but also a separate 120 gm pouch of the non-Bt version of the same hybrid seeds, costing around Rs 100. Further, the seeds are treated with Gaucho (Imidacloropid), which does away with the need to spray against sucking pests for up to 45 days, saving another Rs 100. So, the effective price is Rs 1,400, i.e, Rs 1,000 more than that for ordinary cotton hybrids,'' he stated.

But does this still work out to be economical? Most farmers in the Aurangabad-Jalna belt with whom Business Line interacted said that they had invested the extra Rs 1,000 per acre in the hope of saving on pesticide applications for controlling bollworm infestation. A single round of spraying pesticides — be it organophosphates like endosulphan and monocrotophos or synthetic pyrethroids such as cypermethrin and fennalrate — costs Rs 250-300 per acre. And farmers spray 10 to 15 times, depending on the incidence of the bollworm population.

``Last year, I spent Rs 10,000 in making 15 sprays in my 2.5-acre cotton field and I still got just five quintals per acre'', Ramdas Ananda Phalke, a resident of village Varkhedi, said.

Vittal Asaram Shelke, an 8-acre farmer from village Sawangi, said that during the last 4-5 years, his seed cotton yields ranged between three and 15 quintals per acre.

``It depends mainly on what the bondali (bollworm) does. But there is no year where I spend less than Rs 3,000 per acre in controlling the pest. If the Bollgard hybrids will help reduce this cost by even half and stabilise my yields at 10-12 quintals, I would be most happy'', he added.

According to Mr Barwale, the estimated savings from Bollgard, due to lesser number of pesticide sprays as well as reduced yield losses, comes to a minimum Rs 3,000 per acre.

``Farmers certainly won't mind sharing a third of this gain with us'', he emphasised.

While the Bollgard cotton's resistance against the bollworm pest may be well established, farmers have, however, been advised that for every acre of Bt seeds planted, they simultaneously grow five surrounding rows of non-Bt cotton as `refuge'.

``We have supplied the 120 gm of non-Bollgard seeds free, so that the pest's activity is diverted to this additional 0.27-acre area. This will minimise the potential for the development of Bt-resistant insect races in the long run,'' Dr Sharma explained.

Farmers have also been asked to `scout' their fields twice a week and spray against bollworms only in case the bollworm larval count exceeds the economic threshold limit (ETL) of 20 per 20 randomly selected plants. ``Farmers will not have to repeatedly spray against bollworms, though they would still have to use pesticides against sucking pests (jassids, whitefly, aphids, thrips, mites, etc). The Bollgard's action is specific to only lepidopteran insects, particularly bollworm,'' Mr Barwale pointed out.

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