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GM cotton: whitefly attack raises anxiety among farmers

he ineffectiveness of genetically modified (GM) cotton against the recent whitefly attack in Punjab and Haryana, which witnessed widespread protests by farmers, has raised concern among agricultural experts and farmers over the growing dependency on Bt cotton.
They believe it is time for India to actively promote and involve public-private partnership (PPP) model in GM crop technology and also focus on developing new technologies to fight pest infestation on cotton and other crops. The whitefly attack in Punjab that damaged over 75 per cent crop across the cotton belt had led to widespread protests in the past few days. The damage to the cotton crop, over 95 per cent of which is Bt cotton, is estimated to be around Rs. 4,500 crore. It is also being blamed as a reason for suicides of over a dozen farmers in the cotton belt, including Abohar, Fazileka, Bathinda and Muktsar districts.
The whitefly attack on Bt cotton crop is the latest reason for the government to work and develop new crop technologies. “It’s high time, the government should start thinking beyond GM crop and focus on new crop technologies by adopting successful PPP models from other nations or develop its own,” C.D. Mayee, president, Indian Society for Cotton Improvement, told The Hindu. He said the GM crop technology served a good purpose, but there was always a possibility that pests might develop resistance. It was, therefore, that the government must evolve new crop technologies. “Bt cotton is around 14 years old technology and is effective against specific type of bollworms, but not insects such as whitefly,” he said. “Whitefly attack is expected to cause over 50 per cent drop in cotton yield this season in Punjab,” said R.K. Gumber, Additional Director of Research (crop improvement) at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana.
PAU is now recommending farmers to sow traditional non-Bt varieties of American and desi (indigenous) cotton during next season in areas susceptible to high infestation of whitefly. “If farmers want to reduce dependency on Bt cotton, they should preferably sow desi cotton as it is comparatively tolerant to sucking insect pests, including whitefly,” said Dr. Gumber.
Cotton farmers in Punjab, however, say they do not have a better choice for the next season. “We don't have an alternative to Bt cotton in this area. Desi cotton is not viable as its yield is very low and also it has its own set of infestation problems,” said Balwinder Singh, a farmer.

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