The Reason For Farmer Suicides in Punjab Lies Not in the Whitefly But in Bt Cotton

Sunday, July 17,2016

While all eyes are on the little Whitefly, I think the agrarian tragedy in Punjab has a hidden culprit. Whitefly which is a common pest in Punjab, has been around the farmers fields from generations. It has been controlled using traditional wisdom of farmers and done so quite effectively by using inter-cropping, insectaries, organic pesticides and resilient crops for centuries.

So how come swarms of whitefly have suddenly managed to destroy the 2/3rd of the cotton crop in one go? It is interesting to note that Whitefly which never attacked cotton, has suddenly developed an appetite for cotton. As per news reports we can confirm that out of the 12 lakh acres under with cotton cultivation in Punjab, almost all of it is planted with Bt Cotton.

The Bt Cotton is a genetically modified variety of cotton that has been inserted with genes from bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. It is supposed to produce over 200 different Bt toxins, each harmful to different insects. Despite the gene modification, farmers in Punjab sprayed as much as 12-15 rounds of chemical pesticides on their cotton crops. Each round of this spray cost approximately 3200 rupees per acre.

It is to also consider that 300,000 farmers suicides have taken place in the cotton belt which is now predominantly a Bt cotton belt. GMO Bt cotton was supposed to be a pest control technology that would replace pesticides. However Bt cotton has proven to be a pest creating technology, with epidemics of pests that never affected cotton in India before Bt cotton was introduced, illegally in 1998, and with GEAC approval in 2002.

All the preventive measures adopted by the farmers of Punjab have lead to three visible results, cotton crop failure in Punjab, about rupees 150 crores into coffers of the cotton pesticide makers alone and third that organic fertilizers, pesticides and non-GM seeds have successfully outperformed their GM counterparts in warding off the pests and suffered less damage.

The reason for the failure of the GM seeds stems from the basic misunderstanding of nature. The central paradox posed by the Green revolution and Gene modification is that the modern plant improvement has been based on the destructions of biodiversity, which uses it as raw material.

The GM technologies are actively trying to control nature and not work with her. Nature and pest are constantly evolving and there is no one solution in dealing with them. We have to adapt, but the proponents of chemical agriculture fail to see this.

Let me also tell you that the agrarian crisis is not over in Punjab, we still may get more bad news, as the whitefly may start attacking other crops and thus leading to further crop losses in the area. So in my opinion the real cause of the Punjab crisis is the one dimensional chemical approach to agriculture. The rise of mono-cultures have not started to dominate our fields but also our minds.

Today, I am deeply saddened by the murder of 15 brothers in Punjab by hand of debt. It pains me a little to remember the vision of Nehru “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” that called farmers the nation builders. The farmers in India now are one of the most exploited, unprotected and helpless class. Their farms have been made into experimental laboratories for the junk agricultural technologies from the developed worlds and their bodies storehouse of chemical poisons.

The 300,000 suicides are more than is premonition of imminent agrarian disaster that is to engulf India if we still inch towards GMOs and learn no lessons from the Bt experiment . Not only is Monsanto pushing a failed technology, it has illegally collected royalties from our small farmers , trapping them in debt. Many states have filed cases to regulate seed prices and royalties. The government has a responsibility to protect our farmers and agriculture, not a corrupt corporation. Both the failure of technology and royalty collection need a transparent, participatory, democratic investigation.

We have been carrying our public hearings on the tragedy of farmers’ suicides. The national now needs to come together to put a stop to this unnecessary tragedy of the epidemic of farmers’ suicides. The dire hopelessness and despondency pervading rural Punjab today reminds me of the 1980s when the rich and poor farmers alike, were feeling the pinch of the ecological erosion, debt and declining profits margins. People were beginning to react to the cultural erosion that had been the result of the spread of commercial agriculture and the propaganda of Green revolution.

The green revolution, like the Gene revolutions and GMOs today, also promised higher yields and abundance instead led to rural poverty, debt and huge scale migrations. The propaganda misguided the farmers to leave traditional ways of agriculture and rely on external inputs for higher yield. But within years, it was clear that the bargain was not fair. The destruction of biodiversity and introduction of mono-cultures in farms of Punjab was a doom for society. Punjab is still to recover from the public health epidemic, debt and unemployment problems generated by the miracle seeds of Green revolution.

This disease that is driving our rural economy towards total ruin, and must be stopped before all of India explodes. The way to do it, has already been told to us. We must look towards, Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence and swaraj. We have to adopt it to our agriculture.

The Whitefly or Bollworm infestations are only symptoms, which come from a pathological mindset of industrial agriculture. We have to replace the models of our agriculture and revive the traditional wisdoms and practices that have sustained us for thousands of years.

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