Cotton crucible

  • 30/03/2006

Cotton crucible In the past five years, when cotton farmers of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab were struggling, Gujarat farmers were making hay, to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore a year. The state’s total yield has increased by 5.6 million bales in the past five years. This additional yield means an additional income of Rs 4,275 crore for the farmers, says J V Shah, retired managing director of Gujarat State Seeds Corporation. According to his calculations, ‘pirated’ Bt seeds have saved Rs 240-250 crore for Gujarat. Pesticide costs have also been saved, to the tune of Rs 360 crore (see table: Staple diet).

Gujarat had the lowest productivity in 2000-2001. Today, it boasts of the highest yield in the country, with a growth rate of 433 per cent, compared to 2-5 per cent in other cotton growing states. The cost of cultivation in Gujarat has decreased by 50 per cent, bucking the nationwide trend. This five-year miracle, moreover, was achieved without subsidy, premium msp or any extension support, mainly due to ‘pirated’ illegal Bt cotton. The parallel, indigenous Bt industry thrived with state sponsorship and protection, though the use of local Bt cotton contravenes intellectual property right (ipr) laws and does not comply with the regulations of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac).

The Gujarat revolution was pioneered in the 2001-2002 cotton season by a hybrid variety called Navbharat-151, developed by a local seed company, Navbharat. geac alleges it has Bt genes, which legally it is not supposed to use. Since it has no licence for the gene from Monsanto and for trial or sale from geac, it was branded illegal by the central government. An order to burn 4,000 ha of crop was issued in 2001 in view of this contravention, but the state government resisted, since farmers had reaped good harvests from this variety of cotton. When Navbharat-151 was banned, it just went underground, with farmers circulating the seeds and small seed farms, about 300, being established. Former Gujarat finance minister Sanat Mehta says, “The variety not only survived the 2001 bollworm attack but also gave very good yield.” Research by Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, confirms this. The average yield ranges from 1,200 to 1,500 kg per ha, which is better than the best of imported varieties. Price was the other important factor. “Navbharat-151 is available at just over Rs 500 per packet which is almost one-fourth the price of legal Bt varieties,” says Aditya Patel, a Baroda-based seed producer. Farmers cultivated this variety and variants, developing strains through cross-breeding. These strains are even cheaper, at Rs 100-200 per packet. This season, these varieties have covered over 80 per cent of the total area of the 2 million ha under cotton in Gujarat. The cottage seed industry produces more than 320,000 kg of seed annually. (see ‘Bt for better times’, Down To Earth, November 30, 2005)

N P Mehta, former scientist with the Cotton Research Station, Surat, who was involved in developing Navbharat-151 says, “We have selected this variety from a desi germplasm collection of 800. It was developed three years before geac approved Monsanto’s Bt seeds.” Navbharat says it doesn’t need Bt genes because local germplasms can resist American bollworm. But geac says local strains tested positive for Bt.

The cotton revolution in Gujarat would not have been possible without the state support, dating back to the mid-1980s when Navbharat got permission for seed research under the state’s Cotton Control Act. D B Desai started Navbharat Seeds Company in 1982. International seed firms branded him a biopirate. But Desai says, “We have only one objective providing farmers with the best seeds at affordable prices. And I think we have achieved that over the years.

The Central Seeds Act, 1966, was instrumental in the success of local varieties: it provided for farmer-to-farmer seed exchange without inviting provisions of the global ipr regime.

With the global regime getting more stringent, the Gujarat experiment is the obvious way forward for developing countries. Punjab and Rajasthan have just begun replicating it.

Staple diet
Gujarat’s strides in cotton cultivation

Details 2000-01 2001-02 2001-03 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06
Area (million ha) 1.61 1.74 1.63 1.62 1.9 2.0
Production (million bales) (1 bale=170 kg) 1.16 1.7 1.68 4.50 7.34 9
Production (in kg/ha)a 122 165 175 469 653 765
Source: State department of agriculture, Gujarat & Cotton Corporation of India (CCI)