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Vivian Fernandes
Friday , January 18, 2013 at 16 : 21

Farmer suicides, Bt Cotton and emotional journalism


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In a last May edition of the 'The Hindu', its Rural Affairs Editor P Sainath wrote an article about how Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (MMB), the Indian joint venture of an American crop science corporation, was trying to create opinion in favour of Bt Cotton, after the government failed to introduce a bill that would facilitate genetically-engineered crops. The company has sponsored a 'consumer connect initiative' (or advertisement) in the Times of India in 2011, which was the reprint of a 2008 report in the newspaper, itself based on a journalistic visit sponsored by the company. That report spoke about how Bt cotton had transformed the lives of Vidarbha farmers.

Bt cotton is Monsanto's genetically-engineered variety spiked with the gene of a toxic soil bacterium, lethal to a pest that attacks cotton bolls. Indian farmers used to douse their cotton crops with pesticides, and if these were spurious, which was often the case, they would suffer a double loss - due to extra cost and crop lost. Such was the clamour for deliverance, that even before the government approved Monsanto's Bt cotton for commercial cultivation in 2002, farmers in Gujarat sowed an unapproved variety sold by a company called Navbharat Seeds, whose founder is variously regarded as pirate or prophet. The official regulator ordered the crop to be burnt, but unwilling to risk the wrath of farmers the Gujarat government looked the other way.

A parliamentary committee, investigating the safety of genetically-engineered crop, sought a long ban on trials of such crops in its report to Parliament in August. It visited Vidarbha last March and held Bt cotton to be a 'contributory factor' to many of the 7,992 farmer suicides that had taken place in the region over the previous five years. Transgenic seed companies had gained at the cost of farmers it said. Journalists of The Hindu who followed soon after reported hearing similar sad stories. Upon a complaint, the Advertising Standards Council of India found that the advertised claims in ToI were not substantiated and advised a revision.

Whether the 2009 ToI report lacked journalistic rigour, whether the situation had changed dramatically three years later leading to advertising overkill, and the ethics of disguised advertising need not detain us here. The question is whether Sainath and Basudeb Acharia, the chairman of the parliamentary committee, are right in demonising Bt cotton and genetically-modified crops.

In his May article, Sainath says 'The Hindu' can vouch for nine suicides that had taken place in Bt cotton growing Bhambraja village of Yavatmal district (touted as a model for Bt cotton in the ToI advertisement) in the six years to 2009. (Activists had claimed five more). He held Bt cotton responsible. Most of the suicides had happened after Bt cotton was introduced, he said

In his deposition before the parliamentary committee in November 2011, Sainath said the touted productivity gains of Bt cotton were illusory. In Maharashtra they had gone down to pre-Bt cotton levels. There was a 'dramatic' increase in cotton imports, he asserted. Bt cotton's output increase had happened because of area expansion. Prices of cash crops were volatile, leading farmers to debt and ruin. Approval for genetically-modified food crops would visit a similar calamity on farmers growing them, he warned. In Vidarbha Bt cotton growing farmers were seeking safety in soyabean, whose prices were less volatile.

What are the facts? Maharashtra has a high rate of suicides. The rate per lakh people has ranged between 11 and 15 over the past 15 years, unlike neighbouring Gujarat, where the rate is relatively low, in the range of 9 and 11. The share of farmers in Maharashtra's suicide (the rate is not available in official national crime records) is also quite high - between 15 per cent and 29 per cent. The proportion rose steadily in the run up to the introduction of Bt cotton, and after continuing that trend for some more years, has fallen since. In Gujarat, the share of farmers is lower. It crossed double digits in the years to the introduction of Bt cotton and has fallen since then to (high) single digits.

Maharashtra and Gujarat are largely arid states; why are the farm suicide shares so different? Is it because of irrigation? In Maharashtra, 18 per cent of cultivable area is irrigated, against 45 per cent in Gujarat, which is also the national level. This makes cotton cultivation less of a risk. This is the reason that despite having the largest area under cotton (most of it Bt), Maharashtra's cotton productivity is the lowest in the country. At last count is was 322 kg per hectare- and half of that of Gujarat. Yields have not declined to pre-Bt cotton levels, as Sainath insists. In fact, there has been a three -fold increase over the pre-Bt level. (Though it is true that the productivity of Bt cotton has declined, owing to an increase in sucking pests which are not immune to the toxic Bt gene. Pests that Bt cotton is supposed to kill have also developed resistance - which only shows that evolution works!)

And it is not true that cotton imports have increased. In fact, they have declined. Acharia's report itself says that they have fallen from 3.87 lakh tonnes to 81,000 tonnes over the past decade.

In fact, Bt cotton has made India the second largest producer and a net exporter. Its share in world cotton exports have increased from 0.75 per cent in the three years to 2000 to 10.5 per cent in the three years to 2009.

Last year, Farmers Forum, a magazine of Bharat Krishak Samaj, got a study (http://farmersforum.in/policy/study-on-socio-economic-impact-assessment-of-bt-cotton-in-india/) done by T Haque, former chairman of the Commission of Agricultural Costs and Prices and now a director of the Hyderbad-based Council for Social Development. His team interviewed 1,050 farmers and 300 agricultural workers across the cotton-producing states of India. About half of the farmers surveyed were small, over a third had medium-sized plots.

Ninety four per cent of farmers surveyed said that Bt cotton yields were higher. About as many said expenditure on Bt cotton seeds was more. Ninety per cent said bollworm attacks had reduced. Eighty seven per cent said income had increased. Eighty five per cent said they were giving better education to their children. Seventy seven per cent reported eating better.

The agriculture ministry data says costs have increased by 68 per cent in the post-Bt cotton period. The study found that the average national return per hectare of Bt cotton was Rs 65,308. This was mainly due to support prices which had increased from Rs 1,363 per 100 kg before the introduction of Bt to Rs 2,242 in the subsequent years. Farmers sold in the market above this price and the average was Rs 4,377 per 100 kg. The average net return per hectare increased in the post-Bt cotton period by 375 per cent, the survey said, making increased costs bearable.

The magazine's editor, Ajay Vir Jakhar (grandson of former agriculture minister Balram Jakhar), himself a farmer in Abohar of Punjab, says the survey results "clearly validate my personal experience and that of most farms on my radar. Hybrid Bt cotton farmers continue to be better off even as skeptics insist that Bt farmers are making considerable losses. They fail to acknowledge that more than 90 per cent of farmers have been growing Bt cotton year after year for nearly 10 years now. The wisdom of 70 lakh cotton farmers should surely amount to more than that of a few individuals."

When asked the reason for suicides, farmers in central India blamed low and erratic rainfall, unavailability of timely credit and fluctuating cotton prices which makes cotton farming risky. Along with the study, Farmers Forum also published a study about Gurdeep Singh, a small Punjab farmer, who gave up on Bt cotton because his farm did not have adequate irrigation to support it.

In fact both Sainath and Acharia in their respective reports say (by a remarkable coincidence) the same thing: "None of the farmers reduced the issue of the suicides or the crisis to being only the outcome of Bt Cotton. But they punctured many myths about its miracles, costs and 'savings'."

Jakhar says reduced pesticide use in his village has resulted in the return of birds, bees and butterflies. By opposing GM technology, he says, Indian NGOs are helping the very same multinationals whom they hate, because they have a head start.

Acharia is a Marxist Lok Sabha member and can be expected to be reflexively anti-American (What is good for Monsanto or Wal-Mart cannot be good for India). But Sainath is an award-winning journalist, who has reported extensively on drought and hunger and, by his own admission, has pounded the villages, including those of Vidarbha for 18 years. Should compassion make a journalist disregard facts?


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More about Vivian Fernandes

Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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