By Gerry Marten & Donna Glee Williams, The Ecologist, December 2006.
Around 20 years ago, a handful of families migrated from the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, southeast India, into Punukula, a community of around 900 people farming plots of between two and 10 acres. The outsiders from Guntur brought cotton-culture with them. Cotton wooed farmers by promising to bring in more hard cash than the mixed crops they were already growing to eat and sell: millet, sorghum, groundnuts, pigeon peas, mung beans, chilli and rice. But raising cotton meant using pesticides and fertilisers - until then a mystery to the mostly illiterate farmers of the community.
A quick 'high' of booming yields and incomes hooked growers during the early years of cotton in the region. Outlay on insecticides was fairly low because cotton pests hadn't moved in yet. Many farmers were so impressed with the chemicals that they started using them on their other crops as well. The immediate payoffs from chemically-dependent cotton agriculture both ensured and obscured the fact that the black dirt fields had gone into a freefall of environmental degradation, dragged down by a chain of cause-and-effect.
Soon, cotton-eaters such as bollworms, army worms, caterpillars, leafhoppers and aphids plagued the fields. Repeated spraying killed off the most susceptible pests and left the strongest to reproduce and pass on their resistance to generations of ever hardier offspring. As the bugs grew tougher and more abundant, farmers applied a greater variety and quantity of poisons, sometimes mixing 'cocktails' of as many as 10 insecticides. At the same time, cotton was gobbling up the nutrients in the soil, leaving the growers no option but to invest in chemical fertilisers.
The introduction of cotton had pushed them past an ecological tipping-point - an abrupt shift between sustainability and unsustainability. This 'tip' had landed them in the trap of agricultural addiction to chemical pesticides.