Bt Cotton: Why Do So Many Smart People Get It So Wrong?

By TheHindu on 16 Jun 2015 | read

A Pakistani colleague recently sent me an article about Bt cotton. I knew that transgenic cotton had illegally infiltrated Pakistan, in exactly the same way that Bt seeds in India spread farmer-to-farmer under the radar screen of Delhi. But this article was about official approval, not the ubiquitous stealth transgenics that have become a global phenomenon. Najma Sadeque, in Financial Post, May 12, 2008, entitled the piece: “After a disastrous track record in 40 countries, Bt cotton is ‘welcomed’ in Pakistan.”

There is a great puzzle here. If disastrous in 40 countries, why does the technology spread so rapidly across nations and farms? Recombinant DNA technologies represent perhaps the most rapid adoption of any agricultural technology in history. Are farmers irrational, ignorant, duped? The subaltern famously cannot speak, but can she not count either?

In explaining the spread of Bt cotton across India, one prominent NGO opponent explained to me that “farmers in Europe are ten times more sophisticated than our farmers.” Perhaps, but farmers in eight European Union (EU) countries grow transgenic crops; when Nicolas Sarkozy banned one transgenic maize variety in January 2008, French maize farmers and the Government of Spain appealed the decision. Globally, 23 countries have officially-approved transgenic crops growing in fields; despite the North-South rhetoric on “GMOs,” the top 5 countries in acreage after the United States are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, and China.

That only 23 countries — only some of which grow cotton — claim to allow transgenic crops immediately casts doubt on the claim of a “disastrous track record in 40 countries.” The number could be right — there is underground planting of transgenics in countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan — but the guesstimate itself reinforces the puzzle: why would farmers risk prosecution for adopting a technology that destroys their livelihoods and kills their livestock?

Whatever the counting skills of journalists, the Ur case of Bt-cotton disaster is India. Yet the number of genetic events, firms, and farmers in India increases sharply year by year. Monsanto gets all the press, but there are Bt cotton hybrids bred in “cottage industry” sites beginning in Gujarat in 2001 — where the Navbharat 151 stealth transgenic had been growing for 3 years previously, unknown to Delhi or Monsanto. These stealth hybrids had robust names like Maharakshak and Agni, Luxmi and Kavach. There are generic illegal hybrids that escape approved channels: Kurnool Bt, for example. There are hybrids from the Chinese public sector via Nath Seeds; indigenous Bt hybrids employ technology licensed from Mahyco-Monsanto or invented locally (JK Agri Genetics Ltd of Hyderabad). And yet much of the world believes that Bt cotton has failed in India.

Sadeque’s article is illustrative of one coherent and compelling narrative. We find, for example, that in 2002, farmers in Madhya Pradesh planted Bt seeds and “ended up with 100 per cent failure.” The seeds were too expensive, the narrative goes: “How could farmers fail to see the figures that showed it really didn’t make sense to grow Bt cotton? They were deceived by false claims.” The authority is indigenous: “Deccan Development Society (DDS), an Indian grassroots NGO … found [that] those who grew non-BT cotton made six times more profits than the BT cotton farmers!” One marvels that Indian farmers — nee peasants — have survived so long with that level of incompetence.

Agro-economic failure is supplemented by horror stories of externalities, from bizarre skin irritations to dead livestock. Sadeque notes that after grazing on Bt cotton leaves: “In just four villages in Andhra Pradesh, 1800 sheep died horrible, agonising deaths within 2-3 days from severe toxicity.” The same website stressed an even more incredible strand: “Monsanto — Genetically modified BT Cotton ‘terminator’ seeds being introduced in Pakistan.” The long-discredited terminator hoax in India joined a bio-cultural abomination — suicide seeds — to the tragic deaths of Indian farmers in one seamless narrative that evidently will not die.

What these elements of the narrative have in common is absence of any basis in biology or farm economics. Indian farmers say they adopt Bt cotton because it makes them money. It reduces pesticide costs, thus debt, and crop damage, and produces higher net revenues. Academic and institutional studies from India confirm these results, congruent with international findings. Why do disaster stories persist in India, and find confident adherents abroad?

Some reports of Bt failure may be honest, but mistaken. Since the efficacy of Bt technology was demonstrated by the “bollworm rampage” that devastated non-Bt cotton hybrids in Gujarat in 2001, rural India has been awash in spurious seeds. Early shortages of Bt seeds caused by regulatory restrictions and farmer demand led predictably to fraud. “Duplicates” were seeds that claimed to be Bt but were not. In Warangal district, one duplicate called itself Mahaco to trick farmers into thinking it was Mahyco. To extrapolate from these examples would be like concluding that “Rolex watches have failed” after talking to some careless tourists in Manhattan.

Adding official to underground hybrids yields perhaps two hundred cotton cultivars with Bt technology in India. There is no evidence whatsoever that isogenic cottons without the Bt gene succeed where Bt isolines failed. Periodic failures of particular cultivars have many causes; where cotton is especially risky — thin red soils without assured irrigation, example — all varieties will periodically fail, often disastrously. Much Indian cotton is grown under such conditions, contrary to official recommendations. The lure of “white gold” overcomes many hesitations. Finally, claims of crop failure may lead to cash compensation, and thus become part of the survival repertory of desperate farmers.

Colleagues often challenge these conclusions: how could so many smart people get it so wrong? Where there is smoke, isn’t there sure to be fire?

Though political praxis typically generates misinformation and hype, opposition stories about “GMOs” do seem egregious. By way of explanation, one first observes that social relations in advocacy networks in India tend to be asymmetric and hierarchical, meaningfully characterised as neta-chamcha — or leader-sycophant (with harsher connotations). Leaders do not want to hear empirical caveats about the master narrative. GM Watch learns of GMO catastrophes in India from Deccan Development Society; the source is credible for being local and a member of coalitions that GM Watch supports, such as Via Campesina. International networks facilitate flows of reciprocal but asymmetric knowledge claims; the incorporation of “Monsanto’s terminator gene” in Bt cotton moved centre-periphery, invented on a Canadian website; “failure of Bt cotton” moved from periphery to centre, authenticated by its indigenous authority. I’ve been told I cannot speak credibly on this matter as I am not Indian. Critical evaluation of the narrative itself is limited by the distance of middle-class activists from agriculture and agriculturalists. How else could the terminator-suicide-seed narrative survive so long after its obvious disconfirmation in cotton fields?

Class matters as well; radical freedom of leaders from the dull compulsion of economic facts eliminates any penalty for getting it wrong. Farmers operate under precisely the obverse conditions: getting seed choice wrong can be disastrous, hence their experimental and empirical approach. Empirically unconstrained cotton narratives emerge from a mode of production in which authenticity rents at the top, ironically, are high; though cornered by relatively few leaders with specialised cultural capital, there is discernible trickle-down.

Disaster narratives oppose supine peasants with monopolistic MNCs armed with patents — that there are no patents on plants in India is an inconvenient detail, unknown to global partners. Cultural urban bias resists crediting farmers with the skill and agency necessary to circumvent officials and firms, despite strong evidence to the contrary. The production and diffusion of illegal transgenic cotton hybrids in rural Gujarat was widely criticised by NGOs — especially Gene Campaign — as evidence of Delhi’s regulatory failure. But surely the profusion of Bt cotton hybrids was simultaneously compelling evidence of the material interests of farmers in the technology, and their agency in acquiring it.

Extreme claims

Finally, being heard in the global cacophony may necessitate extreme claims. Volker Heins’ Nongovernmental Organizations in International Society (Palgrave Macmillan 2008) is meaningfully sub-titled Struggles for Recognition. Nuanced claims about variable results across different Bt hybrids in different areas will not gain recognition; “complete failure” and dead sheep will get attention. Extreme claims themselves are rendered less falsifiable by the celebration of local knowledge that dovetails with scepticism about Enlightenment values — and science in particular.

There is then no puzzle of farmers adopting disastrous technologies: the disasters exist entirely in the imaginary of advocacy networks that have interests in disasters. The acceptance of molecular breeding technologies is rooted in precisely the agency and rationality of Indian farmers denied in global narratives of GMO opponents. Neither duped nor innumerate, cotton farmers face extreme challenges — from climate change to globally rigged markets — but they do know what works in their fields.

(Ron Herring is Professor of Government, Cornell University. Readers interested in his conclusions and references to literature may want to consult his article “Opposition to Transgenic Technologies: Ideology, Interests, and Collective Action Frames,” Nature Reviews Genetics London. Nature Publishing Group Vol 9 June 2008.)