Proponents of genetically modified (GM) cotton, claim that India’s so called GM Green Revolution has been a huge success. In the past five years, India has doubled its production of cotton, overtaking the US last year to become the world’s second largest producer of cotton. By 2009, India is expected to surpass China to become the world’s number one producer. According to Gurcharan Das, a former CEO of Procter and Gamble India and author of India Unbound, this cotton revolution has become the subject of constant discussion at global agricultural forums.
Cotton production in India has risen from 15.8 million to 27.9 million bales per year from 2002 to 2006. Net income per farmer has increased by 17,500 rupees per hectare for India’s 2.3 million cotton farmers. From an importer India has become the third largest exporting nation.
Reports from south India seem to support this claim. One farmer’s wife, Aakkapalli Ramadevi, says she can send her children to school and save money thanks to GM cotton. They were daily wage earners until Ramadevi recently decided to plant GM cotton. Their income has increased by around 15,000 rupees. She is one of many farmers whose lives have improved despite the warnings by NGOs about the dangers of long term use of GM crops.
Cotton impacts on the lives of around 60 million people in India, says Clive James, chairman of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech applications, a non-profit biotech organisation. According to that organisation, between 2004 and 2005, the number of farmers growing GM cotton increased from 300,000 to one million, and the figures in 2007 rose to 3.8 million. The state of Maharashtra saw the maximum increase followed by Andhra and Gujarat. The result is that India has more land under GM cotton than even China.
It reported the highest proportional increase of any biotech crop country in the world for the third consecutive year, showing an impressive gain of 63 per cent in 2007. Overall, the number of hectares under biotech cultivation also witnessed a double digit growth (12 per cent) for the twelfth consecutive year in 2007, exceeding two-thirds of a billion hectares.
Its high productivity earned India the top spot in the world’s cotton producing nations, James said. More GM cotton has also improved India’s per hectare cotton producing record from 308 kg per hectare in 2001-2002 to 520 kg in 2006-2007. Now India has turned from a net importer to a major global exporter of cotton – 4.7 million bales of cotton was exported in 2005-2006 compared to 0.92 million the previous year.
The organisation reports that GM crops have become the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history and delivered unprecedented benefits in many of the 23 countries planting them. But in the Western state of Punjab, India’s breadbasket and pulse of the farming industry, there is a changing attitude towards GM cotton and other forms of chemical farming.
They say that GM cotton has depleted the soil of rich ingredients, bankrupted farmers because the seeds are more expensive than non-GM seeds, driven many to suicide, and is causing health problems such as rashes and other skin related problems that are going unreported. These farmers are turning to what they refer to as “natural farming”, where almost nothing is bought and everything from fertiliser to seed is generated on the farms itself. These farmers distinguish themselves from organic farmers which they say is another racket in India and only serves those who have a lot of money to spend on food.
Amarjit Sharma, who owns five acres of farming land is a practising natural farmer as is his neighbour Pritpal Singh who owns 60 acres of which five have been reserved for natural farming and more are being converted every year.
“Our families all have pure food now, we have seen what chemicals do to our children and so none of us will allow such products to enter our bodies any more,” says Sharma, who is proud of the multi-cropping system he has created where he grows mustard, lentils, eggplant and chillies all on the same farms, at the same time.
The multi-cropping system helps to create more nitrogen for the soil but it’s not just the physical benefits that they are reaping.
“With GM farming and chemical farming, farmers had to go into the field perhaps once in ten days, the rest of the time they had nothing to do and that created social problems of increased drinking and gambling in the homes, but with this natural farming, they need to be out there every day tending the fields and by the time they get home they are tired and just eat and go to bed. It’s a much healthier lifestyle,” says Pritpal Brar.
Brar has faced scepticism from within his own household for this seeming return to the old ways. “I was the first farmer here to bring chemical fertilisers into the village in the 1960s,” says Pritpal Brar’s father. “So far even though it has had its problems and is more expensive I am not sure that natural farming is that lucrative, but my son is working hard at convincing me,” explains the father in the local village Punjabi.
“I don’t see why we need to work so hard again in the field. This new way has its problems but the results thus far have been as good or even better than the chemical and GM farming, so on that score I am convinced.”