Case study

DFID Research: stepping off the pesticides treadmill in India

Improved crop protection measures reduce the use of pesticides and cut the cost of cotton production.

Cotton plant
Cotton plant. Picture: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Farmers all over the world are suffering from a “pesticides treadmill.” Pests are growing resistant to cheap pesticides, and farmers have to spray more often to have any effect or buy new, more expensive chemicals. At the same time, world cotton prices have stagnated, and cotton farmers face a serious squeeze on their profits, combined with growing threats to their health from the pesticides. However, prize-winning research on better insecticide management in cotton in India has helped farmers step off the pesticides treadmill (reduce pesticide use), increase yield and increase their profits! The Wardha project (co-funded by DFID’s Crop Protection Programme) shows that it is possible to cut dramatically the cost of cotton production, while removing much of the drudgery and reducing health hazards.

Maharashtra state is a centre of India’s cotton growing - much of it on small farms such as those in Wardha district. Many insects live in the cotton fields, and the most destructive, the American bollworm, is spreading and growing resistant to pyrethroids and other cheap pesticides. Bollworms cause an estimated US $1 billion worth of damage in India each year. To save their crops, cotton farmers were spraying typically 10 to 12 times in a single growing season and became the biggest users of pesticides in India.

Cotton occupies just 5% of India’s fields, but those fields were using more than half of the country’s pesticides. This repeated spraying is very expensive, reduces the money farmers have for other vital needs, and forces many farmers into debt. It is also counter-productive, encouraging resistance to the chemicals among the pests, so that 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. Spraying is also hard work. To spray a hectare of cotton, one has to carry equipment weighing about 40 kilograms for 10 kilometres up and down the rows of cotton in the hot sun. (No wonder that widows such as Bindutai Bhoge, from the village of Karanji Bhodge, employ men to do their spraying).

Too much spraying is unnecessary

Researchers for the Wardha project (under Dr.Keshav Kranthi of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur, and in collaboration with Derek Russell of the NRI, UK), have spent several years investigating which pests cause real damage to cotton plants, and when they cause this damage. They showed that the deadly bollworm is a migrant that only visits cotton fields in India briefly during most years. They found that constant spraying may 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. Villagers now spray only once or twice a season - and sometimes not at all. They are healthier and wealthier, and their production has risen by 75%, because they have been able to spend more time and money on seeds and fertilisers.

Today, the widow Bindudtai Bhoge (mentioned above) walks the fields to check for pests rather than paying men to spray. And Vittal Rao Karamore (who used to spray his crop 14 times a season), now only sprays once or twice a season and is in profit! He can spend his time weeding and watering his other crops. Vittal, who was planning to give up cotton growing because of the labour, time, and money involved in constant spraying, states, “The Wardha project changed my life.”

By 2005, the Indian government expanded the Wardha rules for spraying to help poor cotton farmers in 500 villages in the 25 heaviest insecticide-using districts across India. The programme now covers all 11 cotton states with 100,000 farmers enrolled directly in the programme in 2005 to 2006. Last season’s results showed insecticide use down by 50%, yield up by 11% and overall profitability up by 75% (data collected for all farms enrolled in the programme). The programme has become the recommended cotton insecticide use programme in India and has funds earmarked for it in the next Indian 5-year plan (2006 to 2011). The research is also underpinning similar projects in China and Pakistan.

For more information, please see the article Stepping off the Pesticides Treadmill from the BBC series ‘In the Field’.

Published 22 August 2006