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Indian cotton farmers maneuver between fair trade, Monsanto and debt in search of better life

A spotlight about the challenges which Indian cotton farmers are facing in providing our clothes.

Cotton in full bloom during a December harvest season. Photo credit courtesy of Amie Presley.

Mumbai, Maharashtra—As one of the most controversial cash crops in the world, cotton is heavily subsidized by developed countries and subsequently dumped onto markets, lowering world prices. As a result, cotton producers in developing countries, in particular Cote d’Ivoire, and Benin, are unable to compete with this cheap cotton, and it's no coincidence that West African nations import cotton from the United States, despite having an edge in cotton production.

These systemic barriers to trade are what continue to drive many activist campaigns around the world. While acknowledging the macroeconomic circumstances, there exists equally pervasive domestic challenges faced by cotton farmers in rural India.

The roots of poverty

As a member of Engineers Without Borders Canada, I was taught early in my career to always address the root causes of poverty. Recently, I had the great fortune of participating in a focus group discussion with cotton farmers in a small village near Halvad, Gujarat. As chai (tea) was sipped and crickets chirped, each farmer took turns in describing the challenges they had to face.

Cotton famers share their prespectives. Photo credit courtesy of Lindz Marsh.

"Monsanto is like a python"

In recent years, U.S. based multinational Monsanto has successfully penetrated the seed fibre market in India and is offering a tantalizing pest-resistant species of genetically modified cotton, Bacillus Thuringiensis, otherwise known as Bt cotton. With higher yields, and less pesticide usage as selling points, farmers in growing regions around the country have switched to Bt cotton.

Bollworm, a common pest, is what motivated farmers to switch to Bt cotton, but now, new pests are emerging as bollworm is developing resistances to Bt cotton. Recently, Monsanto released a new variety of Bt cotton that is keeping the bollworm at bay; however, farmers are becoming sceptical of its long-term effectiveness as it remains unclear as to when the bollworm—or other pests—will reengage with Bt cotton. In effect, farmers are caught in the midst of a Homeric battle between man and nature.

“Monsanto is like a python” exclaimed one farmer in describing his dependence upon Monsanto seeds.

Promises of increased yields were cited as another reason why farmers are choosing Bt cotton. While it was generally agreed that Bt cotton was attributing to greater yields; the cost of purchasing Monsanto seeds are about four times the price of conventional seeds. 

Sasha Caldera holding a batch of Bt Cotton. Photo credit courtesy of Lindz Marsh.

Climate change hits farmers' lives

Finally, climate change is quickly becoming an important issue because successful harvests are completely dependent upon rainfall patterns. In past decades, famers commented that the monsoon season typically lasts four months, followed by four months of winter, and four months of the dry season.

But now, the monsoon period is just two months, followed by two months of winter, and a scorching eight months of dry season. Higher temperatures reduce the moisture content of cotton, and thereby reduce the quality of sellable stock to the extent that crops have burned in the heat. Climate change is clearly on the minds of these producers.

The market value for cotton is well understood amongst producers, and these particular farmers usually receive about 4500 rs (about 90 U.S. dollars) per 100 kilograms or quintile. Mobile phones and excellent communication between farmers and land owners relegate middlemen into a lesser role.

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