Indian Cotton Farmers’ Weeding Challenges and the Potential Role for Technology Infusion

10/14/2014

Hybrid Bollgard Bt Seeds benefits continue; Labour availability, Weeding, Sucking Pest pose challenges to cotton farming

Over the past decade, Punjab farmers have contributed to India’s cotton revolution by doubling production choosing to plant hybrid cotton seeds with in-the-seed insect-protection Bt cotton technologies on over 90 per cent of cotton acres, and adopting improved agronomic practices – to make India the world’s second largest cotton producer and exporter.

Since the availability of hybrid Bt cotton seeds in Punjab since 2005, Punjab farmers more than doubled cotton production to 21.00 lakh bales in 2013 from 7.50 lakh bales in 2002 prior to the introduction of Bt cotton technologies; and cotton yields averaged 604.4 kg/ hectare this decade from 304 kg/hectare (1993-2001). As a result nation’s cotton production increased to 375 lakh bales (2013) from 136 lakh bales in 2002-03, and our cotton exports now stand at 129.57 lakh bales (2011-12), from being a large cotton importing nation till 2001.

According to a study titled, “Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of Bt cotton in Indiaconducted by Council for Social Development (CSD), farmers continue to save approximately Rs. 2,250 per acre from reduced insecticide spraying for bollworms which were responsible for maximum production loss, due to the continued planting of hybrid Bt cotton seeds. Thus, farmers’ earn approximately Rs. 5,000 per acre as average incremental income from combined insecticide saving and yield increase.

Seed Technologies for Cotton Farmers

Research found farmers seek choices of solutions for weed management, towards optimizing yield and income.

If accessible, India’s cotton farmers could benefit from hybrid cotton seeds with Bollgard II® Roundup Ready Flex® in-the-seed cotton technologies’ dual benefits of superior insect protection from bollworms and spodoptera caterpillar, as well as more convenient, flexible and effective weed management through herbicide tolerance, enabling farmers to optimize cotton yield and income.

In cotton seeds with Bollgard II® Roundup Ready Flex® cotton technologies, the superior insect protection of Bollgard II proteins combined with in-the-seed herbicide tolerance of Roundup Ready Flex® proteins in the cotton plant, enable farmers to manage weeds conveniently, flexibly, effectively by spraying a specially formulated Roundup® herbicide over the top of cotton plants flexibly anytime through the season from crop emergence to harvest. The cotton plants will remain healthy and unwanted weeds effectively removed.

Farmers choosing cotton seeds with Bollgard II® Roundup Ready Flex® cotton technologies could optimize their cost of cultivation, time spent on crop management, and benefit from conservation tillage, i.e. minimal soil disturbance which allows crop residue to remain on the ground helping prevent soil erosion by water and air, conserves valuable top soil and leads to better soil aeration and improved soil fertility.

Indian farmers’ choice to plant hybrid cotton seeds with insect-protection Bt cotton technologies on over 90 per cent of cotton acres, and increased cotton production, is testament to the value created by better seeds, technologies and farming practices, when compared with the alternative of non-Bt seed with insecticide sprays.

Through our Centres of Excellence (COEs), Monsanto is attempting to showcase:

1.       Determine the yield benefits of Bollgard cotton hybrids over varieties and conventional cotton hybrids

2.       The adaptability of high density mechanized cotton planting and harvesting

3.       Find out best suited Bollgard II cotton hybrids for fields in North India

4.       Evaluate the impact of Built in Refuge (BIR)  Bollgard II cotton hybrids

5.       Determining impact of different weed control practices in Bollgard II cotton hybrids.

Technology Infusion increases Cotton Farmers Choices

Farmers will have multiple choices, i.e. within cotton, farmers could choose from cotton hybrid seeds with Bollgard II insect protection Bt cotton technology, cotton hybrid seeds with other single protein insect protection Bt cotton technologies, cotton hybrid seeds with Bollgard II RRF insect protection and weed management cotton technologies, and non-Bt cotton seeds; in addition to seeds of other crops.

In a season, if farmers choose to plant a combination of cotton hybrid seeds with Bollgard II® Roundup Ready Flex® in-the-seed insect protection and weed management technologies, and/or cotton hybrid seeds with Bollgard II insect protection Bt cotton technology, non-Bt cotton and/or seeds of other crops – farmers will need to sow seeds of any of the latter three in separate rows and/or adjoining plots, which will ensure both crops are independently healthy and productive.

Enabling Cotton Farmers to Sustain India’s Self-Sufficiency & Global Export Competitiveness

India’s cotton revolution is one of innovation and partnerships - between 63 lakh cotton farmers, seed and technology companies, Governments at the Centre and in nine States, agriculture universities, scientists, rural trade, some rural development NGOs, and the user industry (ginners, textile, exporters) - all of which enabled our nation to claim the world’s #2 producer and exporter spot. With technology infusion via innovative seed-based technologies, farmers could benefit from dual benefits of superior insect protection from bollworms and spodoptera caterpillar, as well as more convenient, flexible and effective weed management through herbicide tolerance, enabling farmers to optimize cotton yields and income, as well as sustain India's global preeminence as a self-sufficient global contributor in cotton.

Weed management during mid-season: A major challenge for cotton farmers

Farming is the world’s most unpredictable and challenging profession, and cotton farming is no exception. Farmers are continually challenged with maximizing yield and income per unit inputs, through reducing yield loss or optimizing yield gain.

While farmers choosing hybrid cotton seeds with in-the-seed insect protection Bt cotton technologies experienced reduce crop yield risk and loss to bollworm insects, it is cotton farmers’ mid-season crop challenges (weeds, sucking pests, timely water availability) and agronomic practices, which significantly impact their ability to optimize cotton yields and the nation’s cotton production.

While sowing and harvesting historically get most attention, it is weeds, i.e. unwanted plants growing around the main crop that can significantly impact the yield, by robbing the main crop of water, nutrients and sunlight.

Managing weeds in the early stage, especially upto 6 - 8 weeks after crop emergence is critical – else weeds can cause huge yield loss. Ineffective weed management limits optimal crop yields and farmer income by impacting plant growth as well as increasing the susceptibility of the cotton crop to pests like whitefly, jassid, thrips, mealy bugs, bollworms and disease like Cotton Leaf curl Virus (CLCuV).

Current weed management practices on cotton farms include manual hand weeding, intercultural practices (bullocks, tractors) and chemical weeding by use of weedicides or herbicides.

Various studies among cotton farmers indicate their current weed management challenges as follows:

1.       Yield Loss – Weeds reduce cotton yield by ~ 37-76% by reducing nitrogen availability to cotton plants by 80–85%. (Sandhu,Chandi Singh: crop weed competition on American Cotton plants by 80-85%)

2.       Income Loss – Weeds cause a loss in yield of ~ Rs. 5,000 per acre and farmers also incur a higher cost in weeding. (Annon 2000)

3.       Inconvenience – With timely unavailability of agricultural labour, farmers face difficulties in arranging need-based and timely labour at different stages of crop growth and also to conduct weeding operations due to weather vagaries (continuous rains, wet, muddy field conditions). (Labour Bureau, Shimla/ Chandigarh, 2011)

4.       Inefficient and Ineffective – Hand weeding is time-consuming, and does not remove weeds from their roots. (ICRISAT 2011)

5.       Inflexibility - Current pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides offer no flexibility in application at different stages of crop growth, and weather condition, especially heavy rainfall. (Labour Bureau, Shimla/ Chandigarh, 2011)

6.       Timely Unavailability of Agriculture Labour – Alternate employment opportunities have reduced timely availability of agricultural labour from 70% in 1961 to 32% in 2011. (IFPRI 2011)

7.       Increasing Labour Cost – Labour costs have increased at a CAGR of 11% over the last decade also resulting in increased weeding costs. (Nielsen 2012)

8.       Non-availability of selective and broadly effective herbicides for cotton crop

 

Farm Efficiency-cum-Yield Opportunities

In Punjab, cotton is one of the most important commercially cultivated crops. It plays a major role in sustaining the livelihood of lakhs of cotton farmers and people engaged in related activities such as cotton ginning, processing etc. For farmers to maximize the yield potential of crops means protecting each plant from insect, weed and environmental stresses, and helping it make the most of water, sun and nutrients.

Farmers created a cotton revolution in the past decade by doubling production using better hybrid cotton seeds with in-the-seed insect-protection Bt cotton technologies on 90 per cent of India’s cotton acres, and adopting improved agronomic practices – to make our nation the world’s second largest cotton producer and exporter.

Research among Bt cotton farmers indicated that 87 per cent are enjoying higher standards of living, 72 per cent invested in life insurance and 67 per cent repaid their long pending debts. Women from Bt cotton households have shown higher access to maternal care services, and children have higher level of immunization and higher school enrolment. Moreover, female earners witnessed a 55 per cent gain in average income and an additional 42.4 crore days of employment generated across the total cotton area sown with hybrid Bt cotton seeds.

According to the study titled, “Adoption and Uptake Pathways of Bt Cotton in India”, on an average 85 per cent of farmers and landless labourers invested in better quality education for their children, 77 per cent reported better intake of high value and nutritious food, 70 per cent spent more on recreation and social functions, 75 per cent on health of their family members and 64 per cent on health of livestock.

The benefit of Bt cotton technologies in-built plant protection in high-yielding hybrid cotton seeds along with improving farming inputs and favourable conditions has helped create Rs. 68,371 crores additional value for over 60 lakh cotton farmers by significantly reducing insecticide usage and increasing yield (ISAAA 2013).  According to The International Cotton Advisory Council, over the last decade, Indian farmers have experienced the greatest benefit from Bt cotton technologies as compared to their peers anywhere in the world. The increased cotton production has had a positive cascading impact on the ginning, cotton seed crushing and textile industry, exporters, and the domestic seed industry.