|AGRICULTURE TRIBUNE||Monday, April 21, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
conscious of environment
You can get returns
from lowlands too
in for Bt headlong
The acronym Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium that has been used by farmers for ages as a natural pesticide. Advancement in biotechnology has enabled the development of Bt as a toxin, an important tool against lepidopteron insect-pests. More than hundred such genes have been isolated all over the world. Bt, a friendly gram-positive soil bacterium, has developed an evolutionary relationship with insects.
In India, Bt use was banned till 1991 because of the perceived threat to silkworms due to the fear that the spores of Bt will affect them. To circumvent this problem, non-sporulating strains of Bt that are toxic to specific insects have been developed and made available for field use.
Putting all fears and controversies to rest, in March 2002 the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) permitted Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (Mahyco), which produced Bt cotton lines of Monsanto with existing cotton hybrids, to commercially release transgenic cotton varieties (Mech 12, 162 and 184) for sale. This permission is for three years and only for Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and not for northern states. Also, 20 per cent of the field would be planted with refuge cotton. Mahyco will have to periodically report to the GEAC about the production, varieties sold and the destination of Bt seeds. The company has also been asked to conduct studies to assess the pest resistance to Bt toxin and the impact of pollen transfer on other species. Growers should be informed about Bt cotton in vernacular press by the firm.
The MEF has authorised the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) to draw guidelines specifying procedure for regulatory process that involves the genetically modified organism (GMO) in research use and industrial applications. The RCGM is also in charge of contained lab experiments. The GEAC approves the open field trials and environmental release of GMOs. Field trials by the GEAC should be done in consultation with the Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC) of the state government concerned.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) had asked for open field trials only and not for the contained lab and field trials. These trials have also been carried out only for one season, sometime from June 2001 to March 2002. For identifying possible pest attack and GMO’s impact on soil diversity and environment, the field trials should have been carried out for a minimum of three to five seasons. When a country like the US can take more than 10 years to conduct trials and subsequent commercialisation, it is unclear why India is in a hurry to release the transgenic crops. The feasibility cannot be ascertained for the short run alone. Any adverse outcomes in the long run can ruin small and marginal farmers (SMFs).
The issue of refuge poses a serious concern. No model has been developed in India to determine the critical size of refuge. In its absence, the GEAC has adopted the US model, where about 20 per cent area is recommended for refuge. Accordingly, Mahyco has decided that for each 450 gm packet, covering one acre, of Bt cotton sold, a separate 120 gm packet, covering 0.27 acre, of non-Bt cotton will be provided free of cost. Hybrid cotton packets of similar weight cost about Rs350 to Rs450, whereas the Bt cotton packet costs Rs1350 to Rs1450. Obviously, any profit motivated company will announce such a scheme only as a marketing strategy to promote its new product and might discontinue the scheme once the sales of Bt cotton pick up.
The question raised here becomes more relevant because six-tenths of the Indian farmers have average landholdings of less than one hectare, whereas only 2 per cent have more than 10 hectares. Hence the cost effectiveness of majority of Indian farmers has to be analysed. If scientific norms were followed, small farmers would be excluded from Bt cotton cultivation. But new technology is scale neutral. It will give rise to health and environmental risks. Therefore, it is advised to the develop capacity to deal with peculiar risks. The regulatory authority in the MEF hardly has any idea about the losses that growers suffer due to failure of farm technology due to inadequate unscientific and half-hearted testing practices.
Nevertheless, this is not to suggest
that we should shun this technology, but to tread cautiously, which has
definite implications for India. The government has to follow a right
policy mix so as to meet the challenges as well as taking care of the
small-farmer character of Indian agriculture.
conscious of environment
Punjab farmers are paying a heavy price to produce more for the "food security’’ of the country. There is steady increase in the cost of production due to three major environmental problems—declining water table, deteriorating soil fertility and the perpetual problem of pests.
Water resources alone accounted for a cost of 57.75 per cent for paddy and 32.58 per cent for wheat. The cost escalation due to poor soil health and fertility and pesticide resistance was estimated at 25 per cent.
In fact, every year, the cost escalation due to these problems, without adding to the output, worked out to be Rs 7.20 per quintal for paddy and Rs 4.30 per quintal for wheat. Of the total cost of environmental degradation, in the case of wheat, pest resistance (particularly the use of weedicides) caused major expense: 50 per cent. Due to the loss of fertility of the soil the additional expenses were 28 per cent and because of water resources 18 per cent.
It is wrong to assume that farmers are unaware of the degradation of environment and deceleration of their incomes. As they have their own perception on the environment’s effect on their incomes, understanding it could help better in finding solutions.
This is revealed in a recent survey, "Economic cost of environmental degradation in Punjab agriculture: farmer’s perspective," by a Punjab Agricultural University economist, Dr Joginder Singh. At random, 193 farmers were selected for the survey sample. They had varying sizes of land holdings, spread over 19 villages and in as many blocks. Their views were sought on the three fast-emerging environmental problems: declining water table, deteriorating soil health and consequences of the use of pesticides.
All 193 farmers were aware of the degrading ecological balance due to the wheat-rice cycle and the declining water table due to overuse. About 55 per cent farmers reported high incidence of air pollution caused by burning paddy straw, 66.84 per cent were aware of the increase in crop diseases and 64.77 per cent knew about the decreasing soil health and fertility.
These problems, said 41.45 per cent farmers, had led to escalation in the cost of cultivation and losses in income returns. However, only a small percentage of farmers, 6.22, were aware of pest resistance and elimination of farmer-friendly insects.
The farmers also had suggestions. Over 93 per cent wanted "alternative" crop enterprises to be developed through genetic improvement and a remunerative pricing policy. Farmers (42 per cent) favoured stoppage of early transplantation of paddy to check the fall in the water table. In fact, over 30 per cent wanted the government to "ban" early transplantation. Another 34 per cent suggested streamlining canal water supply to minimise the drawl of underground water. As many as 40 per cent were keen on new technologies and techniques developed by the PAU, but only 9 per cent felt farmers must adhere to the recommendations made by the PAU.
The survey has revealed that the water table was either declining or rising in all areas other than the Kandi belt—Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur and Ropar.
In the central belt—Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana, Kapurthala, Jalandhar, Amritsar—the decline is sharp. The water table was at 5-6 meter in 1981; it showed a drop of 24 cm to 25 cm per year. Unless corrective measures are taken, farmers in this central belt will find it hard to sustain existing cropping patterns.
The cotton belt comprises almost one-fourth of the cultivated area of Punjab. In it the water is deep and brackish and also the water table is rising every year — in Bathinda at the rate of 20-22 cm, Ferozepur 16-18 cm and in Mansa 8-9 cm. In Faridkot, however, the water table is now receding by 12-13 cm per year.
The survey reveals that as a consequence of depletion of water table, farmers had to spend extra money to deepen their tubewells. Moreover, this deepening meant motors of higher horsepower and, consequently, higher power consumption. This led to additional costs, both on deepening as well as on diesel consumption.
Likewise, deteriorating soil health and fertility meant higher consumption of fertilisers to cope with macro and micro nutritional deficiencies. The changes in soil structure and texture and nutritional deficiencies meant additional expenditure of Rs 913.95 per hectare on paddy and Rs 874.15 per hectare on wheat at 2001 prices, during the past decade.
The same was true of
pesticide and weedicide use. The total cost of pesticides escalated by
Rs 876.53 hectares for paddy and Rs 949.24 hectares for wheat during the
past decade. In other words, the annual cost increased by Rs 87.65 per
hectare for paddy and Rs 94.92 per hectare for wheat.
You can get
returns from lowlands too
There are large chunks of land near Ropar and Harike barrages and also along the natural courses of rivers, rivulets, beins, chows, chhambs and dhabs where ecology is fragile and crop production is badly affected due to excessive water and high humidity.
The growing environment in lowlands is complex, diverse and risk-prone. Uncertainties faced by farmers desist them from making heavy investments. Concerned efforts are, therefore, needed to generate improved agro-techniques enabling the production system to be viable and making farming remunerative.
Considering the diversity and important issues of the complex hydrology, lowlands can be delineated as shallow (water depth 0-25 cm), intermediate (25-30 cm), semi-deep (50-100 cm) and deep (> 100 cm) lowlands. Obviously, the problems and prospects of these diversified situations seem to be absolutely different in nature. In most areas, alternate wet and dry spans limit the farmers’ choice.
Risks: The heterogeneous stress situation in lowlands impairs crop growth and its vigour and often leads to total crop failure. The biophysical constraints can be classified as biotic factors, abiotic factors, edaphic factors and socio-economical factors.
Weeds, wild crop plants, insect-pests, diseases, nematodes, rats, crabs, snails, birds, etc., take a heavy toll of the crops. At some places boara, jackals, monkey, blue bulls etc., also cause a heavy damage. Unpredictable monsoon rains, inadequate rainfall or adequate rain with erratic distribution, heavy pre-monsoon showers preventing land preparation, flash-floods, deficit moisture stress, causing initial and/or terminal drought, fall of dhusi bunds and inundation of large low-lying areas.
Cold, peat, salinity, molybdenum and hydrogen sulphide toxicity, nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, zinc, iron and sulphur deficiency are other risks. Besides resource limitation, risk-avoidance attitude, reluctance toward high investment due to insecure output, non-availability of inputs, poor roads and market problems also add to the risk level.
Crops: In the bet areas, rice, sugarcane, berseem, linseed, wheat, sorghum, guinea grass, and napier bajra, are the main crops. Among vegetables and condiments, watermelon, bottle gourd, cucumber, turmeric, cauliflower, celery, water nut (sangara), luffa and bitter gourd are grown. During summer mash, moong, maize and muskmelon are also grown. Among trees poplar, dhek, tun, sarihn, shisham, mulberry, willow, saw-babool, jamun, amla, mango, litchi, sohanjna, pear, plum, galgal, etc., are common.
Selection: Crop varieties suitable for lowlands are highly location specific. Bacterial leaf blight, sheat rot, sheat blight, blast, leaf spot and foot rot take a heavy toll of the coarse and fine varieties of rice. Red rot and wilt are quite severe in sugarcane. Hispa, stem borer and leaf folder in rice and blag bug, Gurdaspur and top borer and rodents cause heavy damage. Crop varieties that withstand the rigors of alternate wet and dry ecology and attack of pests and diseases are successful. Farmers use a number of varieties, both recommended and not recommended, depending on their suitability to a wide variety of ecological situations.
Stand establishment: Optimum stand establishment is a major production factor. Two most important constituents of the method of stand establishment are time and rate of seeding. Early planting with higher seed rate (10- 20 %) is advantageous for both rabi and kharif crops. Transplanting of basmati rice should be done in mid-July otherwise lodging impairs yield and quality. Late planting should be avoided. Gap filling of rice can be done with cloned tillers uprooted 20-30 days after initial transplanting.
Machinery: Wet soils are managed with difficulty. When too wet, these are puddled and when dry large clods do not allow pulverisation of the seedbed. Use of levellers and heavy clod breaking rollers are necessary to obtain good germination. Such lands are managed with direct seeding drills (zero tillage) operated by tractors. Many a times harvesting is to be done with manual labour as combine harvesters generally do not operate in such soils.
Fertilisers: Although there is greater risk in lowland areas, yet application of basal balanced dose of fertiliser pays good dividend. Application of zinc sulphate to the nursery in rice is beneficial. Conjunctive use of farmyard manure and chemical fertiliser produce consistently high yields. Green-manuring with dhaincha can be a useful practice to supplement chemical fertilisers and is beneficial for sustaining soil productivity and fertility.
Weed control: Crop-weed
competition is one of the determinants depressing yield substantially.
Mechanical weeding or use of herbicides can be effectively used to
control weeds. Summer ploughing at least once during April-May
declines weed population. It can also reduce the soil-borne
insect-pests and diseases incidence.