Soybean trumps King Cotton in Vidharbha’s regime change

The shift from cotton to soybean has major implications for agriculture, livelihoods and the future of the Vidharbha region.



“The shift began a few seasons ago but has picked up”

“Cotton gets more risky each season”

“Soybean input costs are far lower”



“Yes,” says Babanrao Khatale in Ashti. “In our village, 80 per cent of farmers have shifted from cotton to Soybean.” In Lonsawla in the same Wardha district, Prabhakar Argude, also a farmer, confirms “a major shift away from cotton. As for jowar, it has almost disappeared. It’s now soybean all the way.”


In Washim district, the changeover has already occurred. District Agriculture Officer N.V. Deshmukh says, “soybean cultivation shot up by 80,000 hectares between 2003 and last year when it touched 1.93 lakh hectares. And it might go up more.” In the same period, cotton fell to 59,000 hectares and could decline further.


Even in Panderkauda, heart of cotton territory in Yavatmal where the fibre is still King, there could be a regime change this year. The agriculture office says that soybean might just slide past cotton.




Vidharbha is witnessing a historic shift as King Cotton loses ground to soybean. A shift that has major implications for agriculture, livelihoods and the future of the region. “It began a few seasons ago but has now picked up rapidly,” says Vijay Jawandia, a farmers’ leader and the region’s foremost thinker on agriculture. He says that the price for soybean today is more than double what farmers got just a year or two ago. That is, Rs. 2,600 a quintal against Rs. 1,200. Simply put: soybean is selling at more than twice the minimum support price.


The prices have gone up, says Jawandia, because of problems hitting big producers like Argentina amd Brazil. “And reduced acreage for it in the United States. That cannot remain the case for long,” he points out. With cotton prices fluctuating over seasons and often declining sharply, lakhs of farmers have been lured by soybean.


By end-2004 farmers were getting less than Rs. 1,800 a quintal of cotton on average. That has risen considerably this past year. Mainly because of large acreage shifts to biofuels in the United States. Since Vidharbha’s prices had earlier tanked due to EU-U.S. subsidies to their cotton producers, they rose again with this shift. “But it’s hard to see how long it can remain that way,” says Jawandia. Dismal cotton prices from the late 90s to last year were a major factor in the wave of suicides by indebted farmers.


Soybean input costs are far lower. In Washim, Agriculture Department official P.D. Lokhande calculates that “input costs of soybean are at least Rs. 2,500 less for an acre than those of cotton.” That’s a conservative estimate. Many farmers in Vidharbha run up input costs of over Rs. 13,000 an acre on cotton. Particularly those using Bt and other expensive technologies and chemicals. An acre of soybean can cost half that much to cultivate.


“Cotton seed costs were even higher two years ago than they are now after government intervention,” says an agriculture department official. “Then, Bt cost Rs. 1,650 a bag of 450 grams. And people often stick to the practice of using two bags an acre even when not needed. Soybean, you can buy the 30 kilograms you need for an acre for Rs. 1,000.”


“Labour costs are cheaper, too,” says Prabhakar Argude in Lonsawli. “In cotton you pay for sowing, spraying, five pickings and so on. With soybean it’s for a couple of sprays and then the harvesting. What’s more, soybean matures in four months — less time than cotton or sugarcane. That allows you to go for a second crop like channa or wheat by October. So all around your returns are higher than with cotton, though your costs with cotton are higher.”


Soybean also has less problems with pests, at least for now. “Cotton gets more risky each season,” says one agriculture officer. “It attracts a range of pests that Bt does not even claim to touch. And even the bollworm is gaining in resistance to Bt. Now with the ‘mealy bug’ showing up, cotton is in trouble. It means more pesticides, more costs, more losses.”


Nationally, groups linked to the soybean industry expect the crop to cover up to 10 million hectares in the season that began this month. Up 13 per cent from the previous year. Production by this September could be close to 10 million tonnes across the country. And Maharashtra is the State making the largest shift towards soybean.


If the picture in Vidharbha is something to go by, those estimates could well be on track. (Unless the fertilizer shortage derails plans.) Area under soybean in the 11 districts of the region went up by nearly two lakh hectares in 2007 to 17 lakh hectares in one estimate. Even as cotton saw a dip of nearly three lakh hectares, falling to about 14 lakh hectares. It was only in the western districts that cotton retained its fragile hold. This year, soybean seems set to overtake it even there.


Across the region, farmers say there’s another reason. “Payments with cotton are a nightmare. You never know when you will receive them.”


Not everyone is enamoured of the shift to soybean, though. “It’s not the oil, but the high global price of soybean’s de-oiled cake (DoC) that is driving the frenzy,” says Jawandia. “DoC prices are above Rs. 2,000 a quintal at the global level. (One quintal yields upto 82 kilograms of DoC and 18 kilograms of edible oil.) But what happens when the crop of Argentina and Brazil return to the market? Soybean has its own risks, too. No rains at the time of flowering — or rains at harvest time — can cause a wipe-out.”


Cotton, on the other hand, says Jawandia, has a better long-term staying power. It is the world’s most important non-food agricultural commodity “and the soil here is ideal for it. Those families using their own labour should stay with cotton. The main draw of soybean is lower labour costs. In non-irrigated land, cotton is the best ‘employment guarantee scheme’ for the number of days of work it gives.”


In Nagpur, a government statistical expert on agriculture is also wary.


“This shift is being driven by poor cotton prices over the past few years. Better cotton prices will see many return to it. Also, soybean is a heavy-feeder crop, drawing much more out of the soil. So successive seasons can see the soil turn ‘soybean sick.’ In which case, yields will fall. By mid-August, we should know better the extent of change this season."


Whichever way it goes, the shift is on from cotton to soybean. The region’s farmers could be trading one volatility for another.

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