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Our traditional methods of cultivating cotton were organic
Breaking the myth of increased yields by Bt cotton seeds has become a necessity for the development of farmer community in India. Aiding this attempt, Shamika Mone, research director of Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) shares the disadvantages of cultivating Bt cotton and the advantages of cultivating organic cotton in India in an interview with Mary Christine Joy.
Is organic cotton a solution to the problem of cotton farmers in India?
Yes, definitely. Growing cotton with organic practices, which involves the use of non-Bt cotton seeds, is one of the solutions to the problem of cotton farmers in India. Bt Cotton, with the trade name Bollgard-I and developed by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Ltd, is genetically engineered with the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene with a protein that is toxic to the bollworm pest.
Bt Cotton is often portrayed as that technological revolution in Indian cotton cultivation which changed the cotton scenario and pushed it to higher yields, making farmers well and prosperous. But various studies, including a 10 year review of Bt Cotton by the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur in 2012, showed that the yield increase due to Bt Cotton is a myth and substantial yield increases had happened in the years before Bt cotton was adopted in a reasonably big area.
The reason for the growing suicidal desperation over the years was the failure of the Bt Cotton crop due to lack of irrigation, scanty rainfall, hail storm, inferior quality seeds and massive debt. The bad performance of cotton crop has led to lowering of the production estimates significantly in spite of increase in the area of cotton cultivation. There is an inbuilt unsustainable approach in the very science of pesticides and Bt crops, whether as external sprays or produced inside the Bt plants. Non Pesticide Management (NPM) and agro-ecological approaches are the only permanent answers to pest issues in farming.
Is the Indian climate and environment conducive to the production of organic cotton?
Yes, obviously. Our country had a lot of traditional cotton varieties that got contaminated with the advent of Bt cotton and chemical farming. Our traditional methods of cultivating cotton were all organic. India had become the largest organic cotton producer in the world in 2007-08. In 2008-09, accounting for nearly 65 per cent of the world's organic cotton production. In 2009-10, it was widely acknowledged that production in India propelled world organic cotton production to an all-time high of 241,697 tonnes (81 per cent from India). In 2010-11, organic cotton and textiles constituted 25 per cent of the organic exports from India, amounting to 17,363 mT of export. Organic cotton segment has seen a stupendous increase of 152 per cent year-on-year growth in some recent years. Nearly 200,000 farmers are a part of the organic cotton movement in the country today.
So yes, to answer your question, it is definitely conducive to grow cotton with organic practices.
How can farmers grow organic cotton with minimal risks and costs? What are the risks and costs involved in organic cotton cultivation?
The biggest problem that organic cotton growers and their support groups in the civil society face is lack of supply of non-Bt cotton seeds in the market. The government has not pro-actively done anything so far to address the issue, as per organic cotton industry players; and the effort is falling on the organic farmers community itself. Many small farmer groups and producer companies are setting up to sell organic non-Bt cotton seeds for organic farmers.
Additionally, there is the major issue of contamination (on the fields as well as physical mix-up), and problems with segregation of organic cotton and Bt cotton in all the post-harvest processes. In 2008, two certification agencies had their accreditation suspended with APEDA for failing to detect such Bt cotton contamination in organic cotton. These certification agencies were fined Rs 15 lakh and Rs 7.5 lakh for this failure. This Bt cotton contamination scandal affected organic cotton consumption in general as well as the Indian organic cotton exports substantially in the subsequent years too, with the controversy refusing to die down even by 2010.
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