In August this year, whiteflies -- a notorious pest -- bumbled through vast tracts of Punjab’s cotton fields, destroying a sizeable chunk of the crop in the state.
These insects, which slurp on juicy, tender bolls, seemed to have inflicted heavy losses, sparking a serious farm crisis in India’s agricultural powerhouse in a decade. A back-to-back drought meant farmers grew more cotton, a hardy crop that requires less water to grow.
But profit-chasing cotton growers, who often throw caution to the winds, may have themselves -- and some ill-suited genetically modified (GM) cotton varieties -- to blame.
A growing economy around spurious pesticides seems to have also contributed to the problem, as police arrested a senior farm department bureaucrat on October 5 on suspicion of promoting fake cotton pesticide.
“Field inspections are still going on so I can’t comment on total loss. Roughly, 1.36 hectares of the 4.5 lakh hectares under cotton looks affected,” Suresh Kumar, the state’s agriculture secretary told HT. That’s about 30% crop loss.
Punjab is the fourth largest producer of cotton, at 1.8 million bales (of 170 kg each), but it has the highest yield of 800 kg/hectare, making it a significant source of farm income.
Punjab’s farmers have moved wholesale to BT cotton for higher yields, since India allowed GM cotton seeds in 2002. BT cotton, which offers protection against bollworms, is credited with higher yields. But not all BT cotton varieties available in the market have been found suitable for Punjab.
“Farmers have been ignoring advisories to grow varieties not approved by us. In a bad year like this one, this precisely caused serious problems,” said BK Kang, entomology professor at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU). PAU acts as the state-level farm advisory body. Such unapproved varieties account for roughly 30-40% of Punjab’s cotton crop, according to PAU. Farmers often shop for the cheapest brand.
A long dry spell in August due caused the whitefly population to peak, triggering a lethal pest invasion. BT cotton doesn’t protect against whiteflies but unapproved varieties may be more vulnerable. “Normally, adequate rains drive away half of the whitefly population. Pesticides do rest of the job,” Kang said.
A big spurious pesticide market have made matters worse. On Monday, police arrested Punjab’s agriculture director MS Sandhu for allegedly aiding the sale of fake pesticides to cotton growers. A Tata Strategic-Ficci study released just this month said 25% pesticides sold in the country were fake.