SUMMARY: "Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are perturbed over a sense of deja vu they are experiencing ever since the attack of the pest - the whitefly - on their BT cotton crop."
Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are perturbed over a sense of deja vu they are experiencing ever since the attack of the pest - the whitefly - on their BT cotton crop. It has unnerving similarities to attack of the American bollworm, colloquially known as 'Amrikan sundi,' in the 1990s and 2000s on hybrid cotton varieties. The bollworm attack had led farmers to shift to the BT variety post 2004 which resisted the pest. But the whitely has shown that the BT cotton too can be vulnerable, creating a crisis at a time when the monsoon has failed.
Both Punjab and Haryana account for about 11-12% of country's total cotton output, but the pest could cause a noticeable drop in average yields thereby hitting output as picking of cotton has begun in the region. In Haryana, area under cotton is 5.80 lakh hectares and in Punjab it is 4.50 lakh hectares this season.
In fact, much like the bollworm, pesticides sprayed has not been able to eliminate the whitefly that attacks the leaves of cotton plants. In the early 2002, cotton farmers had used so much pesticide against the whitefly that the chemical is believed to have affected the soil and groundwater. Many believe this is the reason behind a large number of cancer cases being detected among people in the cotton belt.
Farmers in many parts of Punjab and Haryana have even uprooted cotton for other crops in recent days. Baljinder Singh Sidhu from Kotbhara village in Bathinda said, "Build-up to the pest was so sudden that it caught us unawares. Many farmers in my village have uprooted cotton since the damage to the crop was massive."
Farmers fearful that whitefly would become more aggressive in coming seasons as prolonged hot, humid conditions without rainfall led to the growth of the pest and could spread to other states. "The yield could drop by about 15% this season in Punjab," said noted farm economist professor P S Rangi, marketing consultant, Punjab State Farmers Commission (PSFC).
Prof Ashok Dhawan, former head of the entomology, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, said, "The whitefly attack can lead to 30%-40% drop in average yield in the affected areas. Spraying pesticides is not the best solution. Farmers need to follow a composite plan. We need varieties that are resistant," said Prof Dhawan.
An official from the Punjab agriculture department said, "We are organizing camps in villages and telling farmers to use recommended pesticides, but that is only a temporary measure. Enormity of the attack can't be quantified immediately as picking of cotton has just begun. One thing is sure that we need varieties of cotton that are resistant to whitefly, otherwise farmers are going to suffer just like they did when American bollworm ravaged huge swathes of cotton about two decades back."
In the 1990s and 2000s the American bollworm or 'Amrikan sundi' had become resistant to pesticides and ravaged thousands of hectares of hybrid cotton planted in both Punjab and Haryana. While the cost of inputs went up significantly, average yield of cotton dropped sharply, hitting the farmers hard. Their fortunes changed as the government allowed cultivation of BT cotton in March 2005 in both states with the nod from the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC). Even before government clearance, farmers from Punjab's cotton belt, had started bringing BT seeds from Gujarat in a train that was referred to as "BT Express".
As per the data from the Cotton Advisory Board (CAB), average yield of cotton in Punjab fell to 170kg per hectare in 1997-98 from 367kg per hectare in 1996-97, and in Haryana the average yield declined to 240kg per hectare from 354kg per hectare in the same period. Average yield of cotton dropped further to 151kg per hectare in 1998-99 in Punjab while Haryana also saw a decline to 204kg per hectare. However, the average yields started improving from 2005-06 as BT cotton cultivation was allowed in both states. Provisional figures from CAB put the average yield of cotton in 2013-14 to 704kg per hectare and 702kg per hectare in Punjab and Haryana respectively. With BT cotton being resistant to American bollworm, area under these varieties shot up rapidly in Punjab and Haryana, which stands at over 90% in both states. While BT cotton varieties offered resistance to American bollworm, these are under the attack of whitefly in both Punjab and Haryana this season.
SOURCE: The Times of India
AUTHOR: Ikhhlaq Aujla