Farm challenges

Three charts that show how Monsanto seeds changed cotton farming in India

Genetically modified Bt cotton triggered a revolution – but not without costs.

Monsanto has threatened and the Indian government is calling its bluff. After the Union government proposed a cut in royalties paid on Bt cotton seeds, which are seeds genetically modified to bestow pest-resistance on a cotton crop and most of which are sold by the joint venture Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Limited, the parent firm declared on March 4 that it will have to reevaluate its India business.

Despite Monsanto's warning the government cut royalty by more than 70% on March 9 and followed that up by capping the price of seeds at Rs 800. They were earlier sold at between Rs 830 and Rs 1,000. In its statement about the company's future in India, Monsanto cited “arbitrary and innovation-stifling government regulations”. The row escalated as minister of state for agriculture Sanjeev Kumar Balyan shot back in an interview to Reuters on March 16 saying that Monsanto was free to leave if it could not accept the seed price determined by the government.

Farmers associations are cheering the move saying it will bring relief to cotton farmers. Many farmers in Punjab and Haryana lost their crops to whitefly infestations last year. This year cotton farmers in Maharashtra are facing what could be the worst drought yet in recent years.

At present, 96% of India cotton cultivation area is under Bt cotton crops but it wasn’t always so. Bt cotton was the first genetically modified crop to be approved for cultivation in India in 2002, with the introduction of Monsanto’s GM cotton seeds. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that produces toxins harmful to a variety of insects, including bollworms that attack cotton. Bt cotton was created by introducing genes from the bacterium into the cotton seed, creating a crop resistant to this pest.

The introduction of Bt cotton led to a dramatic increase in production across the cotton producing states and soon Bt cotton took over most of the acreage under cotton cultivation. Cotton production rose from 14 million bales in the pre-Bt year of 2001-'02 to 39 million bales in 2014-'15, a rise of almost 180%. India’s cotton imports fell, exports grew and as of 2015-16 India is expected to have overtaken China as the biggest cotton producer it the world.

The side effects

But with the adoption of Bt cotton came side effects, which farmers and food activists have been protesting for the past decade. The first qualifier in the adoption of Bt cotton is that the seeds are more expensive than local, non-genetically modified varieties. The second is that the seeds cannot be reused and farmers need to buy new stock for every growing season. This, along with licencing agreements with local seed companies, has given Monsanto a near monopoly on cotton seeds in India that has been the biggest worry for activists. The third worry was the diffusion of illegal Bt hybrids that hadn't been cleared for biosafety standards, leading to fears of environmental toxicity.

Researchers from the Central Institute of Cotton Research said that the spread of more than 1,000 varieties of cotton hybrids had led to cotton yield stagnating after the initial burst of production in the first five years, a lot of it because Bt hybrids were unsuitable for rain-fed cotton lands. In a 2012 interview, the institute’s director general KR Kranti also pointed out how farmers found it hard to make an informed decision about which of the thousand Bt hybrid varieties suited their farms, conditions in Maharashtra differing from those in Andhra and Gujarat.

A study published in Environmental Sciences Europe suggested a link between Bt cotton and farmers suicides. The study showed how Bt cotton cultivation was uneconomical in rain-fed areas because the crops were prone to bollworm infestations and so there wasn't much increase in cotton yield from local or non-Bt varieties. But the greater investment on Bt seeds was leaving farmers on financially shaky ground. Other analyses shows that the suicide rates among farmers are not different from the rate in the general population. There also hasn't been much of a change in farmer suicide rates before and after 2002 when Bt cotton was adopted in India.

Activists have also raised the issue of the actual efficacy of the Bollgard seeds with reports of bollworm infestations even in Bt cotton crops. After admitting that the bollworm has developed resistance to Bollgard, Monsanto developed Bollgard II, which is the most widely-used hybrid in India now.

In reality, Bt provides protection only against one type of cotton pest but leaves the plant open to attack from others like aphids, which might be another reason that cotton yields have stagnated in recent years. The use of insecticides on cotton farms has risen again close to the levels of the pre-Bt years.

Trends in insecticide use in cotton farms.
Trends in insecticide use in cotton farms.

Monsanto faces a big challenge from the Central Institute of Cotton Research, which has introduced Bt genes into 21 cotton seed varieties and is offering to provide these seeds to farmers at 10% the cost of Monsanto’s products. The new seeds developed by the institute are currently being tested.

Meanwhile, agricultural economist Ashok Gulati has said the government’s interference in cotton prices will cost the sector. Gulati contends that the move will hit India’s credibility on the issue of protecting intellectual property rights at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been calling for global companies to “make in India” and invest in India. If Monsanto leaves then India will lose access to the new iterations of its Bollgard seed that farmers might need in the next three to five years.

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India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.