- The Maharashtra government has announced emergency measures to tackle the widespread pink bollworm (PBW) infestation in parts of the State.
- The Bt cotton crisis comes less than 20 years after it was talked about as the harbinger of the next green revolution.
- In 2003 and 2006, the government spoke of Bt cotton’s efficacy in bollworm control and reduction of pesticide use.
- Constructed in a US laboratory, Bt cotton was supposed to be science’s answer to falling crop yields and growing use of pesticides.
- From 2002 to 2009, cotton production, productivity and acreage grew steadily across India.
- The technology transformed India into the world’s second-largest exporter of cotton after the United States.
- In Maharashtra, Bt cotton dominates 53percent of the cotton cropped area.
- Its production rose from 2.6 million bales in 2002-03 to 6.2 million bales in 2008-09; yields surged from 158 kg per hectare in 2002-03 to 336 kg per hectare in 2008-09.
- The increase in yields was commended despite major cotton-growing area remaining under rainfed conditions.
- From 2010, however, productivity oscillated in Maharashtra with a significant decline of 17 percent in 2011-12 and 13 percent in 2017-18.
- In 2017, the pest had caused large-scale damage to the cotton crop in central and eastern Maharashtra, the State’s main regions producing the commodity.
- The pest has again attacked the plants in their early stages of growth this year.
About Pink Bollworm
- Pink bollworm is an insect which chews through the cotton lint to feed on the seeds. Since cotton is used for both- fibre and seed oil, the damage is two-fold.
- Pink bollworms consume the fibre and seeds inside a cotton plant’s boll, or fruit, and yields fall.
- Bollgard-II (Bt-II) is a technology wherein two Bt proteins (crystal toxins- cry1Ac and cry2Ab) contained in a cotton seed have enhanced capacity to ward off three types of bollworms – American, spotted and pink bollworm.
- The pink bollworm has again attacked cotton plants in Maharashtra this year, causing concern among farmers and the State government.
- Pink bollworm is being linked with a major crisis on the farm front last year.
- Of the total 42 lakh hectares of cotton crop the infestation has already damaged 83%, forcing the state to implement, on a war footing, measures at the district level.
- Farmers use Bt cotton seeds (Bt-II) which are supposed to be tolerant to the pest on account of genetic modification.
- However, Pink bollworm has not only reappeared as a major pest but has also taken just about 5-6 years to develop resistance to Bollgard-II seeds developed by US biotech giant Monsanto.
Impact of the resistance
- As a result of the pink bollworm infestations, farmers now spend more on pesticides to control infestations. This, along with the high cost of Bt seeds, is driving farmers to indigence.
- It could reduce the area under cotton crop by at least 10% resulting in low yield and drop in prices.
- The pest led to intense spraying of pesticides followed by deaths of farmers and farm hands due to accidental inhalation of chemicals.
- Many farmers in these states are likely to switch to other crops like soybeans.
- The overall cotton planting in India could fall.
- The reduction in planting area could cut into export supply from India and further bolster global cotton prices.
- Infestations slashed crop yields have forced farmers to increase pesticide, which is an extra costs on their part as well as have environmental consequences.
Measures taken by the government
- The State government served notices to 12 seed firms on notice after their products were found infested.
- The government floated a cluster of compensation schemes for smaller farmers and passed a resolution demanding that seed companies take responsibility for giving compensation, even threatening to register FIRs if this was not done.
- The states have additionally moved a proposal to the Centre to give them financial assistance to the tune of Rs. 2,500 crore.
- The state will set up 16-member committees in each district to monitor relief measures and minimise economic losses to farmers.
- The committees will function under the district collector.
- Experts, farmers and representatives of seed companies will be on board as well.
- The committees will meet every 15 days to take stock of the situation and work on campaigns to create awareness, and if need be put in place emergency measures
- India’s farm ministry has decided to reduce royalties paid by Indian seed companies to Monsanto for its genetically modified (GM) cotton by 20.4%.
Pink Bollworm, a unique problem to India
- Interestingly, none of the other 14 Bt cotton-growing countries have seen this resistance.
- China still successfully controls pink bollworm with first-generation Bt cotton.
- The U.S. and Australia are moving on to third-generation BG-3 without having faced this problem.
- However, only India is facing this resistance, probably because of the following reason:
- India restricted itself to cultivating long-duration hybrids since the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002.
- Hybrids are crosses between two crops that often see higher yields than their parents, in a genetic phenomenon called heterosis.
- All other Bt cotton-growing countries mainly grow open-pollinated cotton varieties rather than hybrids.
- The introduction of the Bt gene into only one parent of Indian hybrids, as is the practice, is itself a problem.
- The resulting hybrids are hemizygous, which means that they express only one copy of the Bt gene.
- So, they produce cotton bolls that have some seeds toxic to the pink bollworm and some that are not.
- The problem with hemizygous hybrids is that they allow pink bollworms to survive on toxin-free seeds when they are vulnerable newborns.
- This can be contrasted with the homozygous seeds of open-pollinated varieties in the U.S., China or Australia, which have 100% toxic seeds.
- When all these factors combine with the pink bollworm’s biology, this creates a perfect storm of conditions for resistance.
- The pest does its most damage in the latter half of the cotton-growing season and does not consume any other crop that grows then.
- So, the long duration of Indian cotton crops, between 160 and 300 days, allows this pest to thrive and evolve resistance more quickly than it can for short-duration crops.
- Contrast this with other cotton-growing countries which strictly terminate the crop within 160 days.
- Furthermore, India is the only country whose intellectual property laws have never prevented its farmers from either saving or selling seeds whereas other countries restrict saving and selling of seeds in various degrees.
- Follow pest management strategies such as short-season crop, pheromone-based monitoring and so on.
- Pheromone traps can be used to capture the bugs.
- The pests are attracted to the trap by the scent of a female pink bollworm.
- This curbs its further growth.
- The first solution to the problem seems to move swiftly to short-duration varieties.
- This is where Monsanto’s first-generation Bollgard comes in.
- Seed companies cannot develop open-pollinated varieties with BG-2, but they can with BG, since Monsanto didn’t patent BG in India.
- However, some researchers believe that moving back to BG is a bad idea because the problem was not with the BG trait but with long-duration cotton.
- And even if BG-2 doesn’t fend off the pink bollworm, it still protects against other pests like the tobacco cutworm and the American bollworm.
- The presence of two Bt genes in BG-2 means it will be more effective than BG in delaying resistance against these pests.
- Thus, India should clamp down on long-duration crops.
- India can also go for BG-III variety, for which other countries are already pitching in.