Features | Environment | South Asia

Punjabi by Nature

Proponents of genetically modified (GM) cotton, claim that India’s so called GM Green Revolution has been a huge success.

By Janaki Bahadur for

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.

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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.”

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Amarjit Sharma and other village farmers have got together to create a seed bank which share with other farmers in the area. Fertiliser is made naturally as is pesticide and insecticide. All you need is a cow and some natural ingredients all from the farm itself. “It makes the farmer independent and proud again. That’s very important,” says Umendra Dutt, who has been educating farmers in Jaitu, Punjab about natural farming. “They become the owners of their own success as well as of their own failures,” he adds.

Only about 2,000 acres of Punjab farmland has been converted to natural farming, but the activist says that although figures are “miniscule” the movement is growing, but neither the government nor the chemical companies want to know about it. “That’s why we call it the ‘silent revolution’ as against the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ that’s being touted around,” he says. “Farmers in Maharashtra, Andhra, here in Punjab and other states are all starting to learn about the dangers of GM and chemical farming.”

He says that the problems with GM cotton do not show up right away. “At first you think that things could not be going better because your crop is a huge success and you make a profit, but then you need to spend 400 rupees per acre ever time to buy seeds as the seeds don’t come from the crops in GM farming. And then the soil starts to be depleted of nutrients because you are only growing one crop at a time and then you find yourself in debt and it’s a vicious cycle that takes the lives of so many farmers.” Dutt explains that GM cotton needed 20 percent more water. Moreover, GM cotton pests soon became resistant to the pesticide and the dreaded bollworm is now wrecking havoc on the cotton crops.

Some farmers say that when they compare results on their own farms between GM and non-GM cotton, they conclude that the GM seed has been a fraud on the farmer and has only encouraged more suicides as farmers run into a debt cycle. And it’s not merely fears of the expense; there are also worries that no studies are being done on the quality of cotton seed oil which is edible oil in India.

The Kheti Virasat Mission, a civil society action group directed by Umendra Dutt in the Faridkot district of Punjab, links natural farming to the philosophy preached in the Sikh holy book the Guru Granth Sahib. “Pavnu Guru, Panni Pita Matta Dharat Mahat”; Air is Guru, Water is father and Earth is mother. This holy guiding principle should be part of the life, practice and mission of farmers who want to do natural farming,” Dutt says.

“The movement is led by experienced farmers who believe in the principle of Sarbat da bhala (for the betterment of all),” says Amarjeet Sharma, a farmer from Chaina village, district Faridkot who heads the village level Vatavaran Panchayat. Vatavaran Panchayats are local-level community institutions working as participatory civil society initiatives.

Most of the farmers associated with KVM work through its Vatavaran Panchayats. These farmers have taken pledges to start natural farming in one go or in a phased manner. KVM currently has around a 100 formal and 800 informal members.

The natural farmers of Punjab say that during the last four to five years, the soil in several parts of Punjab has been regenerated and rejuvenated by natural farming. These natural farmers are convinced that their feet feel happy and healthy coming in contact with the soil. “You can see earthworm castings, which had completely disappeared in the fields,” says a proud Hartej Singh, of Mehta village in Bhatinda district. “Our farmers will offer you a handful of soil which you will find soft and with all the natural aromas that are associated with the infinite life of our earth. That is the kind of work we are doing,” he adds.

KVM has evolved a distinct philosophy that defines soil as the “source of infinite lives”. “Yes, it is true and we have experienced it,” avers KVM chairman and a farmer from Rai Ke Kalan village of Bathinda, Harjant Singh. If the soil is rich in micro-organisms, its texture is soft, full of natural essence and ample quantities of moisture are kept intact. The soil is likely to produce healthy crops, and there is less need for irrigation.

Harjant Singh further elaborates on the scientific benefits of natural farming: All living organisms require nutrition and minerals for their growth. Plants, being stationary, receive all their nutrition from their surroundings and from natural life processes. They get carbon dioxide and water from nature and by the process of photosynthesis, the required amount of sugars is produced. Similarly, nitrogen in the air is captured by rhyzobia bacteria in soil for the plants. These micro-organisms perform different functions for the plants. “By using the chemical inputs, especially the pesticides, we have destroyed the delicate microbial equilibrium of soil and tilted the game in favour of external chemical inputs, thus making the situation even worse,” says Singh.

KVM farmers use Jeeva-amrita (a cow urine based microbial preparation) to revive microbial activity in soil. With the application of Jeeva-amrita and Ghan Jeeva-amrita (a solid form of Jeeva-amrita), the soil is gradually becoming rich in the humus, yield has increased, and other life forms are coming back in the fields, says Charanjeet Singh Punni, another KVM farmer from Chaina village and a natural farming trainer. Punni highlights another aspect of natural farming. “Although the sunlight is essential for the photosynthesis, it is a threat to the soil bacteria. Mulching is the best answer to this.”

Mulching is an essential part of natural farming. Natural farmers agree that when the soil is covered with various forms of mulching, the results are unimaginably good. Krishnan Jakhar of village Dhaba (near Dabawali), Vinod Jyani of village Katehra, near Fazilka, Swarn Singh of Karamgarh Shattran, Madan Lal of Bullowal in Hoshiarpur, Jarnail Singh in Meharu, Nakodar and other natural farmers of the KVM network are using inter crops, plant residue, fallen leaves, bushes, weeds and sometimes even the wheat straw or the paddy straw cuttings spread in the fields to cover the naked soil. “Besides protecting the bacteria and retaining the moisture, this also keeps the temperature of the soil low and it never goes beyond 40 degrees Celsius, which is the upper limit for the survival of microbes,” tells Ajay Tripathi, associate director of KVM.

But do the economics of natural farming work? After adopting natural farming, the farmers claim they are spending far less than earlier chemical farming days. Natural farming is more cost effective and input efficient, says Amarjeet Dhillon, a small farmer from Dabrikhana village, who owns only two acres of land. For example, farmers who have sugarcane and black gram in their farms have to spend virtually nothing on inputs. He cites several examples where farmers had to spend only 100-200 rupees on inputs for one acre as against 3000 rupees by a farmer using chemicals.

On an average in Malwa’s cotton belt, farmers are spending 7000 rupees on chemical inputs per acre annually in normal conditions. If there are more pest attacks, then there may be no limits. A rough estimate is that every village is spending a large sum of money, from 4 million rupees to 60 million rupees, purchasing agro-chemicals, depending upon the area of cultivation and cropping pattern. Natural farmers want to stop the loss of village wealth by bringing down farmers’ spending on agro-chemicals.

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“This is the Kisan (farmer) version of Swadeshi – the economic self-sufficiency movement of India’s independence struggles,” says Chamkour Singh of Dhudhike village of Moga district. Dhudhike is famous for being the birthplace of one of India’s most well-known freedom fighters, Lala Lajpat Rai. “Our farmers are no more going to serve MNCs or big agro-chemical corporations. We are evolving a framework for an agricultural Swadeshi movement in Punjab. We are going to redefine Swadeshi in the present context. That is why KVM has given a slogan to its farmers – MNCs quit our farms,” he adds.

The KVM’s natural farming movement has brought another change in the mindset of farmers there. They have stopped looking towards the Punjab Agriculture University or departmental experts for expert advice. “We feel that every farmer of ours is an expert in himself, he practices this science of natural farming, he lives natural farming every day, he is totally engulfed with the philosophy of natural farming,” says Dr Harminder Sidhu, a Homeopath practitioner and a practicing natural farmer from village Jalaldiwal of Raikot in Ludhiana district. “The modern agriculture paradigm has limited all expertise to Agriculture Universities. The chemicalised agriculture model has made farmers scientifically illiterate. It is a conspiracy which has made farmers dependent on universities, department, companies and even pesticide retailers. It is a cruel joke that those who get a three or five year degree in agriculture with an alien kind of agriculture knowledge are known as experts, whereas the farmers who inherited agriculture wisdom for hundreds, if not thousands of years are supposed to be ignorant about farming.”

“We are not going to accept this nonsense any more. We are working to build self-confidence in our farmers’ own agricultural heritage and wisdom,” adds a confident Dr Sidhu.

Still, the government is unfazed by the grassroots movement and is in the midst of a discussion about introducing GM eggplant and GM okra.

Janaki Bahadur is a Delhi, India Based Correspondent.