28 September, 2023

An eco-friendly way to safeguard our cotton

The Tata Trusts are successfully controlling pink bollworm infestations in cotton crops through Specialised Pheromone and Lure Application Technology

SPLAT in action: Pheromone drops applied on a cotton plant
SPLAT in action: Pheromone drops applied on a cotton plant
SPLAT in action: Pheromone drops applied on a cotton plant
SPLAT in action: Pheromone drops applied on a cotton plant

Over the past few decades, farmers in Punjab have struggled with a multitude of challenges. Once at the forefront of India’s Green Revolution, the state now faces alarmingly low levels of groundwater and deteriorating soil fertility. To address these issues, the Tata Trusts launched a special programme known as ‘Reviving the Green Revolution’ (RGR) in collaboration with Punjab Agricultural University. Operating in ~4,000 villages across 12 districts of Punjab, the programme is designed to increase the revenue and yield of farmers through a comprehensive set of strategies geared towards enhancing soil health by way of crop residue management, promoting the responsible use of fertilisers and pesticides, and establishing a sustainable framework for agriculture.

An emerging threat to the cultivation of cotton – a major Kharif crop in Punjab – is pink bollworm. While this destructive pest has been previously reported in various regions of central and south India, it was first observed in Punjab in 2020 in the BG II cotton fields of Bathinda district. Since then, pink bollworm has gone on to wreak havoc on nearly half of the cotton crops in Mansa and Bathinda districts.

Understanding the pink bollworm menace

Pink bollworm survives through the cold winter months by sheltering within infested cotton bolls as a fully-developed larva. During this phase, the pest is in hibernation mode, emerging just before the start of the main season in April-May once the environment is more congenial. Since the larvae primarily feed inside the bolls, controlling the pest through natural enemies' predation or chemical means is difficult.

Using pheromones for pest management

Unlike other pests, pink bollworm poses a unique challenge when it comes to pesticide usage. Applying pesticides often leads to pest resurgence, chemical resistance, and harmful residues. This is why the Tata Trusts’ RGR programme introduced the eco-friendly Specialised Pheromone and Lure Application Technology (SPLAT). This innovative technology works by confusing the male pink bollworm by releasing a pheromone formulation from specialised tubes to mask the natural pheromones released by the female moth.

The favourable weather conditions observed during the 2021-2022 period likely contributed to the pink bollworm infestation. It's also probable that the high population survival from the previous year will have a carryover effect. In anticipation of this possibility, the RGR team conducted several SPLAT experiments during the Kharif season of 2022 in the Muktsar and Fazilka districts of Punjab – which turned out to be successful. Since the resurgence of pink bollworm also poses a serious threat to cotton-growing states in central and southern India, the success of this novel technology can be replicated there as well.

Getting farmers on board

The RGR team encountered little resistance when persuading farmers about the benefits of SPLAT. The farmers could readily observe the eco-friendly nature of this technology and the remarkable quality of the fibre it produced. In the months of February and March 2023, the Department of Agriculture maintained a close watch over ginning factories to promptly detect any signs of pest resurgence. RGR also conducted various awareness sessions for farmers between November 2022 and February 2023 to educate them about off-season pest management techniques, with a special focus on managing cotton sticks as they serve as the primary source of carryover for the pest population.