Best article of 2006 (31/12/2006)

2006 saw more big successes in the global campaign of opposition to the imposition of GMOs, and we'll be bringing you a selection of some of the good news stories that GM WATCH reported on during the year.

In the meantime, here's my best article of 2006. It's one that literally reduced me to tears. It's by Palagummi Sainath - the award winning Indian reporter and photojournalist, widely regarded as Asia's leading development journalist.

Last month Sainath, who Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has described as "one of the world's greatest experts on famine and hunger", turned his attention to the gap between illusion and reality for cotton farmers in Maharashtra - the Indian state where, thanks to a massive campaign of hype, farmers have bought into a bigger GM acreage than anywhere else in the country.

The article was forwarded to me by the farmers' campaign group Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) who have kept a careful toll of farmer suicides in their part of Maharashtra since June 2005. At the time of Sainath's article, the death toll had reached a staggering 1132. According to the VJAS press release, "ALL RECENT COTTON GROWERS SUICIDES [ARE] DUE TO MASS FAILURE OF B.T. COTTON."

Here's the article. It's well worth following the link to the original for Sainath's striking accompanying photograph.

And here's to a brighter 2007 - one where instead of hype and illusion being pushed to struggling farmers, real approaches to poverty alleviation are supported.*

Jonathan Matthews
December 31 2006

*see, for instance:


A fading cotton bumper crop
P. Sainath
The Hindu, November 25 2006

Claims of a cotton bumper crop in Maharashtra have faded. Farmers feel such talk was meant to push prices down further. Procurement delays could also force many to sell in distress to private buyers.

[- Photo: P. Sainath

image caption: Laxmibai Bodewar sits on her bed of unsold cotton. The yield from her 35 acres has been poor, cotton prices have tanked, and procurement is yet to begin in any serious way. She is amazed by talk of a 'bumper crop.']

"BUMPER CROP? Where are you living?" Mohan Maratrao Patil wants to know. "My family has 45 acres here in Yavatmal - and all we've managed is 80 quintals of cotton so far. At best, we'll get another 80. We've lost lakhs of rupees." That his lands are irrigated has not helped. "Find me the farmer who has had that great harvest." Mr. Patil, a Bt cotton grower in Vanjiri, scoffs at the notion of a bumper crop.

The idea was aired by the Government of Maharashtra itself. The State's Minister of Marketing, Harshvardhan Patil, told the press more than once that he expected a huge rise in cotton production this year. Some reports had him predict a 'bumper crop' of 350 lakh quintals. Others had him peg it at a more modest 300 quintals. Either way, this would mean a huge increase of 30-40 per cent over the official estimate for last year.

On the ground, in any of the six 'crisis' districts of Vidharbha, this 'bumper crop' is hard to spot. Farmers report huge losses. Official reports tend to confirm their claims. "The State would be lucky to see a yield of 160 lakh quintals this year," says Vijay Jawandia in Wardha. A leading farm activist of this region, Mr. Jawandia believes "the only purpose this kind of bumper crop propaganda serves is to depress already low prices."

"It's the oldest story," says Mr. Patil. "When the crop is in the farmers' hands, all sorts of things are said and done to depress the price. Once it is with the traders, you will see the price improve." The implications are grave for most of the region's 1.7 million farm families. Close to half a million of them - more than two million people - have been recorded by a government survey as facing "maximum distress."

The Minister appears to have based his claim on the estimates of the Cotton Advisory Committee. That body felt Maharashtra would see a yield of 70 lakh bales this year. (That is about 350 lakh quintals.). The Agriculture Department may not contest that claim in public. But top officials say the yield won't exceed 40 lakh bales (200 lakh quintals). The gap between the two claims is a massive 150 lakh quintals. Which, Mr. Jawandia points out, "could be the final production figure in toto."

Also, as a senior official in Amravati told The Hindu : "Almost 3.5 lakh hectares were severely hit by floods and excessive rainfall in this division. Both cotton and soybean have been hurt." There were other problems, too. "Everybody was down with chikungunya," say farmers across the region. "It was very tough to get labour when we needed them most." With some farmers having switched to soybean this season, it gets even harder to see where the 'bumper crop' can come from.

"One aim, of course, is to depress prices," says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). "You will find mill owners associations and the like always predicting a bumper crop. They do not have the machinery or means to make such estimates, but they will. It pushes the price down. Yet, this bumper crop campaign has another purpose. It aims to boost the image of Bt cotton, which has fared badly. The idea is to say, even on less acreage, there's much more yield - thanks to Bt."

Many share his mistrust. This is one State where the Government has gone out of its way to promote Bt cotton. Even though some top officers have expressed grave doubts over this path. This is not new. Last year, the State's Agriculture Commissioner gave the Government of India a report that said "no significant differences were observed" between Bt and non-Bt varieties of cotton. Except, of course in terms of the price of Bt cotton seed - which the report found was not "a justifiable cost." Some basic myths were undermined. "On an average 3 to 5 sprayings were given to both Bt and non-Bt. The attack of sucking pest was reported on both." It also said its field officers found Bt cotton's performance "not satisfactory." And that in some cases, "non-Bt varieties yield better than Bt varieties." Despite this, Ministers, MLAs, and film stars were roped in to promote Bt cotton.

This year, the latest overview of the "Farmers' suicides in Maharashtra" from the office of the Divisional Commissioner, Amravati, begins more tactfully. It says results from Bt cotton "have been mixed." I

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