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A huge number of farmers in India cultivate cotton on their farmlands. Though Cotton is grown on 5 per cent of the total crop area, it uses up to 55 per cent of all pesticides. Intensified chemical use has led to a dramatic rise in pest infestation as, over time, gradually they have become resistant to insecticides. Increasing chemical costs and falling cotton prices have pushed thousands of cotton farmers in India, into a vortex of debt. Unable to face the consequences of crop failures and mounting debts, thousands of farmers across the country used to end their lives.
But the scenario has changed in past few years. The switchover from the conventional cotton to Bt cotton has led to a social and economic transformation of the villages in past three-four years. Farmers from Antargaon and Bhambraja, the two villages of Maharashtra where no suicides have been recorded claim that their income from Bt cotton has not just helped them get rid of the compounding loans from moneylenders, but has also fulfilled all their aspirations of sending their children to the nearest convent schools and get their daughters married as lavishly as people in cities do. Several families have shut the door for private moneylenders and started side business. The turnaround has been brought about by none other than Bt Cotton. Many farmers consider it as a boon of Biotechnology.
Bacillus Thuringiensis or Bt is a naturally occurring soil bacterium used by farmers to control “Lepidopteran” insects because of a toxin it produces. Through genetic engineering, scientists have introduced the gene responsible for making the toxin into a range of crops, including cotton. Bt expresses the qualities of the insecticidal gene throughout the growing cycle of the plant. Due to Bt toxin the worm feeding on the leaves of a Bt cotton plant becomes lethargic and sleepy, thereby causing less damage to the plant.
The Bt toxin is no different from other chemical pesticides, but causes much less damage to the environment. Bt toxin is effective against a variety of economically important crop pests but pose no hazard to non-target organisms like mammals and fish. Three Bt crops are now commercially available: corn, cotton, and potato. As of now, cotton is the most popular of the Bt crops, it was planted on about 1.8 million acres in 1996 and 1997.
Now the question that arises is that, how Bt cotton has an edge over the normal cotton that was previously cultivated?
Firstly, over the past 40 years, due to intensive use of pesticides, many pests have developed resistance to pesticides. Secondly, though cotton is grown on 5 per cent of the total crop area in India, it uses up 55 per cent of all pesticides. Having a look at the statistics, Bt cotton requires only two sprays of chemical pesticide against eight sprays for normal variety. Moreover, field trials have shown that farmers who grew the Bt variety obtained 25%–75% more cotton than those who grew the normal variety. Certainly Bt cotton has proved itself as a boon to the farmers.
Bt cotton, with its promise of reduced insecticide use and resistance to pest attacks - leading consequently to a rise in yields with lower costs - is being pushed by the multinational as an environmentally safe and cost-effective alternative to conventional cotton seeds. Use of Bt cotton has led to a 3%–27 increase in cotton yield in countries where it is grown. As a matter of fact India has become the second largest cotton producing country of the world.
At the 97th Indian Science Congress, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the genetically modified BT cotton was "well accepted" and has made "a great difference" to production and its extension to food crops should be done following strictly scientific criteria. But there is a lot of controversy over its extension over food crop. It has raised concerns among environmentalists, who say their cultivation and consumption might have safety and ecological issues.
Indeed, Bt cotton has not only helped India to step onto number 2 cotton producer of the world but has also brought prosperity and a ray of hope in the lives of many farmers who were on an edge of life and death few years ago.
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