By Lydia McMullen-Laird
To cope with changing rainfall patterns and crop failures, some farmers in northern Karnataka have restarted growing organic cotton varieties that require much lower inputs and water to cultivate.
On the outskirts of Raichur, once known as Karnataka’s cotton city, Ramesh Rangappa proudly shows off his recently planted acre of organic cotton. “It’s rain-fed and we haven’t added any chemical fertiliser,” he says. Although there hasn’t been any rain in recent times, the cotton is coming along nicely.
Climate change has of late caused shifts in rainfall patterns in Karnataka, which causes problems for farmers who rely on the monsoon to water their crops. Natural drought resistance is one of the main advantages of organic cotton that is prompting some farmers in the region to make the switch. But the transition back to organic cotton has been slow since the majority of farmers have been using the genetically modified Bt cotton for the past many years and need retraining in organic farming methods.
Before the green revolution in the 1980s, cotton farmers in Raichur grew local organic varieties that had been around for hundreds of years. But because of severe food shortages in the 1950s and 1960s, the government decided to push the commercialisation of agriculture, which included new, hybrid strains of cotton that required large amounts of pesticides and fertilisers.
The government promised that these hybrid varieties would yield high profits, but they also required farmers to invest INR 5,000 (USD 75) per growing cycle for seeds, fertiliser and pesticides. Under these new conditions, farmers who previously used zero-input organic agricultural methods like cow manure and saving seeds accrued large debts when crops failed.
By the turn of the millennium, the government started to promote Monsanto’s Bt cotton, this time with promises of preventing the pest attacks that plagued the hybrid varieties. Although farmers turned out huge profits in the first couple of years, bollworm attacks during the third year, after more than 90% of farmers had switched to Bt, destroyed hundreds of acres of cotton in Raichur. Monsanto continued to manufacture new generations of seeds with similar results, sending farmers further into debt and even driving some farmers to suicide.
According to the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), more than 95% of cotton crop area in India is now under Bt hybrids. Although the yields from Bt cotton are greater and can initially be sold at a higher price, the net profit of the farmer decreases each year as the nutrients in the soil get depleted and require an increase in the use of pesticides and fertilisers.
But even more pressing than the yearly price increases for maintaining Bt cotton are dwindling water resources and changing weather patterns caused by climate change. Bt cotton requires watering almost weekly, whereas organic varieties can go for as long as 20 days without being watered.
Shifting rain cycles
Last year, farmers in Raichur sowed their Bt seeds in June, but when the rains didn’t come in July, the seeds failed to germinate and the farmers had to repurchase the seeds and sow them again in August. When those crops were destroyed by bollworm attacks, the frustrated farmers organised a protest against Monsanto, but the government report resulting from the protest placed the blame on the farmers for sowing the seeds at the “incorrect” time.
Many farmers who formerly relied on rain to water their fields have switched to drilling bore wells because they can no longer rely on rain to water their crops at the correct stage in the crop cycle. Five years ago, the region was getting rain on a predictable weekly basis, but for the last two years, it has been suffering from drought.
“This year, scientists told us we would get big rainfall,” Mathad Savarajaiah, who is part of the local farmer’s cooperative, told me in August. “But up until now, we haven’t seen such a scenario.” Although the total amount of rain hasn’t necessarily decreased, because the rain cycles don’t match the growing cycles of the crops anymore, many farmers have increased their reliance on bore wells during dry spells. The increase in farmers who are using bore wells has caused an alarming drop in the water table, which is prompting farmers to switch to more water-friendly organic varieties.
But climate change may not be all bad news for cotton production in India. While the Paris Agreement issued by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last December called for “holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” with the aim to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a study by Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) concluded that on a national level, cotton production in India is unlikely to suffer from the effects of climate change.
In fact, CICR also reported that elevated carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere of up to 650 parts per million (PPM) and a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius were found to be optimal for cotton plant growth. The carbon dioxide levels required for favourable cotton growing conditions is significantly higher than 450 ppm allowed by the 2 degrees Celsius carbon budget.
However, the CICR study is only taking into consideration carbon dioxide levels and temperature, and although a warming of the earth’s average temperature would provide ideal conditions for India’s cotton growers, the disruption in rain patterns might make it impossible for the cotton plants to survive a complete production cycle.
Struggling with water shortages
The struggles with water shortages in the last two years by farmers in Raichur will certainly be intensified as global temperatures continue to rise and rain patterns are further disrupted. And Karnataka isn’t the only region in India struggling with cotton production.
In fact, India’s southern region (Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) only makes up 20% of India’s total cotton growing area, with the majority in the central region (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra total 65%) and the remainder in the northern region (Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan total 14%). The climate in Karnataka is more suitable for cotton production than the hot, semi-arid climate of the central zone and the heavily irrigated northern region where water scarcity is an even bigger problem than in Raichur.
According to the European Geosciences Union, an increase in temperature of one-third from 1.5-2 degrees Celsius is likely to increase heat-wave durations and rainstorm intensity by a similar fraction, significantly changing the hydrological cycle. To make matters worse, the reduction of snow and ice in the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau glaciers will decrease freshwater availability for irrigation. Rivers that do not flow down from the Himalayas may fare worse. The Sabarmati and Luni river basins, which cover about a quarter of Gujarat and 60% of Rajasthan, are likely to experience acute water scarcity.
Rising temperatures are also expected to aggravate pest problems, like the occurrence seen by Karnataka farmers.
The switch from Bt to organic cotton may just be what saves Raichur’s dwindling cotton industry. “The number of farmers growing cotton in Raichur has decreased by 60% because of the massive debt caused by last year’s drought,” Abhay Kumar, who advocates for farmer’s rights in Raichur, told me. “Farmers are switching to growing maize because of the increase in demand from the US and because maize is much less dependent on rain cycles.”
If India wants to maintain its place in the world market as the second-largest producer of cotton despite rising temperatures, the government may need to find ways to support farmers like Ramesh Rangappa, who are switching to organic varieties.
First published on India Climate Dialogue.
Lydia McMullen-Laird is a climate communications strategist based in Beijing.