INSIGHTS: Mealy Bug Takes Away Glory of Bt Cotton

By Umendra Dutt

JAITU, Punjab, India, August 24, 2007 (ENS) - So, once again it is boom time for the pesticide manufacturing companies in Punjab. Harping on the desperation and fear psychosis among the farmers over the attack of a new pest - the mealy bug - on the cotton crop, the pesticide companies have already sold pesticides worth over Rs 500 crores (US$121.4 million) in Punjab, in the last two months.

Not only making a big hole in the pocket of the already distressed farmer, the mealy bug also has demolished the so-called hype over Bt cotton. While governments and the Bt cotton manufacturing and distribution companies were claiming a panacea for the farmers, claiming there would be no attack of pests on the genetically engineered Bt cotton, the mealy bug has broken the hype and illusion.

Bt cotton plants in Punjab (Photo courtesy Nath Seeds)
As the mealy bug is destroying the cotton crop in the Malwa region of Punjab, in desperation the farmers are intensively spraying the cotton with pesticides, which are toxic and costly.

A major portion of the profit which the farmer hoped to reap from his cotton crop, has already gone into pockets of pesticide companies, making the farmer once again the ultimate loser.

First, he purchased expensive Bollgard Bt seeds, believing in their resistance towards pests, and after the mealy bug made meal of the Bt cotton, the farmer made a huge investment in pesticides.

The seed companies had already cornered the lion's share of the cotton crop by selling the farmers expensive seed and now it is the turn of pesticide companies to squeeze the farmers. Our farmer is surrounded by merchants of Venice; there are Shylocks all around him.

Mobile vans carrying the big banners of pesticide companies are criss-crossing villages to educate farmers about the mealy bug attack. But educating farmers is a money minting exercise for the pesticide companies.

When the farmers were gripped with mealy bug panic, and some of them started ploughing their fields under, the Directorate of Agriculture, Punjab published advertisements in vernacular daily papers with official photos of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Agriculture Minister Sucha Singh Langah, prescribing a list of pesticides to spray for mealy bug control.

Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal (Photo courtesy Government of Punjab
Headlined "To Control Mealy Bug Attack on Cotton" and the advertisements list pesticides - Carbryl, Thiodicarb of Carbamate group, Quinalphos, Prosenofos, Chloropyrifos and Acephate of Organophas group. The advertisement even suggests using Holocon nozzles while spraying. This advertisement is look-alike of any advertisement placed by pesticide companies.

It is a tragedy that two years back the Punjab government had published similar advertisements with the photo of then Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, describing the introduction of Bt cotton as a great achievement.

At that time, government advertisements made tall claims about the advantages of Bt cotton, stating an increase in yield by 25 to 28 percent per hectare, and a net increase in income by Rs 10,000 to 15,000 (US$ 242 to 364) per hectare, and a saving on agro-chemicals of up to Rs 1,000 (US$ 24) per hectare.

But, this season, the third year after the introduction of Bt cotton in Punjab, things are going the opposite way.

Surprisingly, Punjab is the only state where one could find government advertisements with the chief minister's photos either for the promotion of Bt cotton or for propagating use of pesticides. Apparently, the agribusiness companies could not find more state patronage than this.

Punjab seems to be heaven for these companies. The agriculture establishments here are advocating all sorts of agrochemicals, hybrid seeds, Bt seeds and a whole lot of poisons even more loudly then the manufacturers.

The mealy bug (Photo courtesy Jungle Gardens)
The government has every right to issue advertisements about its achievements whenever they want to communicate to the people, but how can a government advertisement propagate Bt cotton or pesticides? We have to question the very mind set and thought behind these advertisements.

The agriculture establishments in Punjab are looking for solutions of every problem with the eyes of farm input companies and agribusiness corporations. This indicates the intellectual bankruptcy of the people at the helm of affairs in the state. What could be more ironic than the fact that the solutions which they are suggesting are not only more problematic but also totally unsustainable? These solutions bound to bring more and more devastation.

Those who are prescribing these solutions are not legally bound to any action if their prescription brings any adverse effects after few years. The so-called agriculture experts will go scot-free but the poor farmer will certainly lose his money, land, health and maybe his life too.

Nobody is talking about the loss to farmers. The farmers who sowed Bt cotton seeds are now feeling cheated. Their dreams have turned into nightmares.

The mealy bug has attacked cotton in almost the whole of Malwa. The white sticky bug made cotton fields look as though they were covered with snow. The bugs have even entered house and kitchen gardens.

The bugs attacked cotton last year but the damage was on a limited scale. This year it became so widespread that in hundreds of villages in all pockets of the Cotton Belt, farmer after farmer ploughed their Bt cotton fields under to get rid of the mealy bug.

The government departments pressed the panic button. They worked even on Sundays, discussing which pesticide is better and how to make pesticides available to farmers. They declared war against the mealy bug but the ammunition is being provided by a private company, Syngenta.

The agriculture development officers also have become brand campaigners for Actara, another pesticide manufacturing company.

Pesticide storage room on a Punjab farm (Photo courtesy MSU)

The entire agriculture establishment of Punjab seeks asylum in poisons only. While promoting pesticides they have also advised farmers to spray herbicides all along the farm to prevent weeds.

This means a greater poison load on the already devastated ecosystem of Punjab.

The chemicalization and monoculturing of agriculture in Punjab has made its agriculture experts bonded royal laborers of the chemical farming paradigm. They cannot think and see beyond that, and they do not want to think and see. They cannot dare to do so, as it does not suit the masters of the present agriculture system.

The "Indian Express" newspaper quoted the head of the Entomology Department of Punjab Agricultural University Dr. N.S. Bhutter, justifying the planting of Bt cotton and the increasing use of pesticides. "Prior to the introduction of Bt cotton, we used to spray the crops with chemicals which killed these pests. Now as the pest umbrella has been lifted because Bt cotton does not need so many sprays, these pests are becoming dominant."

When asked why Punjab Agricultural University didn't think of this attack when it was rooting for Bt cotton as a panacea for the problems of Punjab farmers, his reply reflects that there is some thing seriously wrong with the vision of the Punjab agriculture establishment.

Dr. Bhutter said, "At that time there was no mealy bug, and we were dealing with just American bollworm. With chemicals, we will be able to control this bug too."

The agriculture experts encouraged farmers to spray pesticides, but large number of farmers and labors who were exposed to the deadly pesticides have been hospitalized at several towns in the Cotton Belt. Two deaths were reported due to pesticide exposure.

The mealy bug is giving a lesson to the agriculture establishment and proponents of chemicalized agriculture that their pest control design is faulty. The small insect dares the agriculture scientists to change their view, but who has the guts to do so? Punjab, devastated by ecological crisis, debts, suicides and cancers is waiting for this change.

There is no holistic approach, no farsightedness, no concern about destruction done by chemicals, nor any thought for the ecological, economic and social implications of this highly toxic agriculture.

When lakhs of farmers elsewhere are successfully growing cotton without using any sort of chemicals and even without Bt seeds, why cannot this happen in Punjab?

But our politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and planners all are hypnotized by companies. All Punjab's main parties became mad in the craze for Bt and everyone wants to claim credit for the release of Bt cotton and its further expansion.

Despite the mealy bug attack on Bt cotton, Agriculture Minister Langah announced in his Independence day address at Muktsar on August 15 that his government is proud of distributing 1,535,500 packets of Bt cotton seeds at the rate of Rs 760 per packet.

But question is, who is paying the royalty for these packets? Certainly, neither Mr. chief minister nor the agriculture minister nor the director of agriculture nor Punjab Agricultural University is going to pay.

The farmers of Punjab have already paid some Rs 100 crores (US$ 1 billion) to Monsanto as royalty over last three years and this process will continue until farmers dare to see through the Bt seed deception.

Natural cotton field in Punjab (Photo courtesy FAO)
But in this darkness of chemical farming, there is a ray of hope. Natural farming is making inroads in Punjab.

The mealy bug does not worry natural farmers at all. The farmers who are practicing natural farming neither use Bt cotton nor do any pesticide spraying. But still their cotton crops are healthy and free from any destruction caused by mealy bugs.

First of all, they witnessed very mild mealy bug attacks, due to their multiple cropping system. Their cotton fields have as many as eight to 15 crops.

Second, if mealy bugs attacked their crops they controlled the pests with neem, dhatura and cow urine. There are large numbers of farmers who are proud owners of naturally treated farms. These farmers are erecting the foundation for a paradigm shift in Punjab.

A constructive change is taking place - minus experts and the establishment. It is a community initiative and farmer driven movement called Kheti Virasat Mission.

The growing number of farmers practicing natural farming is an indicator that society wants a change in agriculture perspective and paradigm. These farmers have already walked out of the Bt and pesticide trap and are now leading the Punjab towards an imperishable prosperity, free from the exploitation of the farmer as well as Mother Nature.

{Umendra Dutt is executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, a not-for-profit civil society organization established in March 2005, working in the field of natural farming, sustainable agriculture, conservation of natural resources, environmental health and eco-sustainable technologies. Registered as a charitable trust, KVM is headquartered in the town of Jaitu in the Faridkot District of Punjab. Contact Dutt by email at: umendradutt@gmail.com.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.