Farmers cannot deal with a pest attack on their own. They are dependent on scientists to create pest-resistant varieties, and on multinationals to develop ever more potent pesticides.

Agriculture in modern times has been defined as the pursuit of productivity on the farm, with yield per hectare being the measure of a farmer’s success. For achieving these goals, farmers have shifted to growing one or two crops on their fields, creating a mono-cropping regime.

It is well accepted today that such a regime can only survive by making the environment as controlled as possible, so that other competing plants — labelled weeds — do not take away resources from the desired crop. Pests and diseases, too, must be kept away.

Besides, adequate amount of water and nutrients, in the form of chemical fertiliser, are a necessity. Else, the chances of the crop expressing its desired high-yielding trait are significantly reduced.

But such a controlled regime is also vulnerable to environmental stresses, the most prominent of them being insect pest attacks.

The soyabean ‘revolution’

Take the soyabean farmers in Madhya Pradesh’s Malwa region, who have been fighting an explosive war against insects for the past 40 years. They started growing soyabean in the 1970s and, today, more than six million hectares are sown under the crop during the kharif season that follows the monsoon rains.

Entomologist Dr K. J. Singh of the Sehore Agriculture College explains that, “In 1967, there were hardly 4-5 insects when soyabean was a new crop. Today, insects get a large area to eat, as 70-80 per cent of the crop sown in kharif is soyabean. And 90 per cent of that is a single soyabean variety, JS 335”.

Pests attacking other crops like gram and tobacco have also shifted to the more attractive soyabean. “Soyabean is very nutritive for the insect,” says Dr Singh. “Its survival rate increases, fertility level increases, and so it shifts from tobacco to soyabean. The insect selects and it lays eggs only there.”

The tobacco caterpillar has, in the process, become one of the most dreaded soyabean pests, causing immense losses to farmers by reducing yields. It seems quite clear that one cannot expect to do soyabean farming today without using insecticides, “at least as a last resort,” he concludes.

Even “10 acres cannot be managed if there is an insect attack and the entire crop is at the same stage of cycle.”

Pest, pesticide evolution

Ramakant Patidar of Gopalkhedi village remembers that before he began soyabean farming in earnest, there were two basic pesticides that were used — endosulfan as the first spray and monochrotophos as the second spray.

“There were no chane ki illi (gram pod borer) or sundi (American bollworm) then. Nor did we require new chemicals like alpha cypermethrin to kill them,” he recalls.

But since then, a host of new pesticides have been used. In 2004-5, came Avaunt, which became the new last resort for farmers, leaving behind even the assorted “Cyper, Endo, Mono, Trizo, Quinal” chemicals in its wake. It was also the most expensive pesticide on the market, developed by the American company DuPont. “It (Avaunt) kills friendly pests also. It is potent enough to kill even God (Woh brahmastra hai – bhagwan bhi bhasm ho jaye),” exclaims Ramakant. Farmers in several Malwa villages sprayed Avaunt even before any pest attack, as a precautionary measure, since it remained effective for 20 days.

Mono-cropping blues

But five years later, by 2010, a still newer pesticide known as Coragen had replaced Avaunt. This, too, was also developed by DuPont.

Avaunt, in other words, wasn’t effective any more.

The reason for all this is, of course, genetic uniformity, which makes crops vulnerable to epidemics of viruses, pests, diseases. So, without pesticides, genetically uniform fields cannot survive for very long. But that creates insect resistance, which leads to the need for even newer and stronger pesticides.

This is the technological treadmill.

Farmers have no ability to survive a pest attack on their own. They are dependent on scientists to create pest-resistant varieties and on private multinationals to develop ever more potent pesticides.

In the past, farmers were able to use inter-cropping or mixed-cropping systems to prevent spread of diseases and pests to epidemic proportions, and to counter the properties of one plant against another. Friendly pests and natural predators were utilised. The arsenal of the farmer primarily drew upon a multi-crop system.

As Dr K. J. Singh explains, “Farmers should do intercropping with other traditional crops. Don’t do mono-cropping… Put four lines of soyabean, two of arhar (pigeon pea), sesame, maize…Do mishrit kheti (mixed-copping). Mix soyabean and maize and broadcast the seed. The corn will go visibly tall and you can sell the cobs. Birds will sit on the maize and eat insects on the soyabean.”

Farmers can grow crops such as sorghum, groundnuts, millets, bajra (pearl millet), maddua (ragi), arhar and maize”, he proposes. “Balance is necessary. Biodiversity is a must.”

But soyabean’s introduction into Malwa was not seen as an addition to the crop basket. It has simply replaced kharif pulses such as moong and urad, oilseeds such as sesame, and coarse cereals such as maize, because of its suitability to the region’s deep black soil and survivability in the erratic monsoons vis-à-vis other crops.

It has also been more remunerative for farmers, since it has a ready market for processing into deoiled cake, which goes as a primary ingredient into cattle and poultry feed. Excess capacity in the soyabean processing industry and growing demand for animal products has sustained this remuneration over the last 30 years.

But this has also meant that farmers have lost the possibilities of control at the local level. Along with dependence on scientists and companies, they have to contend with the impact of pesticides on the health of those spraying them and on the larger environment. Apart from pest-resistance and soil toxicity, there are also the long term impacts on the health of consumers eating food laden with chemicals.

Yet, farmers continue to grow soyabean monocultures in the pursuit of productivity and replenish their arsenals with new weapons of insect destruction every few years. In crops like cotton, the process has gone a further step, with the plant itself being genetically engineered to produce its own pesticide.

The technological treadmill turns and turns, but the hope of conquering insects is eventually a futile one.

(The author teaches at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi.)

(This article was published on June 26, 2012)
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