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Colas as pesticides? For some farmers it's the real thing...

Coca-Cola and other soft drinks, which have constituted the enemy for many Indian farmers in recent times because of their groundwater-depleting factories, are now unlikely allies in the farmers' battle against pests

Hundreds of farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have discovered that spraying their cotton and chilly crop with one of the world's most famous beverages, Coke, to get rid of pests works out cheaper and as effective as the prohibitively expensive, patented pesticides being marketed by multinational chemical companies.

In the past month, reports have come in about this unconventional use of the sweetened carbonated beverage from Warangal , Ramakrishnapuram, Khammam, Krishna and Guntur districts in Andhra Pradesh. As well as from Durg, Rajnandgaon and Dhamtari districts in Chhattisgarh where farmers say they have successfully used Pepsi and Coke to protect their rice crop against pests.

Gotu Laxmaiah, a farmer from Ramakrishnapuram, says he was delighted with his new cola spray, which he applied this year to several hectares of cotton. "I observed that the pests began to die after the soft drink was sprayed on my cotton," he said.

However, it's not Coke's legendary 'secret' ingredient that's upsetting the bugs, wrote John Vidal in The Guardian. Farmers say Pepsi, Thums Up and other local soft drinks work just as well.

The main ingredients of all colas are water and sugar, although some manufacturers add citric and phosphoric acids to give that extra 'bite'.

Laxmaiah and others say their cola sprays are invaluable because they are safe to handle, do not need to be diluted and, mainly, because they are so cheap. One litre of highly concentrated Avant, Tracer or Nuvocron -- three popular Indian pesticides -- costs around Rs 10,000 (£120). A litre-and-a-half of locally made Coca-Cola costs just Rs 30. That works out to a mere Rs 270 to spray one acre of land.

Though this might be a bit hard to swallow for the soft drink manufacturers, leading Indian agriculture analyst, Devinder Sharma, thinks he has the answer. "Farmers have traditionally used sugary solutions to attract red ants to feed on insect larvae. I think the colas are performing the same role. I think Coke has found its rightful use," Sharma told The Guardian.

Fellow scientist, Sanket Thakur, offers a different explanation. "All that is happening is that plants get a direct supply of carbohydrates and sugar which, in turn, boost the plants' immunity, and the plantation on the whole ends up yielding a better crop," Thakur told the BBC.

Sharma's explanation is corroborated by 50-year-old N Hanumayya , from Dachepalli in Guntur , who believes that in Coke he has found the magic formula to rid his cotton crop of the pests that plague his life. Hanumayya had sown 15 acres of land with cottonseed. As the crop entered its 50th day, in the last week of August, they came under attack from the pests.

Hanumayya tried everything -- Nuvocron, Avant and Tricer. But they all proved ineffective as swarms of pests ravaged his crop. He consulted local agricultural scientists who advised him to spray a mixture of jaggery, gingelly oil and pesticides on the plants. "But jaggery is very costly in the local market, so is gingelly oil. Jaggery costs almost Rs 22 a kg, and gingelly oil Rs 45 a litre," says Hanumayya. The farmers resorted to a sugar syrup, which then led them to colas.

"The colas have all the elements we are looking for. They are cheaper than jaggery and gingelly oil, sticky and fizzy, and they 'numbed' the pests. The sweetness attracted ants which devoured the larvae of the pests," says Hanumayya who is one of the 100-odd cotton farmers in Dachepalli and Veerapuram, 260 km from Hyderabad , who have sprayed their crops with Coke.

G V Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), says that farmers usually spray their crops with a homemade cocktail that includes jaggery to attract ants, which prey on crop-destroying pests. That's where the colas come in. " Jaggery made from sugarcane has been used commonly for pest control on many occasions. Pepsi and Coca-Cola are being used to achieve the same result," he says.

C A S Jeevan, agricultural officer in Dachepalli, says farmers have also experimented with spraying plants with sugar syrup and soap water. "In some places they sprayed a mix of Nuvocron pesticide with jaggery water and rice bran as well," he says.

Jeevan adds that the cola-pesticide mix was sent to the Regional Agri Research Station near Guntur for analysis. According to Thirupathi Reddy, assistant director at the research station, the tests proved negative. "We conducted some trials of our own on cotton crop at our research station. There was no boosting of productivity or eradication of pests," he says.

Still, inspired by the cotton experiment, farmers in Guntur , Khammam and Krishna districts have used the concoction on their chilly and tobacco crops. And , as word spreads that the cola is as bad for bugs as the three big pesticides manufactured by MNCs like Monsanto, Shell and Dow Chemical Company, thousands of other farmers are expected to switch.

This is sweet music to Coca-Cola's ears as the company has had a rough couple of years in India of late. Farmers and villagers in some states, including Kerala, have accused the company of over-extracting groundwater at its bottling plants, and, earlier this year, a government committee upheld findings that soft drinks made in India by the company and its rival PepsiCo contained unacceptable amounts of pesticide residue and called for the enforcement of tougher food safety norms.

A spokesman for Coca-Cola in Atlanta , USA , said: "We are aware of one isolated case where a farmer may have used a soft drink as part of his crop management routine. But soft drinks do not act in a similar way to pesticides when applied to the ground or crops. There is no scientific basis for this and the use of soft drinks for this purpose would be totally ineffective."

Anupam Verma, Pepsi sales manager in Chhattisgarh, admits that sales figures in rural areas of the state have increased by 20%. But, he adds: "If there was any truth in these claims then we would be selling our product as a pesticide rather than as a soft drink. There is more money in selling pesticides than in selling soft drinks. Their claim smacks of lies. At best it is idle natter."

Meanwhile, vendors are enjoying booming sales. Mantan Wali, who sells soft drinks in 17 villages in Guntur district, says his sales have soared thanks to the farmers. "For the 10 days between August and September I had booming business. Instead of just 30 cases (each containing 12 one-litre bottles) of cola I started selling almost 200 cases," he says. "We expected sales to nosedive after the cacophony over pesticide residues in the cola drinks. Now I have to keep extra stock for the cotton farmers."

The story is intriguing enough for the CSA, which works to find alternatives to pesticides and farm chemicals, to carry out a controlled experiment to test the results of this unusual practice. It plans to conduct the experiment at its own laboratory and will report its findings within a couple of days.

InfoChange News and Features, November 2004