Growing cotton in India's killing fields.
On December 3 1984, people in the Indian city of Bhopal awoke to a cloud of toxic gas hanging over their shanty huts, drifting slowly through the city and causing coughing, choking, and stinging eyes among hundreds of people. By dawn the cloud had cleared. But it left many dead or injured in the city. More died later. The official count was 3,800 dead, with 11,000 disabled. The chemical released was methyl isocyanate. It triggers irritation, chest pain, breathlessness; even severe asthma. In Bhopal, it led to severe pneumonia, tumours and heart failures.
Pesticides: Indian farmers use this chemical to fight off two pests - whitefly and bollworm - on the eight million hectares of land devoted to cotton in growing cotton. Nagpur's Central Institute for Cotton Research reckons that, while only five percent of India's farm land is planted with cotton, it accounts for more than half of the 85,000 tons of pesticides used. Many of India's small cotton farmers havbe little idea just how dangerous methyl isocyanate is. Often, they can't read the instructions, and the suppliers don't bother to use diagrams on the cans.
Enakunthala Ravi, a migrant cotton farm worker, died in hospital in Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh, on September 20th, 2001. He died, not from cancer, old age or long term sickness, the day after he had sprayed methyl parathion on the cotton crop. The spraying took just an hour. At first Ravi's tongue thickened. He felt giddy; he was shivering and he vomited. Then he died. Mike Lawrence, writing for Global Green Fund in November 2003, says Ravi left behind a poverty striken wife, a child and no savings. The tragedy of Ravi isn't unique. During the 2001 cotton season in Warangal, from August to December, an estimated 500 people died because of pesticide use on their cotton farms. Nearly 1,000 more suffered pesticide-related conditions: burning eyes, nosebleeds, nausea, chest pain; or abdominal ulcers, cancers, or miscarriages. These figures come from a report: "The Killing Fields - cotton farmers in Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh", carried out by Narasimha Reddy, of the Centre for Resource Education.
"Spraying is done from a motorized backpack, with merely a piece of cloth covering mouth and nose. No other protection measures are used as sprayers walk into the chemical mist as they work. Often, they don't wear shoes: to them the ground is sacred. The women often follow the men across the fields to refill the spray tanks. The farmers often spray at high noon even though this isn't wise. Women are also exposed during harvesting the cotton buds. The cotton farmers in Warangal often spray up to 35 times in a season, sometimes increasing the dosage as the pests develop resistance". The Report said that the empty pesticide cans were often used as water containers. Local people thought the cans could be cleaned effectively, using cow dung for a week. In another district in Kasaragode, an NGO says pesteicids, used to protect crops there, have affected more than 1,000 people over the past two years.
Other science reports generally confirm these findings. In Toxicology, Volume 198 (May 2004), P K Gupta writes that food commodities he examined contained over twenty percent above the maximum values for the chemical. A study in the International. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Health of three Indian villages using pesticides, in 2005, found a high degree of diseases among the farmers. But a state agriculture ministry official, Purushottam Reddy, told the BBC, subsequent to the Killing Fields Report, that only 13 deaths had been caused by pesticide poisoning in the area that year. He said the government had already checked the claims. Another senior state official, Ashutosh Misra, said the government 'always advised farmers who use pesticides to take necessary precautions'. This kind of response is typical of India's officials:
Hear no evil, see no evil; ignore the consequences.
India is the world's third largest cotton producer. No one knows the true extent of pesticide poisonings on the continent. It could well be massive. Yet very little change occurs. Cotton farming should not be like this. There are good ways of producing cotton, without the dangers from these chemicals, using traditional farming methods. Thailand uses far more natural pesticides in its agriculture. Neem oil is cheaper and far safer. It needs to be widely used in India too. It works well, especially when it is combined with a more mixed use of plants. There are a few thousand farmers who have begun to use organic methods of farming in India. (I used to scoff at such an idea. What was wrong with a few chemicals sprayed on plants not used as vegetables. Surely there was no harm in that. Now I know better!)
Fred Pearce* describes his visits to Rapar, a small agricultrural town in Gujarat, where 560 smallholders are now growing organic cotton and getting paid a premium for their crops - from Agrocel, an Indian firm that produces pesticides! This is mainly because the firm was created by a philanthropic visionary, G.C.Schroff who wanted to improve the lot of small farmers in India. Agrocel is weaning farmers away from chemicals and offers them training in composting farm waste, keeping cattle indoors and using their manure more efficiently on the land, as well as using natural plants to ward off pests. Neem oil kills both aphids and bollworm. Traditional agriculture has always used mixed cropping methods to ensure that one crop wards off the pests attracted to the neighbouring crops. In this case, it's marigolds; a plant that attracts pests away from cotton. European and African agriculture has always these methods too, until large farmers came in with their destructive but profitable monocultures (and influenced the thinking of the 'experts').
One organic farmer is Rannabhai Dungarbhai, who now saves on the high cost of chemical pesticides and makes a better income even though his crop yield is slighter lower. And Amarsi Chhandha in Bhimasar village told Pearce: "It cost me a lot. But now neem oil is cheaper and safer and works well". Also, the greater use of manures as composts has improved the soils so that they retain the monsoon rains better. This is significant in a state like drought prone Gujarat.
Pearce also travelled to Madhya Pradesh, the heart of India's cotton belt, to the River Narmanda, where Maral Overseas is a large integrated cotton operation that covers hundreds of hectares. As well as its own farms, the company has 1,200 small organic cotton farmers under contract. Again, the cotton plants were interspersed with parsley, aniseed, coriander, brinjal, chillis, ginger, papaya, tomatoes. All sorts of herbs, fruits and vegetables. The farmers planted lemons and potatoes round the fields to attract birds that ate the pests. I've talked with farmers and vegetable growers in England; I've talked with small farmers in West Africa, and I've learnt from peasant farmers in Portugal too. They all know of the complex systems of pest control through a mixed range of plants that complement each other and repel the pests that destroy other plants. Yet it is something that modern agricturalists often dismiss as old fashioned and maybe just irrational folklore. The classic study of these systems is Paul Richard's study of West Africa - Coping With Hunger, reprinted in 1984. He went to work as an British adviser for farmers. Most advisers at the time regarded African farming as chaotic and slapdash. But Paul Richard discovered the mixed plantings in each field was a complex and sophisticated system of disease control.
The British retailer, Marks and Spencer, has made a strong pitch for moving into the sale of clothes made from organic cotton. It seems pleased with customer responses. Recently, it announced it wanted to buy up a third of all the organic fair-trade organic cotton. It asked Gujarat's Agrocel company to supply 6,500 tonnes from the 2007 harvest. Although the company is increasing its output by 40 percent each year, this was impossible. Groups of small farmers usually avoid big contracts like the plague: it ties them too closely to one customer. Agrocel agreed eventually to supply 300 tonnes. This is an indication of the enormous and sudden increase in the demand for organic cotton. it is very good news for the Indian cotton industry, and offers the potentiasl to wean farmers off the dangerous chemicals still being used. This is a fantastic opportunity for Indian cotton farmers. So far, organic cotton has been pioneered by the private sector. Surely here is a good opportunity for the government and local cotton belt states to jump at the options available. They should show their farmers they are capable of breaking through the impossible barriers of Indian red tape and the blight of corruption.
Let's live in hope!
* Fred Pearce's new book: Confessions of an Eco Sinner: travels to find where my stuff comes from. Eden Project books. 2009