Regulatory norms not followed in Bt cotton fields

Almost 13 years after it was introduced in India, farmers are yet to learn effective ways of planting genetically modified Bt cotton, thanks to the failure of a government-run farmers’ education system.

Though 93 per cent of Indian cotton farmers use Bt cotton, non-compliance with “refuge” norms is a major violation. It limits full benefit of the genetically modified cotton varieties that give higher yields than traditional cotton and reduce pesticide usage, suggests a new survey.

“Criticism against Bt cotton did not gain ground in the absence of scientific evidence.

Farmers have adopted it widely in all nine cotton growing states. In 2002, when it was commercialised, area under Bt cotton was 50,000 hectare, which has grown to more than 10,00,000 hectares now,” said S Ayappan, director-general of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research.

But “refuge” remains a sticky issue. According to regulatory norms, every field where Bt cotton is planted should be surrounded by a belt of land called “refuge”, on which the same non-Bt cotton variety will have to be sown.

The “refuge” belt should be big enough to accommodate at least five rows of non-Bt cotton or 20 per cent of the total sown area, whichever is more.

Each packet of Bt cotton seeds contains a separate packet of the same non-Bt cotton seeds, sufficient for planting in the “refuge”. The new survey carried out in Punjab, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh suggests that farmers don't follow this practice.

Farmers said failure of an extension system was one of the reasons for non-compliance with “refuge” norms in the Bt cotton fields. Under the extension system, officials from state agriculture universities, Krishi Vigyan Kendras, state agriculture department and public funded NGOs are supposed to sensitise the farmers about pros and cons of new technologies.

“Cotton farmers reported absence of farm-related extension activities on Bt cotton across surveyed states. People responsible for extension activities should turn on from sleep to active mode and fulfil their responsibilities,” said Bhagirath Choudhury, co-author of the survey and director (South Asia) of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri Biotech Applications.

Choudhury, along with C D Mayee, former director of Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research, authored the survey, which was released by Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.

Though there are more than 700 Bt cotton seeds available in India in the private sector, the report does not mention why there is not a single public sector Bt cotton seed in the market after decades of research.

The report, prepared under the banner of Indian Society for Cotton Improvement, also flags “lukewarm attitude of elected representatives” in welcoming the GM crops and wanted the states to publicise the benefits of Bt cotton.

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