USE OF PESTICIDES ON COTTON CROP AND FINDING THEIR ALTERNATIVES
M. R. CHAUDHRY
July 23 - 29, 2007
Pesticides constitute a broad class of chemicals and biological agents that are specifically designed and applied to kill the pests. These pesticides include insecticides that kill insects, fungicides, which kill fungus and bacteria, herbicides which are meant to destroy weeds and other unwarranted plant vegetation. Pesticides have proven indispensable in contemporary society. They have also wreaked havoc upon the environment. Pesticides are used widely on cotton crop to control insects, weeds and fungus in agriculture that otherwise might destroy a large part of the crop. They are used by small farmers as well as large multinational companies. The use of these chemicals is to save crops and promote production. But in many cases the misuse of pesticides has created detrimental consequences for human life, wild life, eco-system and environmental safety. Prudent use of pesticides is justified but lavish, careless and imprudent application thereof is harmful and hazardous. Exposure to pesticides affects the health of human beings involved in their application. Their 99 percent contents are suspected to cause cancer, nervous system disorders, kidney damage and respiratory diseases besides environmental damage. Developed countries of Europe and the U.S. use pesticides under controlled conditions.
Estimatedly, at least 3 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur worldwide each year, resulting in 2,20,000 deaths. Most of these poisonings are caused in the developing countries, where there are neither strict regulations nor awareness amongst the farmers. Acute pesticide poisoning is caused by intentional, occupational or accidental exposure.
Indiscriminate use of pesticides has resulted in the outbreak of secondary pests. With the increase in cotton area, the quantum of pesticides used has also increased substantially. In Albama in the year 1995 pesticides and sprays used on Cotton crop resulted in runoff due to rainfalls and the polluted and highly toxic water killed 2,40,000 fish.
Out of the total quantity of pesticides used on all types of crops, about 85 percent is used on cotton crop only. According to a study, health of a majority of the women picking cotton is also affected to the extent that only one out of 1,000 women physically remain safe from the dreadful effects of pesticides. In Multan, which is a cotton producing district, 370 out of 578 patients were suffering from the hazardous effects of germicides.
As regards the financial impact, five to six applications of pesticides in the Punjab constitute about 44 percent of the total variable cost of cotton production. About 5.6 million tons of fertilizers and 70,000 tons of pesticides are consumed in the country every year (2003). Their use is increasing annually at a rate of 6 percent. Pesticides, mostly insecticides, sprayed on the crops mix with the irrigation water, percolate through the soil and underground water aquifers.
Non-market costs of pesticides use are those, which are not considered while assessing the cost of inputs. The external costs are inclusive of the damage caused to the health of male and female workers and consumers, contamination of drinking water sources, damage to off-farm organisms like honey-bee, fish, pollinators, rise of pest resistance, loss of biodiversity, increase in earth warming and pollutants in the environment. External costs are paid by society at large through taxes, financing and preventive measures.
Impact on women's health: As a common tradition in our rural areas, women are responsible for carrying out cotton harvesting in this country. Cotton is sprayed heavily immediately before harvesting, during the period from October to end December. Fear of pests attack on the crop prompts farmers to use pesticides to get maximum production. Application of pesticides, therefore, continues even during the cotton-picking period, which has serious implication upon the cotton pickers, who are mostly rural females.
In some cases, children born to them suffer from physical defects. It is also a sorrowful state of affairs that the regulating institutions in this country regarding use of pesticides are weak. Resultantly, the use of banned pesticides or spurious and expired pesticides is not uncommon in Pakistan, which instead of improving the quality of the crop and increasing its yield, is proving burden-some, injurious to the health of farming community and retardant for the yield. It may be worth-mentioning that in USA and European countries farmers are given certain incentives, to control use of pesticides which prove a restraint, in using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
BT and GM cotton cultivation: Cultivation of cotton by using bio-technology and gene modification was finding an impetus in India and China to maximize production and minimize cost on account of pesticides as these varieties of cotton are considered pest resistant. However, recently reservations are being expressed by farmers in these countries about the production of these varieties. In Pakistan GM and BT crops are not permitted to be grown for lack of legislation. Bio-Technology is defined as any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof for specific use. This includes application of traditional fermentation, in vitro culture, tissue culture, cloning, artificial insemination, embryo transfer, economics and other technologies. In modern bio-technology, DNA technology is also included, whereby genetic make-up of organisms is altered by inserting foreign DNA and genes, as well as fusion of cells without any toxicity. Pakistan Agricultural Research Council and other Research Laboratories should develop and introduce safe and productive varieties of cotton seeds suiting our eco-system, climatic conditions and must be economically viable to our cotton growers.
International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) had started a project with an overall objective to develop, apply and disseminate cropping systems and pest management practices for a cost effective and sustainable control of pests, especially cotton bollworm. Cotton is a crop of economic importance and stagnation in cotton yields and insecticide resistance problems can further limit the availability and supply of lint to our textile sector. According to ICAC, Pakistan has the potentials to produce 17 million bales of cotton by 2010, which would make Pakistan self sufficient for revenue generation in national economy, cotton fiber, cotton textile and chain of value addition. However, continuous monitoring over use of pesticides is absolutely necessary for their economic and safe use. Insecticide costs continue to increase and it accounts for 44 percent of the cotton growing cost in the three cotton producing countries viz. China, India and Pakistan.
Awareness: Most of the seventy percent of our population, with rural background, whose mainstay is agriculture, have no awareness about restrained and safe use of chemicals sprays especially on cotton crop.
Awareness should be created by universities, government agencies and non-government organizations in order to educate our farmers "what to do" and "what not to do" and "at what time" to control pests, insects, fungus and weeds. Consciousness should also be ensured through media coverage and the workshops via news-papers as well as talk shows on T.V. channels These activities should be undertaken in an attempt to engage broad spectrum of the public. Extension service should be intensified and maximized preferably by direct communication with the farmers by educating them through practical demonstration in the farms and fields.
Alternative pesticides, insecticides and herbicides: Some of the research institutes abroad are endeavouring to evolve technologies and biological products to minimize the use of synthetic chemicals i.e. pesticides and insecticides for ensuring bio-safety and economic sustainability. For example the National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) Lucknow (India) claims to have developed plant growth promoting micro-organisms based products which according to them, have the ability to control phytopathogenic fungi, promote plant growth, tolerate abiotic stress and solubilize phosphate application under abiotic stress conditions. The products are reported to be useful as plant growth enhancers and bio-fungicides for seed and foliar applications.
Similarly, Agro Extracts Limited (linked with Indian Trade Company) processes Neem fruits and seeds and produces Neem oil and Neem cake, which are used as bio-pesticides, fungicides and organic manure. Neem extract has been found to be most efficient against chewing and sucking insects. Neem acts as a poison particularly against soft bodied insects and larvae. It acts systematically. Considering present market prices, Neem products are less expensive than other pesticides Farmers themselves with limited financial resources and labour can easily prepare extracts of decoction of Neem leaves, seeds or kernel. The Neem products as pesticides are reported to be harmless to beneficial organisms.
China tried a sensible idea of using natural predators to control crop pests as practiced by farmers in China many centuries ago. A Chinese farmer, Zhao renews this ancient technique. Some fifteen years ago Zhao conducted a nation-wide survey analyzing a range of different spiders active in cotton fields. Looking for natural predator to control cotton pests, Dr. Zhao found that of 600 predators, more than 100 were varieties of spiders. Zhao tells: "In Hubei province, cotton is planted after the wheat harvest. During the harvest and in the winter, we dug shallow holes and filled them with grass, and we also put grass among the branches of plants. The spiders stay in these grassy areas. This is a simple way to secure the healthy supply of spiders. Then when the cotton blooms, they come out and eat the pests".
Strangely and interestingly hundreds of farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Chhatigarh have discovered that spraying their cotton and chilly crop with one of the world's most famous beverage, Coke, to get rid of pests, works out cheaper and is effective as compared to the prohibitive and expensive, patented pesticides being marked by the multi-national chemical companies. A scientific explanation given by a fellow scientist is that: "All that is happening is that plants get a direct supply of carbohydrates and sugar that in turn boost the plants' immunity and the plantation on the whole ends up yielding a better crop".
It is ardently hoped that our Central Cotton Research Institute, Multan, Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, other research organizations and agriculture scientists must be working on devising ways and means to enable our farmers to minimize the use of pesticides and instead maximize the application of herbal and biological products like the aforesaid predators, Neem products and other technologies for giving our poor farmers an economic respite, health safety and ensuring ecological, environmental security and a refuge to bio-diversity, as far as possible.
The idea of producing limited bales of cotton with higher value-addition to generate more revenue, seemingly is an attractive proposition. Value addition does deserve a priority but not at the cost of maximum cotton production as our industrial sector viz. Textile Industry, Garment Industry and Hosiery Sector all need our agriculture sector to boost the production of this silver fiber qualitatively as well as quantitatively so as to feed them with sufficient quantity of quality cotton as its raw material to keep them fully operative. A balance must, therefore, be drawn between both the priorities, "value addition" and "maximum cotton production" - rather both these priorities should be upheld as No.1 priorities, without sacrificing the one for the other.