Ganesh and Brahma bow to a new god

Farmers in India swoon over genetically modified cotton. But that doesn't mean the new stuff is any good.

Published January 31, 2007 5:55PM (EST)

In 2003, varieties of hybrid cotton seed known by the brand names Ganesh and Brahma were the popular choice among farmers in Gudepad, a village in the Warangal district of the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. By 2005, a majority of farmers throughout the entire district had switched to RCH-2 Bt, a genetically modified strain of cotton designed to produce its own insecticide.

The biotech industry would like us to believe that the migration to GM cotton was a result of individual farmers' testing out various seeds and coming to the sage conclusion that RCH-2 Bt performed the best. In contrast, anti-GM activists, even as they claim, despite the evidence in Warangal, that farmers are rejecting GM crops, also stress that whatever adoption does occur is likely the result of corporate propaganda and distribution muscle. Oh, and the new strains don't work as advertised, either.

But as is so often the case, neither side's explanation fully captures the situation on the ground. For that we must turn to a brilliant new paper by anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone, "Agricultural Deskilling and the Spread of Genetically Modified Cotton in Warangal," from the February issue of Current Anthropology.

Since 2000, Stone has spent some 45 weeks doing field research on Warangal farmers' cotton seed choice decision-making process. There is a granularity to his research, embedded in careful anthropological theory, that puts most conventional "investigative reporting" to shame. And unlike so many commentators on the topic of genetic modification, he comes neither to promote nor condemn. His purpose is to understand.

Exhibit A: a footnote on the second page of the paper. Occupying about 60 percent of the page, it consists of a detailed review of the data so far available regarding the yields of GM cotton in India. Both industry-sponsored surveys and green-activist-sponsored surveys are evaluated, and both are found methodologically wanting. In the end, Stone concludes, agreeing with another researcher who has examined the same data, "At present the only safe conclusion seems to be that 'an urgent need is obvious for further scientific evaluation of Bt cotton in India before deciding its further promotion.'"

Such playing-it-safe inconclusiveness may seem disappointing, but in the context of a debate as polarized as that which rages between the advocates and opponents of genetically modified crops, the kind of scrupulous attention to verifiable fact displayed by Davis is a rare commodity. The footnote does not provide closure, but it breeds confidence.

Stone's field work is at the epicenter of the global struggle over GM crops. As he observes <a target="new" href="in a previous paper on the same topic:

Nowhere is the war as hotly contested as in India. India offers gaunt children to support industry's claims of food shortages and impoverished smallholders to dramatize critics' warnings about endangering seed saving. It offers well-developed corporate and public biotechnology sectors and some of the world's most savvy green activists. It offers stories of cotton farmers commiting suicide by the hundreds that both industry and its opponents claim to support their case.

India has historically been a center of cotton production. In recent times, in contrast to most other cotton-producing regions, farmers have come to rely upon hybrid cotton strains. This is significant because hybrids are bred by combining two different "male" and "female" genetic lines; they do not propagate consistently via their seed. So cotton farmers in India are accustomed to buying new seed every year, rather than saving their seed and replanting in the idealized tradition of the indigenous farmer.

In Warangal, this has led to a profusion of seed strains, seed vendors and seed "fads" -- in which one village or another will suddenly adopt a new seed, only to abandon it just as quickly. Stone's primary observation is that the fads can't be attributed to any kind of sober appraisal of relative merit. His interviews with farmers indicate that in most cases, farmers chose seeds because of what their neighbor had picked, or what a local prominent farmer had adopted. As for testing, or even comparing one year's yield to the previous year's, Stone found little evidence that such behavior was occurring on any kind of significant scale.

Quite the opposite. The farmers knew less about the performance of their crops than in previous years. Stone's conclusion is that rapid technological change is "deskilling" the farmers in Warangal; they are losing the ability to do what farmers have always done -- test out new agricultural practices, see what happens, and then adjust.

Stone obliterates the biotechnology industry thesis that small farmers are switching because the new seeds are demonstrably superior to the old ones -- in the specific case of the Warangal district. But he doesn't go so far as to adopt the anti-GM stance that the whole project of GM cotton is an insidious scam. He notes, in passing, that in another cotton-producing region in India, Gujarat, farmers and independent seed vendors have taken control of a pirated strain of Bt cotton, bred it together with their own local strains and developed a hugely popular variety of cotton seed that is supposedly performing better than the authorized Monsanto-designed strains. (We'll return to the fascinating story of Gujarat in another post.) While, in this case, in Waranga, Stone's research has poked holes in what proponents of GM technology want us to believe, that does not mean Stone believes there is no place for GM technology in the developing world.

I was so taken by the detail and clarity of Stone's account of his research (thanks, again, to Biopact, for the pointer to another engrossing research study), that I have spent a significant portion of this week reading three other of his (online-available) papers: "A Science of the Gray: Malthus, Marx, and the Ethics of Studying Crop Biotechnology," "Both Sides Now: Fallacies in the Genetic-Modification Wars, Implications for Developing Countries, and Anthropological Perspectives" and "Biotechnology and the Political Ecology of Information in India." In the context of the trajectory that How the World Works has been following over its 15 months of existence, gravitating ever more strongly toward understanding the pros and cons of applying advanced biotechnology to issues of economic growth in the developing world, renewable energy and global trade, Stone's work contains a mother lode of fascinating data and insight pointing in all kinds of interesting directions.

He's chosen to navigate a tricky path, rejecting simultaneously the corporate biotechnological Neo-Malthusianism that declares that any opposition to GM crops is equivalent to condoning the starvation of African children, and the Green-activism absolutism that holds all genetically modified crops to be inherently evil. His position becomes even more precarious when you consider that some critics from the left are quick to portray even a stance of neutrality as a political sellout that allows corporate interests to control the research and development agenda. But Stone's middle path allows him to draw distinctions -- between, for example, privately owned research focused primarily on maximizing profits and encumbered by intellectual property restrictions, and publicly sponsored non-proprietary research aimed at addressing the needs of poor people. The world is not black and white: Stone's own version of anthropology is, he says, "a science of the gray."

In 1997, hundreds of cotton farmers committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh. Advocates of GM crops cited the epidemic as a reason to push for deployment of new strains of cotton. Green activists said that pests that disproportionately targeted new, technologically sophisticated hybrids (which also required increasing inputs of fertilizer and pesticides that farmers could not afford) were the reason why farmers were committing suicide, and that GM crops would just worsen the situation. More recently, there's been another outbreak of cotton farmer suicides elsewhere in India, which has been blamed on the cheap price of cotton on the global market, due largely to American subsidized overproduction.

A grounding in Stone's work cautions us to avoid one-sentence explanations or easy villains (GM crops! Globalization!) for such tragedies. At the close of his essay "A Science of the Gray: Malthus, Marx, and the Ethics of Studying Crop Biotechnology," he discusses the 1997 suicides and provides a revealing look at how he approaches understanding the messy complexity of what is actually happening, out there in the real world.

Suicides are "caused" not just by either American bollworms or globalization but by a dozen insect pests, by pesticide resistances and the high cost of pesticides, by the ready availability of means for suicide (the pesticides themselves), by vendors' usurious lending practices and their draconian collection tactics, by unscrupulous seed salesmen and a weak regulatory system that fails to protect farmers from bogus seed, by the boom in the cotton market and government campaigns enticing farmers into risky practices, by the large number of small and marginal farmers, by the dropping water tables combined with the preponderance of thirsty cotton varieties, by the cost and unpredictability of hitting water in a bore well, by government payments to suicides' families, by alcohol abuse, and by a long list of other general and specific factors. Rather than championing a cause that serves one's own interests at the expense of a richer understanding of the situation at hand, my ethnographic science of the gray reaches for a more systemic and synthetic analysis of the sociocultural context into which genetically modified crops are being introduced.

A science of the gray. Words to live by.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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