Talking to a Vidarbha Bt cotton farmer

Cotton at the market

Cotton at the market (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

I wrote two posts on Bt cotton but I have to admit it left me more confused than before. I went into it expecting to find that Bt cotton had kickstarted an epidemic of farmer suicides. But the closer I looked, the more the claims of Bt cotton devastation seemed to vanish into thin air. What I was left with though, was a list of problems of technology adoption — the kind of list that is very familiar in every industry that tries out something new.

My mistake lay in hoping for an answer to a simple question — is Bt cotton good or bad? But this type of question might confuse matters more than illuminate them. A better question might be — what problems does it solve, what problems does it create? How does it interact with customs and practices in India?

Look, Bt cotton is a technology. It isn’t the devil himself in the form of a seed, nor is it a benediction from the gods. It is a human-made technology. All of us who use computers know what that means. When they work, they are great. But most of us have had the occasional urge to punch a fist through the screen when it doesn’t do what we expect.


Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002 by Mahyco in collaboration with Monsanto. The prior three decades had been tough for cotton farmers in India due to yield losses from the bollworm. Farmers had to spend a huge amount in pesticides and many had given up on growing cotton entirely.

Bt cotton comes with an insecticide in it (one that is safe for humans), that allows the cotton bolls to grow without being eaten by the bollworm. This makes it so that farmers don’t have to purchase extra insecticide and be exposed to those sprays. Plus, Bt cotton is a hybrid that seems to make bigger bolls.

It does come with strings attached. It isn’t the wild form of cotton that humans discovered thousands of years ago that belonged to no one and to everyone. This one has been through years of research and tinkering in the lab. It is a corporate product. Therefore, the seeds are more expensive. In addition, you cannot save seeds from your harvest. You have to purchase a new set of seeds each year.

Despite these strings attached, many (most) cotton farmers have made the determination that Bt cotton is worth growing anyway. I interviewed Bt cotton farmer Sudhindra Kulkarni, who gave me a precise breakdown of his profits from Bt cotton and a comparison with red gram. Please note the dramatically lower cost of the seeds for red gram, and yet, the dramatically higher profit for Bt cotton:

Bt Cotton Red Gram
Yield per acre 15 quintal 5 quintal
Rate for 1 quintal Rs. 5,000/= Rs. 4,650/=
Total for 1 acre Rs. 75,000/= Rs. 23,250/=
Total expense for input Rs. 27,000/= Rs. 7,000/=
Net profit for 1 acre Rs. 48,000/= Rs. 16,520/=

As a matter of fact, the adoption rate of Bt cotton in India is 90%. Farmers are small business owners, and like any other such, they make a business calculation to see if Bt cotton is worth growing for them or not. Sudhindra claims that Bt cotton lifted his family out of poverty. Much as us urban folks would like farmers to remain guardians of India’s halcyon past, they themselves have practical lives to lead in the present.

What’s the problem, then? Clearly the story does not end there or there would be no debate. Where’s the strum und drang here? Why has the Mahyco-Monsanto alliance aroused fears that India is being stealthily colonized again? What about the epidemic of farmers killing themselves?

Farmer distress

Any media consumer who has not investigated this issue deeply themselves gets a constant drumbeat about Bt cotton having devastated Indian farmers. Words like catastrophe, epidemic, even holocaust are thrown around. But upon talking to farmers, Bt cotton appears as a solution to a three-decade-old problem. What gives?

Here are some articles about the fears of farmer distress. Ostensibly the stories are about how Bt cotton is inadvisable to grow. But one has to read them a little smartly to see that the point being made is more nuanced than that: Bt cotton is inadvisable to grow when there is no irrigation. This makes sense — Bt cotton needs water. Being a cash crop, it can’t be eaten as a last resort if it can’t be sold. Plus, the farmers are being advised to be prudent and rotate their crops; plant non-Bt crops as buffers to avoid the bollworm becoming resistant; to grow lower-profit crops like sorghum as well for backup. None of it should be controversial. What is left unsaid are the reasons why farmers might not be following best practices. Some of those I alluded to in this article, where I mentioned the difficulty of disseminating information in regions of high illiteracy. The other reason is obvious when you look at Sudhindra’s chart above — cotton is a cash crop and has the potential to make a good profit, if things go right. Is there perhaps some excessive risk-taking going on?

But what do I know — I can speculate plenty but I know little. So I talked to a farmer from Vidarbha, Maharashtra, a that region is said to have been devastated by crop failures, in order to get some inside information.

Talking to a Vidarbha Bt cotton farmer

Prakash Puppalwar farms in Yavatmal district in the Vidarbha region. It is known as ‘Cotton City’ because of its traditional ties to the growing and manufacture of cotton goods. He has an ancestral cotton farming background. He is one of a group of farmers that got an education in agriculture and came back to their village to farm so he has a good understanding of best practices, and also a handle on the problems that smaller, less educated farmers may face. I asked him a few questions on the phone and on email, what follows is a translated compilation of his answers.

Prakash Puppalwar in Bt cotton farm

Prakash Puppalwar in Yavatmal Bt cotton farm

What problems do farmers face in Yavatmal?

  • Some farms lack irrigation. We sow cotton in June and expect to harvest in October or November. In June it rains each week, without fail. July too. In August, sometimes there are 15 or 20 dry days at a stretch. During this time, we need some extra water. In addition, sometimes there is power-load-shedding at times when we need electricity for irrigation.
  • We don’t get good weather reports at the time of sowing.
  • Everyone knows that the yield of Bt cotton is high. So labor costs have gone up. Out of the cotton cultivation cost 65% goes towards labor. Plus, it is hard to find skilled labor.
  • As far as good government loans with regulated interest, it is easy enough to get a 15-year loan to build a house. But if you are looking for a 5-year or 10-year loan for farming, it is difficult. You don’t get much and you don’t get it on time. [OP:This is why farmers would have to resort to unauthorized money-lenders.]
  • The government has fixed the MSP (minimum sale price) of cotton too low. In addition, some years back they had stopped the export of cotton entirely. Now it has restarted but not at the previous levels.  They should have an import duty on cotton like they have on sugar. For a while the rate of cotton had gone up to seven thousand. Lately we had to sell it off at three thousand.
  • We do not have crop insurance in case of crop failures.
  • Farmers are eager to learn but they lack knowledge about farming with this new technology. They also lack knowledge about marketing.

Do farms in your district follow best practices for growing Bt cotton?
We do rotate crops. We use chemical and organic inputs in the ratio of 60-40. We are also told by the agriculture institute to have a buffer area of non-Bt cotton surrounding the farm and though we try, we cannot always accomplish this.

Beehive in Bt cotton (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

Beehive in Bt cotton (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

You seem to have some practical problems. Why do people blame only Bt cotton?
I don’t want to speculate on their reasons. But if we farmers are the patients, shouldn’t we be asked first what our disease is? Look, 100% of the farmers here grow Bt cotton. Why would we do that? With Bt cotton we have got freedom from an old enemy — the pests. We have surety. Even the lady farm workers know that with Bt cotton we have higher production. We have gone from four to ten quintals. I don’t understand why the whole blame should go on the seeds. The seeds are a small part of our cost. Out of our total cost of growing, 65% goes towards labor. Then there is fertilization, irrigation, marketing. The seeds are only 5% of our cost. Why would we blame the seeds? There are a lot of factors that go towards a crop succeeding or failing. You might have great production but if you can’t sell it at a good rate you would have a failed crop anyway. This year we have had only 33% rain that we expected so far. Smaller farms who don’t have irrigation could be wiped out. Those who have irrigation will be fine. That is a very important factor.

But is it the case that conventional cotton is not as dependent on water as is Bt cotton?
It is all about the boll. Conventional cotton did not grow bolls as big as Bt cotton. Plus the quality of the cotton was not as good. Since the bolls are bigger with Bt cotton, naturally it will need more nutrition, and in turn, more water. Specially in the boll-formation stage. This is not surprising.

Have their been a lot of suicides by farmers in your region? 
No doubt, there have been some. But, one has to keep in mind that the government gives one lakh rupees to the families of the bereaved in case of a suicide. People can be asked to provide any kind of statement to the police. One has to keep this fact in mind. [OP: it was not clear to me what exactly he was suggesting here but I didn’t want to probe too much, as the conversation was getting a little too macabre for me.]

Swadeshi fever

Indians have always had a persistent phobia about being swallowed up by the west (clearly certain events in our history have had something to do with this). I don’t think anyone believes that we will literally be colonized again, but each new cultural encroachment by the west arouses fears of soft-colonization — the kind where we lose our cultural soul; where we become addicts who can’t do much but wait for the next cola-fizzed hit from western corporations.

Gandhi promoted this notion as self-reliance or Swadeshi. I have more than  a smidgen of this phobia myself. The sheer psychic disturbance I feel when I see a McDonalds franchise in a place where a vada-pav stall used to be is hard to put in words. I believe that GMO seeds arouse this fear in a visceral way because it is our very food production cycle that would now involve a reliance on products that are Videshi, not Swadeshi. I understand this fear and I feel it too. The blogger from Curry Leaf, one who I admire for her stories and her passion, expresses this fear in the comments on this post.

As this is an emotional reaction, it isn’t wrong or right, and there is no arguing against it. But let me give you a little glimpse of my own inner dialog around this subject.

Ground being prepared for sowing

Ground being prepared for sowing (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

I feel like the cultural influences we have already absorbed become invisible to us, and we fear the cultural influences that might occur in the future. Gandhi himself was educated in England and wrote books in impeccable English. We are debating this subject mostly in this foreign language as well, on the Internet created mostly by America. When one’s livelihood is involved, like for the farmers I have talked to, it becomes difficult to give primacy to an abstract principle above one’s own flight from poverty. It is often: Swadeshi for thee, but not for me.

And, one has to remember that cultural influence goes both ways. If Indian cities are now heavily dependent on computers, cell phones, software and the rest, mostly from American companies, one has to think about the legions of Indian engineers they hire too. Where GMO seeds are concerned, the enterprise from the beginning was a collaboration of an Indian company with an American company, and, now there are Indian companies doing the research and production themselves.

GMO is not the first interdependence we have with the west and it won’t be the last.

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14 thoughts on “Talking to a Vidarbha Bt cotton farmer

  1. A real fine piece of honest writing. This is what we have all been saying, but the nay sayers don’t want to accpet it. All of us are called Monsanto’s paid agents. Beware, you will also be called an agent of the MNCs. However, keep up the good work you are doing.


  2. A very forthright and if nuanced portrayal of a farmer from India. As you can see, farming is a complex operation and the resource-poor farmer makes many economic decisions based on the information on hand to maximize returns and minimize investment. Bt technology has helped all these Indian farmers despite the extra cost because it brings in a guarantee against major insects, cuts down the cost and labor of pesticide sprays (not to mention the toxic exposure). The relentless noise of those opposed to this technology seems a cacophony to me


  3. It is instructive that when asked about farmers suicides in India, this farmer replies that for one lakh rupees (about $2,000 – lot of money in rural India), farmers in India would do anything implying some of those farmer suicide numbers may be inflated to due to fraudulent claims of suicides to receive compensation (“government gives one lakh rupees to the families of the bereaved in case of a suicide. People can be asked to provide any kind of statement to the police.”)


  4. Great!. Possibly the first article supporting the Vidarbha Bt cotton farmers. I like this observation of yours: ‘GMO is not the first interdependence we have with the west and it won’t be the last.’

    Let not any technology, be it Bt cotton or a possible biotech solution for the deadly Ebola, be used as a doormat by the politicians or unscrupulous writers who aim at recognitions such as Ramon Magsaysay Award!


  5. Indian beaurocracy need to learn and understand the consequences of their negative inputs relating to drawing the benefits of adopting GMOs. By being late they are depriving the indian folks from benefits that can be derived from same. One thing is clear, a specific GMO will work for a specific period only. They must learn from Visions of China not Visits of China. Thanks Writer for this sincere effort. It will generate a definit positive impact on masses.


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