Desi cotton set for a revival

Agriculture

Desi cotton set for a revival

Traditional Indian cotton varieties have gradually ceded ground to their American counterpart after Independence. Now, a movement is on to bring them back and solve the food security issue plaguing farmers, says Ananda Teertha Pyati.

Most farmers stand in queue to get hybrid cotton seeds for sowing, but Nagappa Nimbegondi of Makari village in Haveri district doesn’t bother. He sows desi (traditional) seeds. Nowadays, local varieties of seeds are getting popular and thousands of farmers have been sowing them. But Nagappa has something more to offer: the farmer has cultivated more than 20 varieties of desi cotton seeds!

For the past three years, desi cotton varieties are growing in his field, each variety being unique in nature and quality. A few decades ago, cotton was grown along with other food crops in the mixed crop system. As a result of the Green Revolution, hybrid varieties replaced the local ones and farmers began growing cotton as a single crop.

When India got Independence, 97 per cent of the total cultivation was of desi varieties. Known for their short staple characteristic, these varieties were most popular in Europe. After Independence, however, farmers were convinced to grow American varieties which have the long staple characteristic. Gradually, desi varieties disappeared from the fields of Indian farmers with hybrids and Bt cotton replacing them in a very short time. During 1990, the area of cultivation of desi cotton was 42 per cent out of the total cotton farming which came down to 28 per cent in 2000. This year, the cultivation has reached an abysmal low of three per cent!

The desi varieties have ceded ground to the American varieties and now the situation is exactly the reverse, compared to that of 1947.

Apart from general uses like textile, jeans, tea-coffee filters, fishing nets etc., Indian desi cotton is famous for its medicinal use. During surgical treatments, absorbent cotton is a must and Indian desi cotton is considered the best among other cotton varieties in the world. The demand for absorbent cotton is increasing and the USA, Japan and European countries import huge quantities of cotton.

India can a play major role in this sector as its varieties fulfill all requirements. “Many varieties have resistance to pest and disease and some can be grown with little rain and are suitable for dryland farming. Apart from these qualities, they were growing along with food crops like red gram, chilli and safflower under the Akkadi system (mixed crop) where the farmers grow food, oil and edible oil crops besides commercial crops, thus securing a measure of food security. But now cotton is growing under the mono crop method and if the crop failed, farmer has to suffer solely”, points out G Krishnaprasad, coordinator of the desi cotton conservation movement.

The movement is a farmers’ initiative towards conservation of the traditional varities of cotton seeds. The movement was started by some interested organic farmers from different parts of Karnataka, whose main objective is to conserve desi varieties. These farmers from different regions came together four years ago and discussed the issue. They discovered that except the ‘Jayadhara’ variety, there were hardly any other variety of seeds available in Karnataka. Then some organisations working in different states sent seeds available in those regions.

Pioneering effort

It was decided to multiply (producing) seeds and the responsibility was given to Nagappa Nimbegondi.

In the last few years, he has grown 24 varieties, producing seeds and giving them to other farmers. Many farmers have now come forward to cultivate these varieties. “During the first year we were able to get only three varieties and subsequently we got 10. Now, in the third year the collection has reached 24. Unfortunately,  the Central Institution for Cotton Research located at Nagpur has also failed to document and collect desi cotton varieties. But somehow, with like-minded organisations, we got these seeds,” explains Krishnaprasad.

Desi cotton is also used in making dolls, non-allergic cloth materials, baby dresses etc. Now more than a hundred of farmers have come forward to cultivate these varieties and Chennai’s ‘Natures Store’ has agreed to buy the produce. Under its Eco Fab project, the group purchases cotton threads and makes clothes and other materials. The Agricultural Research Station at Hulakoti has decided to grow several varieties in a demonstration plot for the benefit of farmers. During their harvesting period, an analysis of crop and characterisation of all varieties will be done by the scientists.

Cotton has become a major commercial crop instead of a component in the mixed cropping system, thanks to the Green Revolution which made this crop dependant on chemical fertilisers.

However, the effort to get back desi cotton into the farmer’s field has begun in Karnataka. “These varieties neither need chemical inputs nor much water. They could grow along with food crops and this system must be revived in terms of food security to the farmer’s family. Agricultural research Institutes should motivate farmers in this way,” urges Krishnaprasad.

Jayadhar, Pandharapur and tree cotton of Karnataka; Pondru of Andhra; Magad and Kaala cotton of Gujarat; Bengal Desi from Rajasthan and Seranum of Meghalaya are some among the desi varieties, which have been in farmers’ field since hundreds of years.
A traditional variety of Punjab Cotton is said to be used for Khaadi cloth which is still cultivated in that state by a few farmers. Another farmer of Makari village, Shivayogi has sown the seeds of this variety in his field. “If a systematic search is done, we can get many more special varieties like these”, points out Shivayogi.

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