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Stepping Off the Pesticides Treadmill, India

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Farmers all over the world are suffering from a "pesticides treadmill". Pests are growing resistant to their sprays. So farmers have to spray ever more to have any effect, or buy new, more expensive chemicals. But at the same time world cotton prices have stagnated. So farmers face a serious squeeze on their profits, combined with growing threats to their health from the pesticides. Is there another way?

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Setting the Scene

Maharashtra state is a centre of India's cotton growing -- much of it on small farms such as those in Wardha district. Here many insects live in the cotton fields. The most destructive, the American bollworm, is spreading and growing resistant to pyrethroids and other cheap pesticides. To save their crops, farmers are spraying typically 10-12 times in a single growing season. One farmer, Vittal Rao Karamore, says he sprayed his fields 14 times.

Partly as a result, cotton farmers have become the biggest users of pesticides in India. Cotton occupies just 5% of the country's fields, says NRI entomologist Derek Russell, but those fields use more than half of the country's pesticides.

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Defining the problem

This repeated spraying is very expensive, forcing many farmers into debt. And it is counter-productive, encouraging resistance to the chemicals among the pests. So the next year the farmer must spray even more. Spraying often pollutes drinking water and neighbouring crops, and is a health hazard for farmers and their families. It is also hard labour. To spray a hectare of cotton, the farmer carries equipment weighing about 40 kilograms for 10 kilometres up and down the rows in the hot sun. No wonder women such as Bindutai Bhoge, a widow from the village of Karanji Bhoge, employ men to do their spraying.

So heavy spraying increases the vulnerability of farming communities to debt and poor health, while reducing the money the farmers have for other vital needs, such as educating their children. Farmers like Sulochana Balpande from Karanji Kaji village, who grows cotton partly to provide money to educate her two daughters.

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Taking action

The tragedy is that much of this spraying is unnecessary. Researchers under Dr Keshav Kranthi of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur, in collaboration with Derek Russell of the NRI, have spent several years investigating which pests cause real damage to the cotton plants, and when. They showed that the deadly bollworm is a migrant that only visits cotton fields briefly during most years. Constant spraying may simply kill other insects, who are harmless or even beneficial to the crop.

So Dr Kranthi drew up simple rules for spraying, based on teaching farmers to recognise the different insects on their crops. Once farmers know which pests are dangerous and when they attack, they can confine their spraying to the critical moments when it will make a real difference, says the institute's director, Dr C.D. Mayee.

Agricultural students from nearby Akola University suggested a new way of getting the message across, by staging street theatres at farmers' fairs. In one play, the cotton plant is represented as a drunk addicted to pesticides. Constant spraying is like giving alcohol to a drunk, they say. The plant will do better without.

The project has been an astonishing success, says Derek Russell. Villagers now spray only once or twice a season -- and sometimes not at all. They are healthier and wealthier. And far from losing crops, their production has risen by 75%, because they have been able to spend more time and money on seeds and fertilisers.

Today, Bindutai Bhoge walks the fields to check for pests rather than paying men to spray. And Vittal Rao Karamore, who planned to give up cotton growing, now only sprays once or twice a season and is in profit. He can spend his time weeding and watering his other crops -- and getting more rest.

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The cast

"This project changed my life" -- Vittal Rao Karamore, farmer from, Nagapur, who cut his spraying by 90 per cent

  • Sulochana Balpande, farmer from Karanji Kaji village, whose cotton sales get her daughters through school
  • Bindutai Bhoge, a widow from the village of Karanji Bhoge
  • Dr. Keshav Kranthi, Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur, architect of the project
  • Dr C.D. Mayee, director of the institute
  • Dr. Derek Russell, NRI

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Global Relevance

The pesticides treadmill is a growing worldwide problem. The cost of chemicals weigh most heavily on poor farmers, who often know the least about how to use the chemicals in a safe and timely way. The Wardha project shows that it is possible to cut dramatically the cost of cotton production, while removing much of the drudgery and reducing health hazards. Information is the key to real gains in farmers' health, welfare, livelihoods and security.

The Indian government is now expanding the programme to help poor cotton farmers in 500 villages in the 25 heaviest insecticide-using districts across India. The research is now underpinning similar projects in China and Pakistan.

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Thinking points

  • Farmers may not be able to avoid using pesticides, but they can reduce their use by learning about the pests on their crops.
  • Reduced spraying saves money and labour and improves their health as well as their profits.

Research into reducing pesticide use in growing cotton was funded by the UK Department for International Development Crop Protection Research Programme

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In the Field is a collaboration between the BBC World Service and the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich, supported by the Rural Livelihoods Department of the UK Government Department for International Development (DFID)