23rd January 2020 : The Hindu Editorials Notes: Mains Sure Shot
Question – Analyse the farmer distress in the cotton production sector and suggest the way ahead. Should GM crops be extended to other sectors?
Context – The farmer suicides.
Condition of cotton farmers in India:
- India is the No. 1 cotton producer in the world, but its crop is in distress.
- Heavy use of pesticides, new genetically modified seeds, suicides, and an overabundance of seed choices have interacted within the past decade to create an environment for farmers that is dangerous and potentially even fatal.
- The traditional mindset of applying excess of fertilisers to get more crops and use of more pesticides to avoid pest attacks was rooted firmly in the farmer psyche. However, over the years, this practice had not been beneficial to them in any way. The largely water intensive nature of the cotton crop, extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides and genetic modification has posed a significant environmental challenge as far as cotton cultivation is concerned.
- Genetically Modified (GM) pest resistant Bt cotton hybrids have captured the Indian market since their introduction in 2002. These now cover over 95% of the area under cotton, with the seeds produced entirely by the private sector.
- India’s cotton production in 2019 is projected as the highest ever: 354 lakh bales. This year, India is expected to be the world’s largest cotton producer, surpassing China in output.
- A large part of it has been attributed to Bt cotton. So GM crops’s proponents have cited Bt cotton’s example and argued for extending GM technology to increase food crop yield.
- But Bt cotton hybrids have negatively impacted livelihoods and contributed to agrarian distress, particularly among resource-poor farmers.
- To understand this we have to understand it from the basics one by one –
- Even though this year India’s cotton production is estimated to be the highest in the world, India’s productivity (yield per unit area), is much lower than other major cotton-producing countries, meaning a much larger area is used for cotton production.
- This is proved by the fact that , India’s productivity has been only a third of these countries for over four decades.
- This cannot be explained by agronomic or socio-economic differences because these countries include both developed and developing countries, and different geographies.
- So, which feature of cotton cultivation in India differs from other countries and might account for this large anomaly?
- First, India is the only country that grows cotton as hybrids and the first to develop hybrid cotton back in 1970.
- Hybrids are made by crossing two parent strains having different genetic characters. These plants have more biomass than both parents, and capacity for greater yields. They also require more inputs, including fertilizer and water.
- Though hybrid cotton seed production is expensive, requiring manual crossing, India’s low cost of manual labour make it economically viable. But all other cotton-producing countries grow cotton not as hybrids but varieties for which seeds are produced by self-fertilization.
- A key difference between hybrids and varieties is that varieties can be propagated over successive generations by collecting seeds from one planting and using them for the next planting; hybrid seeds have to be remade for each planting by crossing the parents. So for hybrids, farmers must purchase seeds for each planting, but not for varieties.
- Using hybrids gives pricing control to the seed company and also ensures a continuous market. Increased yield from a hybrid is supposed to justify the high cost of hybrid seeds.
- However, for cotton, a different strategy using high density planting (HDP) of compact varieties has been found to outperform hybrids at the field level.
- This would significantly reduce distress for the cotton farmers.
What is HDP?
- High Density planting means to increase the plant population per unit area for increasing the production of fruit crops To overcome low productivity To reduce the gestation period for early returns.
A comparison/ advantage of HDP:
- For over three decades, most countries have been growing cotton varieties that are compact and short duration. These varieties are planted at high density (5 kg seeds/acre), whereas hybrids in India are bushy, long duration and planted at ten-fold lower density (0.5 kg seeds/acre). The lower boll production by compact varieties (5-10 bolls per plant) compared to hybrids (20-100 bolls/plant) is more than compensated by the ten-fold greater planting density.
- The steep increase in productivity for Brazil, from 400 to 1,000 kg/hectare lint between 1994 and 2000 coincides with the large-scale shift to a non-GM compact variety. Cotton is a dryland crop and 65% of area under cotton in India is rain-fed. Farmers with insufficient access to groundwater in these areas are entirely dependent on rain.
- Here, the shorter duration variety has a major advantage as it reduces dependence on irrigation and risk, particularly late in the growing season when soil moisture drops following the monsoon’s withdrawal. This period is when bolls develop and water requirement is the highest.
- The advantages of compact varieties over hybrids are considerable: more than twice the productivity, half the fertilizer (200 kg/ha for hybrids versus 100 kg/ha for varieties), reduced water requirement, and less vulnerability to damage from insect pests due to a shorter field duration.
- Yet, India has persisted with long-duration hybrids, many years after benefits of compact varieties became clear from global experience.
In a nutshell:
- The current annual value of cotton seed used for planting is about ₹2,500 crore, and that of lint cotton produced is ₹68,000 crore.
- Therefore, it appears that the interests of the cotton seed industry have constrained the very much larger value of cotton production and the overall cotton industry.
- But it is likely that production levels could have been much higher, with considerably lower risk and input costs, had compact varieties been developed and used in India.
- Agricultural distress is extremely high among cotton farmers and the combination of high input and high risk has likely been a contributing factor. Compact varieties would have significantly reduced distress as well as increased yield.
- Therefore, the hybrid seed model for cotton that India, and India alone, has followed for over three decades, is inferior to the HDP model being used in other countries on three important counts: much lower productivity; higher input costs; and increased risk particularly for low resource farmers in rain-fed areas.
- First, we must be clear that the outcome of using a technology such as Bt is determined by the context in which it is deployed, and not just by the technology itself. If the context is suboptimal and does not prioritise the needs of the principal stakeholders (farmers), it can have significant negative fallouts, especially in India with a high proportion being marginal and subsistence farmers.
- Second, there is a need for better consultation in policy, be it agriculture as a whole or crop-wise.
- India is a signatory to international treaties on GMO regulation (the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety), so the socioeconomic and need-based considerations and risk assessment should be a part of GMO regulatory process in India.
- Finally, it is important to recognise that adoption of any new technology such as Bt is a choice and not an imperative. For example, some of the major cotton-producing countries such as Brazil (until 2012) and Turkey (up to the present) have achieved high productivity without the use of GM cotton by using alternative pest-management approaches.
- In case of Bt hybrids, benefits are limited but costs too high, especially for resource-poor farmers.
Note – The article titled ‘Untapped soft power’ shows a new way of looking at revenue potentials of the government. It shows us how we should unleash our creative thinking when and look beyond conventional areas when talking of revenue or employment or growth. It is an important article and here are the important highlights:
- It says that the Indian film industry is a very neglected sector by the government, unlike the U.S. and China. This leads to missing out on the large sources of revenue for the government.
- India lacks the infrastructure to take films to interior areas. For a population of 1.37 billion people, India has less than 10,000 screens, of which 6,700 are single screens. The procedure to convert a single screen theatre to a multiplex is tedious and costly. New permission and licenses are required, and existing licenses often hold little value.
- In stark contrast, China has about 60,000 screens for a population of 1.4 billion. These were created over the last decade with government support in the form of public-private partnership models, which makes the country a viable market for foreign film industries as well. This has created revenue for the Chinese government as foreign films have to share a sizeable amount of their profit with the state.
- Ironically, films set in the interiors of India, such as Secret Superstar and Dangal, have more footfalls in China than they do here. A large portion of the Indian population does not have access to the content that is derived from them.
- American states provide incentives such as tax shelters, cash rebates and grants to productions taking place in their territories.
- During a film shoot, the location gains tourist attention. Films also generate seasonal employment by hiring local staff and parts of the crew. It is a lucrative venture to have a film shoot at site. It is because of this that countries like the U.K. and Malta provide incentives such as easy clearances and rebates upto 30-40% of the total cost of the projects filmed there. In India the incentives are much lower, and in most States the cash rebates are capped at nominal amounts which are not lucrative for big-budget productions.
- Moreover, though there is now a single-window clearance for shoots in many States, shooting at various spots such as archaeological sites requires multiple permissions and is a time-consuming and arduous process.
What can be done:
- The film industry deserves more support for its growth and protection. With high export potential, the content created helps disseminate the uniqueness of India’s culture. Yet, there are hardly any support tools from the government. The risk may be high, but the returns are good. Various countries are releasing this and working to either strengthen their content-creating industries or become viable destinations for hosting shoots. Tapping into the potential of this multi-seasonal industry opens a plethora of opportunities: from better international awareness about the country to creating employment opportunities within.