by Rhea Gala
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Organic cotton is more environmentally friendly, better for the health of the community and for the local economy than GM cotton, according to a study by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh . The GM Bt cotton was compared with cotton grown without pesticide, or under non-pesticide management (NPM).
The study looked at the incidence of various pests and diseases as well as the beneficial organisms in the Bt and NPM cotton fields. It also looked at the economics of pest management for both systems.
The study, designed and supervised by entomologist Dr SMA Ali, extension scientist GV Ramanjaneyulu, and development activist Ms Kavitha Kuruganti, involved end-of-season interviews with cotton growing farmers in Warangal and Medak districts.
A total of 121 NPM cotton farmers farming on 193 acres and using no synthetic pesticide were compared with 117 Bt cotton farmers using proprietary pesticides and farming 151 acres. The Bt cotton varieties grown were Mech 12 (88 farmers), Mech 184 (1 farmer), and RCH 2 (31 farmers; a few farmers grew more than one of these varieties on different plots, hence the sum of farmers is more than 117).
These Bt varieties all carried Monsanto's cry1Ac gene and display low genetic diversity; providing early pest resistance . NPM cotton farmers grew many varieties including Brahma, Maruthi, Dasera, Gemini, Sumo, Tulasi, Bhagya, Durga, Kranthi.
Ten villages in two districts took part in the Bt cotton survey, and 12 villages from two districts took part in the NPM survey.
Bt cotton more prone to pests and diseases
Overall, the NPM farmers reported a lower incidence of medium to high infestations and higher incidence of low or no infestations for four traditional cotton pests.
Surprisingly, 32.5% of Bt cotton farmers reported a high incidence of American bollworm, an important pest that the Bt cotton is designed to control; while only 4.1% of NPM farmers reported a high incidence of this pest. This single statistic questions the value of the Bt approach to pest control. It also corroborates the high incidence of bollworm reported by farmers growing Bt cotton in AP . In contrast, the efficacy of natural predators and/or natural pesticides to control American bollworm in particular, and the other bollworms in general, is remarkable (see Table 1).
A majority of NPM farmers reported low incidence of spotted bollworm (76.9% against 65.8% of Bt growers), American bollworm (76.1% against 17.1% of Bt growers), and Tobacco Caterpillar (76.8% against 64.1% of Bt growers). Six NPM farmers reported an absence of spotted bollworm compared to two Bt farmers .
A majority of NPM farmers reported a medium incidence of pink bollworm, as did their Bt counterparts (47.1% against 57.3%), but greater numbers of NPM farmers also reported a low incidence of this pest compared to Bt farmers (31.4% against 24.8%).
Table 1. Incidence of Bollworm complex on Bt and NPM cotton.
Figure in parentheses is a percentage of respondents
In the case of sucking pests, the majority of NPM farmers also reported a low incidence, with several reporting no infestation of whitefly, aphids and mites. Again, natural predators and pesticides can be seen to be more effective at controlling sucking pests than Bt cotton. Many Bt farmers reported a high incidence of jassids, whitefly and aphids, but Bt toxins are known to be ineffective against sucking pests , therefore, farmers necessarily use additional pesticides specific to these pests (see Table 2).
Table 2. Incidence of sucking pests on Bt and NPM cotton.
Figure in parentheses is a percentage of respondents
Wilt, a common disease of cotton was reported absent by only 17 of the Bt cotton farmers during the season (14.5%), while 50 NPM farmers reported no wilt problems (41.3%). The degree of wilt ranged from 30% - 70% for Bt cotton, but was only 10 – 15% for the NPM cotton varieties. While wilt causes a decrease in cotton yield, the traditional cotton varieties have far greater genetic diversity than the Bt cotton, giving greater security against losses from this disease .
Beneficial insects prevail on NPM cotton
These findings reflect the fears of many environmentalists that the Bt cotton endotoxin destroys many beneficial insects , and that has a knock-on effect on the birds and small mammals that are the natural predators of these insects. Table 3 shows 85 (70.2%) of NPM farmers finding a high incidence of beneficial insects on their crop, with 97 (82.9%) of Bt cotton respondents finding only a low incidence and 13 (11.2%) Bt farmers found no beneficial insects at all on their crop.
Table 3. Incidence of beneficial insects on Bt and NPM cotton.
Figure in parentheses is a percentage of respondents
The main strategy of NPM farmers' pest control on their crops is through beneficial insects that are, by definition, predators of cotton pests; they also use natural organic pesticides. In contrast, Bt farmers report a low incidence of pest predators due to the toxicity of the Bt varieties and associated pesticides, necessitating a vicious cycle of control by these synthetic pesticides.
Economics of pest management shows Bt cotton extortionate
Purchase of Bt cotton seed, genetically modified with the cry1Ac gene from soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensi s, includes a technology fee, and costs farmers Rs 1600 per acre, compared to NPM farmers who buy their seed at Rs 450 per acre. This makes Bt cotton seed 355% more expensive than the traditional varieties .
In addition, pest management costs were greater for Bt farmers who had to use pesticides such as Monocrotophos, Confidor, Tracer, Avaunt, Endosulfan, acephate, demethoate, imidacloprid, quinalphos, chlorpyriphos, cypermethrin etc . to manage a variety of pests including bollworms for which Bt toxin is supposed to be specific .
On average, Bt crops were sprayed 3.5 times, with two farmers reporting that they did not spray at all, and others spraying as many as seven times. The NPM farmers used no synthetic pesticides at all, but used natural pesticides such as Neem seed kernel extract, trichoderma and panchakavya .
Bt cotton pest management cost on average Rs 2632 per acre, whereas NPM cotton pest management cost on average Rs 382 per acre, making pesticide costs 690% more expensive to the Bt cotton farmers .
Yields and incomes were not included in this study as cotton picking was still going on at the time of data collection, but Bt cotton yield and quality has been well documented as lower than traditional varieties , in spite of claims to the contrary. Yet the study clearly proves that restoring the ecological balance in the cotton fields, by removing both the GM endotoxins and the synthetic chemicals, will bring both short and long term benefits to farmers and the environment.
The study punctured the following myths in the current pest management paradigm :
• Pests can be controlled only by killing them with pesticide; whereas prevention is better than cure
• All insects in the fields are pests; whereas they include natural predators that kill pests
• No relationship exists between monoculture and pest incidence; whereas a reduced genetic base over large areas results in unobstructed proliferation of the pest especially as in India where non-Bt cotton refuges are not used 
• Chemical fertilizers and pest incidence are unrelated; whereas chemical fertilizers increase plant vulnerability to the pest due to increased ‘succulence'.
• Pest resistance is a genotypic rather than an environmental issue; whereas environmental management of pests will give farmers more control over their crops than the use of patented seed derived from manipulating genes
• Pest resistance management is about using newer and newer generation pesticides; whereas NPM systems cut costs to farmers and the environment leading to greater independence of farmers and a healthier, more biodiverse environment
• Prevention of pest/disease means spraying even when the pest is absent; whereas pest management is not about schedules or routine but the needs of the actual situation
• Benefits of synthetic pesticides outweigh the risks; whereas suicides  in the Indian cotton belts show that the economics of pesticide use do not add up, even before other adverse effects are taken into account, such as increased crop water consumption 
The story of Punukula: it's not rocket science
Punukula, a small village in Andhra Pradesh, with a population of about 860, has rediscovered the art and science of sustainable cotton cultivation by using NPM systems. But this small revolution in India's cotton belt has been ignored by agricultural scientists, perhaps because it is an appropriate technology that does not lend itself to exploitation by outsiders, and because it does not have the ‘glamour' of ‘cutting edge technology'. Nevertheless, it so impressed the AP agriculture minister, who witnessed the transformation for himself, that it has been replicated in 400 surrounding villages .
A few farmers from a local non-governmental organization began in 1999 (before the arrival of GM cotton in India), to experiment with non-pesticidal management practices on their cotton crop, and persuaded 20 local farmers to try it .
The environment, previously contaminated by a vicious cycle of pesticide application began to improve, and the pest burden reduced. By 2004, the environmental and economic impact was such that the entire village was using NPM that had restored natural pest control systems, and they therefore had no reason to adopt GM cotton when it became available .
In the early 1960s, only six or seven major pests worried the cotton farmer, but costly inputs prescribed by agribusiness and agricultural research has created a spiral of pollution, debt and death that has also resulted in the farmer fighting 70 major pests on cotton today. Although average yields for farmers in Punukula are greater than for Bt cotton farmers, most mainstream agricultural scientists, and politicians prefer to support GM technology and agribusiness .
If Punukula had adopted GM Bt cotton, the village would have paid Rs 600 000 in additional seed price for the 500 acres under cultivation (Rs1 200/acre technology fee), before addressing the extra cost of pesticide application. The farmers would have remained caught in the spiral of debt as victims of the ‘cutting edge technology' that draws millions of rupees from the small rural economy into the pockets of powerful multi-nationals every year .
Farmers stop spraying chemical pesticides, yields go up!
Farmers in India are not alone. In two years, 2000 poor rice farmers in Bangladesh reduced insecticide use by 99 %.
Gary John, senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, said “To my surprise when people stopped spraying, yields didn't drop, and this was across 600 fields in two districts over four seasons. I'm convinced that the vast majority of insecticides that rice farmers use are a complete waste of time and money”. In the Philippines, similarly, a decline in insecticide use has been accompanied by an increase in productivity leading to great savings for farmers .
This comes as a revelation only after land and water have been poisoned, the environment degraded, and, according to WHO figures, 20 000 people have died from pesticide poisoning worldwide annually. And because science has viewed all things traditional as backward and substandard the collective wisdom of generations of farmers has been largely lost ; and at the same time agricultural scientists are still promoting useless and harmful technologies like genetic modification .
But while ordinary farmers are getting wise to GM propaganda and hard sell around the world, an Indian government study has found serious faults with its GM Bt cotton under commercial production. The government has been sitting on this study for two years. It describes a multitude of problems already expressed by farmers but previously denied by its own scientists and politicians . Meanwhile organic farming successes are being more widely reported, for example, Paul Desmarais, Director of the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Zambia writes “We have successfully grown organic cotton for two years now at Kasisi.
We have good control of insects and there is not resistance built in the system as there is even with Bt cotton. Our yields are double the national yields. Farmers using the conventional route are barely ekeing out an existence with the price of cotton dropping and the price of inputs climbing up. We have just had the seed cotton tested for fibre length, micronair, etc. and our cotton did very well on all the scores. Let us pursue the growing of organic cotton. It is possible and it is sustainable” .