Harish Damodaran

‘Why not GM?'

HARISH DAMODARAN | Updated on November 17, 2011

Pandurang Iname supervising weeding operations in his field.

Farmers have a different take from NGOs on weedicide-resistant cotton.

Balu Mogal made a decent sum last year, planting cotton on eight out of his 12-acre holding. The 38-year-old farmer, from Nilajgaon in Paithan Taluka of Maharashtra's Aurangabad district, harvested an average 14 quintals of kapas (seed-cotton) an acre. At roughly Rs 4,500 a quintal, it would have generated Rs 63,000, against cash expenses of some Rs 20,000, giving a return of Rs 43,000 an acre. Not bad.

But it wasn't always like this. 2010 was an exceptional year, with farmers like Mogal realising Rs 4,000-4,200 for their first ‘flush' pickings. As the season progressed, the subsequent flushes yielded between Rs 5,000 and Rs 6,000, compared with just Rs 3,000-3,500 in the preceding two crop years.

Favourable prices apart, another major factor for cotton becoming the preferred crop for Maharashtra's farmers — proof being the area jump from under seven million to more than 10 million acres in the last ten years — is Bt technology.

Before Bt hybrids arrived, Mogal rarely got more than five quintals an acre. A seven-month kapas crop sown in early June typically gives up to five flushes, the first after 120 days of sowing, and the subsequent ones following every 20-25 days.

In the pre-Bt period, vulnerability to bollworm insect attacks meant that few of the ‘squares' or buds on the branches could develop into full bolls (the pods containing seeds from which the cotton fibres grow). The first couple of flushes were often near-washouts — the mid-thirties temperatures, high humidity and cloudy climate being most conducive for larvae infestation.

BT AND AFTER

That changed with Bt cotton, genetically engineered to produce proteins toxic to bollworm pests. As a result, the number of bolls per plant rose from 30-40 to 80-100. This led farmers to increase the plant population itself, as they saw more bolls forming and also surviving.

“Earlier, I used to keep 3.5-feet distance between rows and the same even from plant to plant. Now, I have shifted to five feet row-to-row and 1.5 feet plant-to-plant. That enables me to have more number of plants — although they grow only to 5-6 feet, against 7-8 feet previously — with much higher boll yields,” said Prakash Bapu Pawar, a 10-acre grower from Pimpri Raja village in Aurangabad Taluka.

(One acre equals 43,560 sq ft: 5x1.5 spacing allows 5,808 plants for every acre, whereas it is 3,556 with 3.5x3.5.)

The flexibility to increase plant population hasn't been an unmixed blessing though. The main downside relates to weed management. With 3.5x3.5 planting, farmers could use bullock-drawn harrows to go in between the rows as well as plants to uproot most of the weeds. Only the balance had to be manually removed.

But closer spacing reduces the room for intercultural operations through bullock-powered hoes. “I have to now rely much more on manual weeding, unfortunately, when labour itself has become expensive. Five years ago, the daily wage rate was Rs 60-70 for working from nine to six. Today, it is Rs 125-150, that too only from 11 to five,” complained Ganesh Bharatrao Chauduri, a 30-acre farmer from Garkheda, a village near Pimpri Raja.

For Pandurang Wamanrao Iname, who grows cotton on half of his 60-acre land at Ranjangaon in Paithan Taluka, it is scarcity of labour, more than higher wages, that is a problem. “In the past, if I wanted 10 labourers, 20 would turn up. Now, if I seek 10, only five will come and I have to also arrange for transport,” he noted.

Many cotton growers today list weeding as their top expenditure item, ahead of even picking. The latter is relatively predictable: The rate varies from Rs 400 to 600 a quintal; so for 14 quintals, that averages around Rs 7,000 an acre.

WEEDING WOES

In weeding, it isn't so simple. The first round, which happens 15-20 days after sowing at the early-leaf stage, involves deployment of approximately 10 labourers per acre. At Rs 125 each, it comes to Rs 1,250. This is followed by at least two more — after 35-40 days (before square formation) and 55-60 days (before flowering).

The labour requirement for these rounds is higher, since the weed population goes up. Also, the continuous rains during July-August forces staggered operations. It translates into employing 15 people, or spending Rs 1,875, both times. Adding the cost of bullock inter-culture operations — four times for Rs 500 each — takes the overall weeding outlay to Rs 7,000 an acre.

“This is a minimum figure that can go to Rs 10,000. Sometimes, it rains so much that you cannot enter the fields. But in our desperation to control weeds (especially in the critical vegetative stages, where they compete with the crop for nutrients, sunlight and moisture), we have no choice other than paying overtime for labour,” claimed Iname.

Besides weeding and picking, the growers' other major costs are Rs 3,000 on fertilisers, Rs 2,000 on pesticides (for pests such as aphids, thrips, jassids, mealy bugs and whitefly), Rs 1,400 on seed (1.5-1.6 packets are used for every acre@ Rs 930 per packet), and Rs 1,000 on ploughing. They all total up to about Rs 22,000.

“We badly need a solution for weeds, which will also bring down our fertiliser consumption. Today, half of the fertiliser and the subsidy on it goes to the ghaas (weeds),” remarked Iname.

One option is weedicides. But that isn't easy in cotton, where the weeds include both monocots (grasses like Cyperus rotundus and Cynodon dactylon) as well as broad-leaved dicots from parthenium to Commelina benghalensis.

“Farmers sometimes use quizalofop-ethyl and some other chemicals that, however, work only against grassy weeds and not dicots (more so, the ubiquitous parthenium that locals call Congress ghaas). For cotton, you need systemic, non-selective weedicides, and glyphosate is a clear candidate,” explained Dr Dinesh Lomte from the Marathwada Agricultural University's Aurangabad Krishi Vigyan Kendra.

MONSANTO AGAIN

But spraying glyphosate would kill all plants in the field of application, be it weeds or the cotton crop itself. That is where Monsanto's Roundup Ready Flex (RRF) cotton is being offered as an alternative. It contains three alien genes, two of which are already incorporated in the existing Bt cottons to confer resistance against bollworm and spodoptera insect pests.

The third gene codes for a protein that inhibits the action of glyphosate. The RRF cotton is, therefore, ‘tolerant' to application of Roundup or any other brand of glyphosate. But are farmers ready for it? “Why not, if it can solve my weed problems even partially?” asks Santosh Dahihande, a 40-acre grower from Garkheda.

“Why not”, is a uniform response one hears when talking to farmers about RRF cotton. They seem little worried about it fostering seed monopolies or reinforcing technological dependence on a company headquartered in St. Louis, US. For them, the more immediate concern is how to reduce dependence on manual weeding.

( >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

Published on October 19, 2011

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