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Rain-fed Agriculture: Seizing the desi advantage through improved breeding

Eight new publicly-developed cotton varieties hold out hope for dryland growers.

Unchecked proliferation of hybrids has led to Bt cotton’s growing susceptibility to insect pests. These are claimed to not only be more resistant to drought, salinity, diseases and insect pests, but also produce fibre of good quality.

Even as Monsanto’s threat to “reevaluate” its presence in India — following a government move to slash royalty on the US life sciences giant’s proprietary Bt cotton technology — has created uncertainty in the cotton trade, the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) here sees this as an opportunity for revival of native desi varieties incorporating improved fibre characteristics.

Scientists in various state agricultural universities have developed eight new improved desi varieties under the CICR-spearheaded All India Coordinated Research Project on Cotton. These are claimed to not only be more resistant to drought, salinity, diseases and insect pests, compared to the ‘American’ cottons occupying much of the cotton area in the country today, but also produce fibre of good quality. Their fibre length ranges between 28 to 30.5 mm, with tensile strength of 27-30 grams/tex and fineness of 4.5-5 micronaire. This makes them superior to the traditionally cultivated desi varieties that produce coarser fibre (7-8 micronaire)with shorter staple length (20-22 mm) and less bundle strength (19-20 grams/tex).

At the time of Independence, about 98 per cent of India’s cotton area was covered by desi varieties belonging to the Gossypium “arboreum” and “herbaceum” species. Their inferior fibre quality — modern spinning mills, unlike the old hand-spun yarn units, require longer, stronger and finer lint — led to their gradual displacement by ‘American’ cottons of the Gossypium “hirsutum” species. Even before Bt cotton’s advent in 2002, the share of desi varieties in total acreage had fallen to 25 per cent, and have shrunk further to under 2 per cent now. The coarse lint from desi cotton is used only for surgical and absorbent purposes or to make mattresses, denims and stuffed toys.

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But if CICR’s director K R Kranthi is to be believed, this will change with the newly-bred long-linted arboreum varieties. “For the first time in the world, an effort to revive native varieties is being done on such a big scale,” he claims. In 2015-16, field trials of the improved varieties were conducted at 15 different locations across India to test for desired fibre traits as well as crop yields. The results have been encouraging. The varieties would be revaluated in the coming planting season also to test for the stability of results.

cottonBut what the economics of cultivation from the farmer’s standpoint? The new desi varieties, Kranthi says, can give 5-6 quintals per acre of raw un-ginned kapas with normal spacing of 20,000 plants in rain-fed conditions. These can go to 7-8 quintals and more if high-density planting or sowing in closer-spaced rows with average populations of 55,000 plants per acre is employed. This is comparable to the yields for the Bt American hybrids grown in rain-fed areas.

The new varieties are, moreover, of 5-6 months duration, as against 8 months for Bt hybrids. The shorter maturity allows for optimal use of moisture from the monsoon rains within the available time window. It also makes these varieties ideally suited for cultivation in the 41 lakh hectares cotton area of Maharashtra and 17 lakh hectares in Telangana that was predominantly rain-fed.

“Farmers in the irrigated cotton belt can afford hybrids, but our concern is to breed varieties for rain-fed conditions. The new long-staple desi varieties are naturally sturdy and also produce fibre having the required market-worthy parameters,” Kranthi points out. Besides, their seeds don’t need to be bought each time. With varieties, the seeds stored from previous year’s crop can be used for. Even if farmers want to sow new seeds, the cost per acre will be only around Rs 800, as against Rs 1,900 for Bt hybrids.

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Kranthi hopes to make the new desi varieties available to farmers within the next four years. CICR is already working with NGOs like the Vidarbha Desi Kapus Utpadak Sangh, Yuva Rural Association and Neem Foundation for multiplication of the seeds.

Kranthi isn’t averse to Bt genes in the new varieties. It is only expected to protect the crop from bollworm attacks. Yields per se are a function of the varieties or hybrids into which the foreign genes derived from the Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt soil bacterium — coding for proteins toxic to bollworm insect pests —are inserted. For best yield benefits, it is important that even the varieties or hybrids incorporating the Bt genes are well-suited for the specific agro-eco zones. For rain-fed regions like Marathwada, Vidarbha and Telangana, the best options are not long-duration American hybrids, but early-maturing desi varieties that are also amenable to high-density planting, adds Kranthi.

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First published on: 12-05-2016 at 02:53 IST
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