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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.