After cotton, pink bollworms devour wheat crop in Khandwa

After cotton, pink bollworms devour wheat crop in Khandwa

After cotton, pink bollworms devour wheat crop in Khandwa

As input costs increase and yield declines, farmers are trying their luck using pesticides over and above the stipulated quantities

Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh:I am a big farmer. What I used to get from 15 acres three years ago is what I get out of 30 acres today. We had never seen pink bollworm in wheat until then, but today, its infestation has reduced the wheat crop by half and increased cost of farming by two times,” says Harish Patel (70) from Bamjhar in Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district.

“Earlier, 20 to 22 quintals of wheat could be produced from one acre without using any pesticide. Now, even after spraying chemicals, the yield has come down,” claims Jagannath Kanade (78) from Temikala. He got only six quintals of wheat from one acre this rabi season, which is only one third of the normal yield he used to receive. He says caterpillar infestation was less last year when compared to this year.

Farmers (above)Jagannath Kanade and (below) Kamlesh Gurjar (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

Ramesh Patel (45) of Bherukheda Chichgohan is sure that farming is no longer profitable. From three acres of land yielding 45 to 50 bags of wheat, he has not been able to get more than 30 bags in the last two years. “Wheat production has been continuously declining in those two years. This time, pesticides had to be sprayed multiple times to deal with pink bollworms. Farming has become more laborious than before,” he says.

Data on irrigated area and production

In comparison to 2021-22, an additional 29,308 hectares were irrigated in Khandwa district in 2023-24. While 2,887 kg wheat per hectare was produced in 2021-22, a decline of 87 kg in production was recorded in 2023-24, despite the increase in irrigated area.

This medicine is used to trap pink bollworm (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

The pest was first seen in cotton years ago, before wheat and soybean began to fall prey. “To prevent pink bollworm infestation in cotton, we installed pheromone traps in our fields as per the advice from agricultural scientists. This experiment was successful to a great extent,” says Harish. However, farmers are not using pheromone traps in wheat, and are instead betting on pesticides because they are comparatively easier to use, though they are more expensive than other methods.

Ramesh used the trap given by Bhagwant Rao Mandaloi College of Agriculture, Khandwa, to protect his cotton crop from the insect and succeeded largely. “About 45 farmers in my village used this trap and everyone got good results,” he says.

Harish adds that they have made some gains from cotton, after suffering losses in wheat and gram. “Agriculture college gave us traps this time. In the next crop cycle, we will instal traps at our own expense.” Each pheromone trap costs between Rs 50 and 80.  

According to Dr Satish Parsai, entomologist, Bhagwantrao Mandloi College of Agriculture, the trap does not kill, but confuses and entraps the male insect. The trapped male is unable to come into contact with the female, hence their reproduction gets hampered.

This is a simple equipment with the smell of a female insect applied on the lid of the funnel-shaped main part. This attracts the male pest. In this trap, a chemical mixture of Profenofos, Quinalphos, Flonicamid and Emamectin Benzoate are added to kill the male pest.

“Trapped caterpillars are counted for three days and nights. Once around eight male caterpillars are found trapped, we ascertain the scientific treatment [pesticide] to be adopted,” says the scientist.

Use of pheromone traps has two advantages Even before the pest attack is evident, farmers get to learn about the impending attack when the pest gets trapped.  The second advantage is that the trap prevents reproduction of pests by segregating males. This helps in reducing the intensity of the outbreak, which also reduces the cost of pesticides to be applied by almost a half. In fields where pheromone traps are not installed, Rs 25,000 per acre has to be spent on pesticides. Where traps are installed, this expenditure will come down to less than Rs 10,000.

Entomologist Dr Satish Parsai (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

Conflicting opinions

Scientists have advised farmers to do deep ploughing and leave the shallow land open for a few days so that the insects growing in it are destroyed. Along with the wheat crop, they have been told to plant other food grains, except in ridges and a few rows.

However, to reduce the cost of farming, farmers try to avoid deep ploughing. They do not plant other crops in the field along with the main crop. The logic behind this is that different pesticides have to be used for different crops. Therefore, emphasis is on planting only one crop.  

Speaking to 101Reporters, Saurabh Gupta, Weather and Agricultural Scientist, Bhagwant Rao Mandaloi College of Agriculture, Khandwa, says pesticides are recommended only when necessary. Nevertheless, farmers go two steps ahead and add more medicines to the prescribed dosage.

“Farmers have started to use medicines even before the fungus appears. Where five sprays of medicines are recommended, the shopkeeper recommends eight to 10 sprays and the farmer does 15 sprays. All these cause harm to land, humans and the environment. Chemicals are being added every 10 days for the 100-day crop. We recommend chemicals only if at least two to three caterpillars are found within a three by three ft area. But farmers start applying pesticide even after finding one caterpillar,” Gupta explains.

This is how caterpillar catching traps are set (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

Officials in denial mode

Wheat production in Madhya Pradesh has continuously declined in the last three years. Wheat production in the state has decreased from 371.98 lakh metric tonnes to 349.23 lakh metric tonnes in 2020. Replying to a question from MLA Sohanlal Valmik in the State Assembly on July 12 last year, Food Minister Bisahulal Singh said wheat production in the state was 371.98 lakh metric tonnes in 2019-2020, 356.69 lakh metric tonnes in 2020-21 and 349.23 lakh metric tonnes in 2021-22.

This means there has been a decline of 22.75 lakh metric tonnes in wheat production in three years. However, the minister did not touch upon the reason for the decline in production.

Questions were also raised during the same session regarding the presence of pink bollworm attack in wheat and the resultant decrease in production, but the minister did not acknowledge this.

When asked why per hectare production of wheat declined in Khandwa despite the increase in area of irrigation, district agricultural welfare officials called it a normal process and refused to attribute the crop loss to pest attack. In fact, it has emerged that the government figures and farmers' claims are not matching.

Agriculture Welfare Officer KC Waskle tells 101Reporters that irregular rains led to the present situation. “The adult insect lays eggs and the larvae emerge from it. It turns into pupae later. In the kharif season, when soybean and maize are planted, the pupae enters the soil. However, when it gets the desired environment like rain or humidity, insects emerge again,” Waskle says.

Gupta, meanwhile, highlights the need for a weather advisory. “Today, changes occur in a jiffy. Absence of cold and rain, excessive heat, or clouds appearing do not call for an increase in the intensity of pesticide use. The right medicine has to be given at the right time. It should be administered at an interval of 21 days… The biggest problem in agriculture is irregular weather patterns,” he says.

On soil health in Khandwa, he says investigations have revealed that acidity and alkalinity of the land here have been increasing. Friendly insects are also dying due to the use of pesticides. "The soil itself has a mechanism to stop these insects. It heals itself, but excessive use of pesticides is destroying fertility. Pesticides should not be used in pulses, but farmers are now applying them on such crops too," Gupta says. 

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

Cover Photo - Farmer Harish Patel setting a trap to catch caterpillars (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

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