The debate around GM cotton seeds in India tends to be polemic. The approach of Gram Sewa Mandal (GSM) for finding sustainable, holistic solutions is a refreshing change. It is innovative and brings together communities, agriculture universities, and, the Organic Cotton Research Centre to explore alternatives to GM cotton. The search for alternative to BT cotton, the dominant variety of GM cotton in India, is informed by ground realities.
The initiative is not limited to addressing issues related to cotton cultivation. It explores other actions which would support a change from GM seeds to indigenous seeds and to organic farming. These include value addition to cotton at source and other village enterprises. The author, Karuna Futane, also the chairperson of GSM, reflects on lessons learnt. The blog ends with a strategy for scaling.
Industrial Revolution and Cotton Varieties
Cotton has been a major cash crop in India for thousands of years. Cotton fabrics made with indigenous cotton varieties were once famous all over the world. This began to change in the 18th century when industries underwent rapid mechanisation. The changes also effected the cotton industry. Mechanisation came with advantages such as multi fold increase in production capacity and lower production costs. But it also had its inevitable side effects, especially for India. The local varieties producing cotton with shorter fibres were not suitable for the new machines. This led to imported American varieties with longer, machine friendly fibres taking over.
Tropical climate borne diseases and pests attacked this American variety cultivation, varieties which had low resistance as they were not native to the Indian subcontinent. The seed companies researched and developed hybrid as well as GM varieties to overcome these challenges but the situation hardly improved. This has led to research for indigenous varieties which can resist and survive tropical challenges such as famines, floods, and, soil degradation.
Facing New Challenges
The findings of these research efforts are encouraging but success has led to further challenges. Indigenous cotton varieties have short staple fibres. The art of spinning and weaving with short staple fibre has long been lost. Even khadi institutions are using the long fibre American cotton. Gram Sewa Mandal is taking a lead for efforts to revive this ancient art.
Supporting organic cotton farmers
As a part of the programme, GSM has reached out to farmers, farmer networks and institutions with an aim to promote and support organic farming in all possible ways. GSM buys organic cotton at a premium price, paying 10 to 20% on top of the minimum support price. GSM has also taken a loan of two million rupees from Mission Samriddhi Foundation. Part of the loan was used to purchase 18,468 kg cotton directly from farmers. This has helped scale the production of khadi fabrics at a rapid pace.
GSM is also doing research on different indigenous varieties of cotton and sharing their findings with farmers. There is a focus on identifying varieties which work better for making fabrics. Building on guidance form experts, Gram Sewa Mandal is constantly striving to produce the best quality fabric using local organic cotton. So far bed sheets, dress materials, towels and handkerchiefs have been successfully produced.
Towards an Integrated Village Economy
Value addition at the village level, for cotton and other products, is another area of interest. GSM is making progress towards setting up units for making fabrics from cotton at the village level.
A three-day workshop for villagers in summer 2019 accelerated the process. About 50 farmers from 10 neighbouring villages attended the workshop. They paid for their own travel and for workshop expenses. The workshop sessions explored the potential for the following:
- Organic farming
- Agriculture-based processing units
- Bee keeping
The participants also benefited from live demonstrations at the oil crushing unit and the khadi workshop on the campus.
The village participants then discussed various options for moving forward. They decided bee keeping and oil crushing units (Tel Ghaani) would be a good place to start as these would be easy to set up and manage.
The way forward
To take this challenging initiative forward, planning and implementation of the following programs is the need of the hour.
- Youth from different economic backgrounds and geographical areas are willing to stay at GSM campus for an extended period of one year or more for training and hands on experience in organic farming and sustainable dairy practices. Though they fulfil most of their daily needs on their own, they still need some monetary support for other contingencies. A fellowship or a paid apprenticeship will be a great help.
- Organise at least four workshops a year involving information sharing and practical training sessions. Main objective for this will be to learn from and train farmers, youths, and women. Focus will be on enhancing employment through value addition to their farm products.
- Explore environmentally friendly option of spinning and weaving (Katai Bunai) for employment generation. This option can be easily implemented as the GSM location is in the cotton production belt. The “Katai-Bunai” skill development though will need a dedicated centre at GSM. GSM has plans to train 10 participants at a time.
- Develop infrastructure to provide all necessary technical support to the farmers willing to produce organic cotton
- Scaling the production of roving. To produce high-quality fabric the quality of roving needs to be equally good. GSM has a roving facility which caters to their own needs as well as needs of other NGOs. An upgrade would enable large production volumes, which in turn will benefit more institutions and people.
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Featured Image: Henrietta Adams
All other Images: Gram Sewa Mandal