How Cotton Became a Headache in the Age of Climate Chaos

Cover photo: Mohini Sabara, a Saora Adivasi tenant farmer in Rayagada’s Gunupur block, says they grew food crops until some years ago, and now only grow Bt cotton. Photo: Chitrangada Choudhury.

“The more we buy, the more we are in debt.” That’s Kunari Sabari, a farmer in her 40s, speaking to us in Khaira, a village mainly of her own Saora Adivasi community.

“The gobarakhatachaasa, halaachasaa [farming with cow dung and ploughs], which was ours, nobody is doing that anymore,” she said. “Now we run to the market for everything. Seeds, pesticides, fertiliser. Unlike before, even what we eat, we have to buy.”

Kunari’s account reflects a dependence brought about by cotton cultivation that is taking root across the ecologically sensitive highland tracts of Odisha’s Rayagada district, with deep implications for its rich store of biodiversity, farmers’ distress and food security (See Sowing the seeds of climate crisis in Odisha). This was clearly visible as we descended south-east to the plains of Rayagada’s Gunupur block, where cotton first arrived. Bordering Andhra Pradesh, the landscape here is one of monocrop fields of cotton as far as the eye could see. Also visible – deep distress.

“We took to cotton 10-12 years ago. We do it now because we have no other choice.” That’s what many people in Khaira, which is in Gunupur block, told us. Several farmers in the area said that as they shifted towards a capital-intensive cotton, they had progressively lost their own seeds and traditional methods of multi-cropping.

“We had our own crops and our own agriculture,” rued Khetra Sabara, a young Saora cultivator. “Andhrawallas came and told us to grow cotton, and taught us everything.” Santosh Kumar Dandasena, another farmer here, added that the prospect of making profit drew villagers to kappa, or cotton. “Initially it gave happiness, we made money. But now, it is only misery and loss,” he said. “We have got destroyed and the sahucars [moneylenders] are happy.”

Dark green John Deere tractors rumbled up and down the village road as we spoke. The walls of the local temple were plastered with seed company posters in Odia advertising Bt cotton. Tilling and sowing equipment for that crop lay around the village square.

“Most of the cotton farmers are indebted, because the seed and input costs are increasing while the sale price of the produce fluctuates; and the middlemen take away the profit,” Debal Deb, a conservationist working in the region, explains. “In Rayagada, many farmers get as little as 20 per cent of the market price [for their produce].”

Why persist with cotton in the face of mounting losses? “We are tied in debt to the sahucar,” said Sabara. “If we do not sow cotton, he will not lend to us anymore.” Dandasena added, “If we grow say, rice, we will not get any loans. Only cotton.”

“Farmers don’t understand this crop they are growing,” Deb’s colleague, Debdulal Bhattacharya, tells us. “They are completely dependent on the market at every step… from sowing to harvest, and can’t take their own decisions [though]… they own the land. Should we call them farmers or labourers on their own farms?”

Perhaps the most devastating impact of cotton’s spread, Deb and his colleagues point out, is the erosion of local biodiversity, and with it the knowledge of communities who work in, and sustain, this ecologically rich landscape. Both are critical to an agriculture that is climate-resilient – with the capacity to withstand the increasing uncertainties and extremities of weather.

“Climate change,” Deb says, “is inducing abrupt vagaries of the local weather. Prolonged spells of drought, too much untimely rain, and more frequent droughts are already [being] experienced by Odisha farmers.” Cotton as well as modern varieties of rice and vegetables, which are replacing heirloom varieties, “are inherently incapable of surviving the sudden changes in local environmental conditions. This means a severe uncertainty of crop plant survival, pollination, productivity, and finally, food security.”

Rainfall data for the region, and the accounts of farmers, all point to increasingly erratic weather. Average annual rainfall for the district in the period 2014-18 was 1,385 mm. That was 34 per cent higher than the 1,034 mm for the five years of 1996-2000 (show data of the India Meteorological Department and the central Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change). Also, as a 2019 study by researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bhubaneswar, found: “The heavy-to-extreme rainfall days, as well as dry days, are notably increasing while light-to-moderate rainfall days and wet days are decreasing in Odisha.”

“For the past three years… the rains have been coming in late,” Sharanya Nayak, a farmer and activist based in neighbouring Koraput district, tells us. “There has been less rainfall in the initial monsoon period, followed by extreme rainfall in mid-season, and then heavy rainfall” towards the end of the season. This means sowing gets delayed, extreme rains mean no sun in the crucial mid-season, and heavy downpours at the end damage the harvest.

Debjeet Sarangi, from Living Farms, an NGO which works on food and agriculture in the region, concurs: “The monsoon season in this region used to go from mid-June until October. In the last few years, however, it has become erratic.” Both Sarangi and Nayak argue that Odisha’s multi-cropping systems, with an emphasis on indigenous food crops, are better suited than cotton to cope with these vagaries. “It is our experience that multi-crop farmers are better able to cope with such erratic weather patterns,” Sarangi says. “Farmers who are linked to the market through a single crop of Bt cotton are sitting on a time bomb.”


Several farmers sense the dangers to food security and autonomy of cultivation under the new GM monoculture dispensation – even as they are taking to the new practices. But many others, in particular women, insist that they should not abandon their traditional agriculture. In Kerandiguda village, against the backdrop of the Niyamgiri, we came across Kunuji Kulusika, a Kondh Adivasi woman dissuading her son Surendra from growing cotton this year.

She was hard at work, barefoot in a mountainside plot of shifting cultivation. In her knee-length saree worn without a blouse, and hair pulled back in a side knot, Kunuji looked the archetype of the Adivasi woman who features in ads by governments, corporations and NGOs, promising to uplift her from ‘backwardness’. Yet, as Deb suggests, the erosion of the advanced knowledge and skills of people like Kunuji will be devastating for a world grappling with climate change.

“If we abandon our [own] crops even for a year,” Kunuji said, explaining why she feared shifting to cotton, “how will we replenish the seeds? We will run the danger of losing them. Last year, Surendra grew some cotton where we would plant makka [maize]. If we continue like this, we will be left with no maize seeds of our own to sow in the future.”

‘If we abandon our [own] crops even for a year’, Kunuji said, explaining why she feared shifting to cotton, ‘how will we replenish the seeds? We will run the danger of losing them’

Kunuji became visibly excited when we mentioned heirloom seeds. She raced into her house and emerged with different varieties of crops grown by the family, which she had stored in bamboo baskets, plastic jars or cloth bags. First: two varieties of pigeon pea, “to be sown depending on the incline of the land.” Next: an upland paddy, mustard, moong or green gram, biri or black gram, and two types of beans. Then: two varieties of finger millets, maize, niger seeds. Lastly: a sack of siali seeds (a forest food). “If it rains too much, and we have to stay home-bound, we roast these and eat,” she said, and roasted a handful for us.

“The agro-ecological knowledge of the Kondhs and other tribes here was so sophisticated that families were able to grow 70-80 crops over the year in one plot – cereals, pulses, roots, tubers, millets,” says Pradeep Patra of Living Farms. “It still exists in a few patches, but overall, the coming of cotton and its spread in the past 20 years has proven devastating for this seed diversity.”

Kunuji also fears the impacts of the chemical inputs. These are indispensable to growing cotton, while hardly ever used by Adivasi families for their traditional crops. “All those pesticides, those fertilisers – Surendra will put all that on the cotton [plants]. Won’t that spoil our soil, kill everything else in it? I saw with my own eyes on a farm next to mine – when they went back to planting mandia [finger millets], it did not do well, it was stunted.”

Herbicide-tolerant cotton seeds are not permitted in India, but are spreading like wildfire through Rayagada, along with associated chemicals like glyphosate, a “probably carcinogenic” herbicide. “Owing to regular use of herbicides,” says Debal Deb, “companion flora, including several hedge plants and grasses, have disappeared from the fields. That has led to the decline in butterflies and moth populations, which depend on non-crop plants.

“The ecological knowledge base of this region [and its biodiversity] has eroded alarmingly. More and more farmers are abandoning their traditional multi-cropping and agroforestry systems in favour of monocultures, which demand high amounts of pesticides. Cotton farmers are also using herbicides. Most of them… don’t know which insects are actually pests and which are not. So they spray to eliminate all insects.”

With the shift to cotton, says Sharanya Nayak, “every insect, bird, animal is seen through just one lens – as an enemy of the crop. This then is the perfect alibi for indiscriminate use of agri-chemical inputs.”

Kunuji recognises that people were seeing its ill-effects, yet taking to cotton. “They see this much money at one time,” she said, spreading her hands out. “And they get lured.”

“Community systems of seed-sharing and exchange, pooling of livestock and labour for work on the farm,” says Patra, were also getting eroded as cotton edged out traditional crops. “Now farmers look to the moneylender and the trader.”

An agriculture officer in the district (who did not want to be identified) concurred with Patra. He admitted that it was the state that had introduced and promoted cotton in villages here in the 1990s. The aggressive push from private seed and agri-chemical input dealers from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, followed. While the government is worried, the officer admitted that there was little being done to address the explosion of fake and illegal seeds, and the growing consumption of agri-chemicals. “Cotton has now become a headache,” he said.

Yet, the lure of money is powerful, especially for young farmers. With aspirations of English education for their children, smartphones and motorbikes, and impatience with their parents’ ways of farming, cotton seems worth the risk. If markets are down one year, they may be up the next.

Ecology, however, is less forgiving.

“There is an undocumented increase in the frequency of hospitalisation and in the types of diseases. The number of people suffering from various nerve and kidney diseases is quite high,” says Deb. “I suspect these are from exposure to organophosphate pesticides and glyphosate herbicide, which are in wide use in the district.”

Dr. John Oommen, who practices at the 54-year-old Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack, says that such causal links are hard to make in the absence of dedicated investigations. “The focus of the state is still on communicable diseases like malaria. But the fastest growing diseases which we are seeing among tribals here are heart and kidney ailments… chronic kidney diseases in fact, and the numbers are huge.”

He points out that “all private hospitals in the area have started dialysis centres, and it is a fantastic business. We will have to investigate the question – what is causing kidney failure on this scale?” Oommen expresses concern that communities which had sustained themselves for hundreds of years were being exposed or bulldozed into changes they were little prepared for.


Back in the Niyamgiri mountains that week, on a warm morning, we met Obi Nag, a middle-aged Kondh Adivasi farmer walking toward his plot of land with a metal pot and a one-litre bottle of Glycel, a liquid formulation of glyphosate, manufactured by the Maharashtra-based Excel Crop Care Limited.

Nag was carrying a blue hand-operated sprayer on his bare back. He stopped by a small mountainside stream beside his plot, and set his load down. Using the pot, he filled the sprayer with water. Then he added two capfuls of glyphosate “as per the shopkeeper’s directions.” He stirred it vigorously, strapped on the sprayer again and began spraying the vegetation on his plot. “All this will be dead in three days, and the farm will be ready for sowing cotton,” he said.

The warnings on the glyphosate bottle, in English, Hindi and Gujarati, included these: Keep away from foodstuffs, empty foodstuff containers, and animal food; Avoid contact with mouth, eyes and skin; Avoid inhalation [of] the spray mist. Spray in direction of [the] wind; Wash thoroughly the contaminated clothes and parts of the body after spraying; Wear full protective clothing while mixing and spraying.

Nag was bare-bodied except for a small garment around his waist. As he sprayed, droplets fell on his feet and legs, while the wind carried the mist of herbicide over to us, to the tree standing in the middle of his plot, and to adjoining fields. As well as into the stream flowing by his farm, which gushed down to other fields and skirted by a cluster of some 10 houses and their hand pump.

Three days later we came by Nag’s plot again, and found a small boy grazing cows close by. We asked Nag if the glyphosate he had sprayed could imperil the cows, and he said confidently: “No, it’s been three days. Had they grazed the day I had sprayed, they would have fallen ill and maybe died.”

We asked the boy how he knew which fields were freshly sprayed with glyphosate to avoid taking his livestock into. He shrugged and said “farmers tell us if they have sprayed herbicides.” The boy’s father told us that a neighbouring village had seen some cattle deaths last year after the animals grazed on a freshly-sprayed plot.

Meanwhile most of the grass on Nag’s plot had wilted. It was ready for sowing cotton.

PARI’s reporting project on climate change is part of a UNDP-supported initiative to capture that phenomenon through the voices and lived experience of ordinary people.


Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist, and a member of the core group of the People’s Archive of Rural India. Aniket Aga is an anthropologist. He teaches Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, Sonepat.

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