Agri Business

Monocropping to hurt cotton farmers in Gujarat

Tomojit Basu Mehsana (Gujarat) | Updated on January 24, 2018


A monocropping culture, driven by healthy returns, threatens to hurt cotton farmers in Mehsana and other districts in the country’s largest cotton-producing State, say agriculture experts working in the region.

As the price of cotton slips due to excess supply and China scaling back on purchases, farmers in north Gujarat risk mounting their losses and the likelihood of reduced sowing in May. They had increased cotton plantings over the last decade due to higher yields driven by Bt cotton varieties.

“Cotton acreage has kept increasing since 2003-04, when Bt cotton was first introduced in the area. Farmers only realise that it’s a problem when the market crashes. There is lower production this year, in part due to unseasonal rains, and prices have declined,” said Manish Patel, programme coordinator of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) located in Kherva.

Bt cotton is genetically modified (GM) one with Bacillus thuringiensis gene being inserted in it to resist bollworm attacks. Over 95 per cent of cotton grown in the country is GM.

Poor practices

Patel believes that while the technology did little harm, poor practices involved in cultivation has led to problems ranging from lower production of other crops, depleted soil and rising crop diseases, such as parawilt and root rot. “For instance, farmers don’t take our advice about following refuge area guidelines to plant non-Bt varieties as a control for pests. Parawilt has appeared in greater numbers over the past three years. While Bt varieties resist pest attacks, borers now attack pulses, wheat, tomato and tobacco, something which didn’t happen as much earlier,” said Patel.

Farmers in Mehsana have moved away from the traditional two-crop cycle in the hope of making more money, explained Bharatbhai, a KVK extension officer, who said soil nutrition has been hurt by monocropping.

Cotton is generally planted in May, with the first picking of the early variety happening around October-early November, after which wheat is sown. “They (farmers) grow cotton in both cycles now. Ideally, they should replace the field with another crop – as they used to with wheat and pulses earlier which is locally consumed as well – to help regenerate the soil after the first picking. Maximum rates are offered for the first pick and yields are better,” he said, adding that the cotton is now picked in 90 days against the recommended 120 days.

Locally manufactured non-certified Bt cottonseeds, at about half the price of Government-licensed ones priced between ₹930 and ₹980 for a 450 gm packet, is another issue, with the spread in some villages being nearly 75 per cent.

“Farmers buy the cheaper varieties and use almost twice as much, hoping there will be higher production. That isn’t the case and such seeds damage soil productivity further,” added Bharatbhai.

Dwindling profits

At the APMC market in Unava, kapas (raw cotton) was trading at ₹807 per maund (of 20 kg) around the minimum support price (MSP). Farmers said they received as much as ₹1,200 last season.

The KVK estimates the cost of production in 2013-14 at ₹82,000/hectare with realisations of ₹1.1 lakh/hectare. Kanhaiyalal, a farmer from Tunda village in Unjha taluka, who produced about six quintals this year from two and a half bighas, said he was unlikely to sow cotton in May since returns for six months of work were paltry.

“There is no profit in cotton this year. I spend about ₹6,000 a bigha but my margins are too little,” he said, adding that he will grow castor, wheat and guar instead.

The district is yet to benefit from the Sujalam Sufalam canal project with minor canals likely to irrigate fields only in 2016-17. Currently, farmers incur costs to draw water from about 1,000-1,200 ft using motor pumps. “The water table is low, irrigation is costlier here than other parts of the State. We’re struggling to get ₹850 a maund now. In my village, most farmers will move away from cotton next season,” said Mahendrabhai, a farmer from Kansarakui village, Vishnagar taluka.

To check sliding prices and distress sales, the State-owned Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) has procured about five million bales (of 170 kg each) and is likely to pick up about 3-5 million more bales this season. The Cotton Advisory Board estimates a record 40 million bales output in 2014-15.

The writer visited Mehsana, Gujarat, on the invitation of ABLE-AG, a body of biotech firms.

Published on January 26, 2015

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