Interview with an Indian GMO farmer

Sudhindra Kulkarni at his farm

Sudhindra Kulkarni at his farm

Dear Reader, at this point I’m starting to think that Bt cotton is quite popular among Indian farmers. I got my first hint when I realized that there is a black market for Bt cotton seeds. If you think about it, there isn’t usually a black market for undesirable goods. The second hint came from the reading I did for this post, where I realized that Bt cotton improves yield for the farmers and reduces insecticide use, overall.

The third hint came a couple days ago, but this time it was bigger than a hint, it was more like someone setting off an alarm clock in my ear, kind of like this:

That was this. A Bt cotton farmer from Karnataka state contacted me after seeing my post and wanted to tell me his story. I had a half-hour long conversation with him in Hindi (second language for both of us) and he gave me permission to put his story on The Odd Pantry. Not to put too fine a point on it, he LOVES GMO cotton.


Sudhindra Kulkarni is a farmer in the Gulbarga district of Karnataka state. He sounds like a progressive and savvy farmer who has improved his lot far beyond the grinding poverty of his ancestors, all of whom were farmers. In 2012 his name was recommended by someone, he doesn’t know who, to join the Global Farmer Roundtable in Des Moines, Iowa. He was also sent to China as a progressive farmer by the Karnataka government. He had a lot of difficulties communicating because his English is not strong but it sounds like he did make a few good contacts there. He sent me this letter, that he calls his autobiography. I’m not sure why he wrote it, but it is also found on another website, exactly as the one he sent to me.


(OP is The Odd Pantry, SK is Sudhindra. His answers translated by me)

OP: How long have you been farming?
SK: This is our family trade. I have been farming since my childhood. In my father’s days we grew wheat, cotton, sorghum. We also kept bullocks [OP: Indian cattle]. He practiced traditional farming methods and faced a lot of poverty. I stayed in the farming line when I grew up. My brother is an entomologist in the Dharwad University. I supported him with my farming. He himself was hardworking and smart and got scholarships. I learnt about modern farming methods and was able to pay back debts. I also built a pakka house for my family [OP: Pakka house is a cement house as opposed to a hut].

OP: How much land do you farm and what do you grow?
SK: I have 25 acres that I inherited from my forefathers and I lease about 25 more for Rs. 8000/= per acre per annum. I grow Bt cotton then rotate with pigeon pea and chickpea. I also grow sorghum for cattle feed [OP: I’ll take some too, please]. I have bullocks.

OP: How did you learn about modern farming methods?
SK: I learnt from my interest in improvement. The government has agriculture programs. I learnt from watching programs on TV. I leveled my land and got better yield. Now I use micronutrients for the soil and urea, potash and DAP. But I use organic methods too. In April we spread cowdung on the fields for manure. I used to practice purely organic methods but I had to give that up. In the old days we never tilled the soil, now we do. But we are still completely dependent on the monsoon. Four or five months of the year we get canal water. The rest of the time we depend on the rains.

Sudhindra's Bt cotton farm

Sudhindra’s Bt cotton farm

OP: How has your experience with Bt cotton been?
SK: I have been growing Bt cotton for ten years. It gives me excellent yield. I get one-and-half to two tons per acre. A farmer that I know is getting excellent yield with Bt cotton with purely organic methods. My cattle eat Bt cotton plants with no problems.

OP: Who helped you write your letter in English?
SK: My brother helps me with English. My 9th standard daughter helps me with Facebook and email. My language is Kannada. I don’t speak English well so it is difficult for me to get my message across.

OP: What is your message for my readers?
SK: My message is this. I have a sincere request. Please think about the economic condition of the farmer. Without good yield a farmer is nothing. Without good yield, a farmer cannot survive. My family would be destroyed. Without good yield, we are zero. Please do not listen to all the stories about farmer suicides. This is not just my story, it is the story of my whole village. [OP: He repeated this request five or six times throughout our conversation.] I don’t have good English so I cannot convince anyone. All this talk that the farmers will become slaves, this is all wrong. We need good yield.

[OP: He ended the conversation with inviting me and my family to stay at his farm, as is the Indian way. Perhaps someday. Then, I sent him one last question by email because I could not understand on the phone. What follows is his answer verbatim, not translated by me.]

OP: What difficulties did you face while practicing organic methods?
SK: # Ans: Animal Manure & cow dung not easily available ( Jeevaamruta )..varmi compost . pest control not possible..because environment not help # After that yield not getting..what we expected.. # Cost of production,overheads..all expense..after calculation..i didn’t get rate. # For me not possible to store my agri products till high rate,because i have also financial commitment .whatever rate i should sale.


So there you have it. Before I talked to him on the phone, my husband and I wondered the usual things one has to: like, is he telling the truth? Has he been coached? Or bribed? Once I talked to him, I immediately felt ashamed for wondering those things. He is clearly an intelligent and committed farmer. To think that he must have been coached to have certain thoughts smacks of condescension. Even to think that he is coachable smacks of condescension.

But in a sense, I am surprised at myself for being surprised at his story. The main beneficiaries of agricultural technology from the start have been farmers. This is true for GMO as well. American farmers have certainly voted with their feet to buy these seeds. Indian farmers are not that different, I guess. We are not Martians, after all.

Obviously, he may love Bt cotton for the high yield it gives him and it could still have other problems. The bollworm could develop resistance to it. Or there could be ripple effects in the environment. Or perhaps there really are no other problems, or if there are, they are better than spraying general insecticides. All or any or none could be true. That would be a different post, however.
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29 thoughts on “Interview with an Indian GMO farmer

  1. A straight forward take from a honest farmer. I hope the mainstream media picks this up and reports his story of his experience Bt cotton in India and his comments on “farmers suicides” as we hear so much doom and gloom about the crop from anti-GMO activists masquerading as cotton farmers from India


  2. BT cotton story that has reached us from Andhra is not good. Its not even about the yield or success, it is about the western nations holding India to ransom, for instance for seeds in this case. ‘Karuvelam tree’ in India was also reportedly planted clandestinely by some ‘vested’ interests that the locals took to, because they yielded the easy firewood that solved their everyday problems given the country’s poverty levels. Now that this fact has been established beyond doubts, they are being destroyed in my state. These trees have depleted the water table in the state to alarming levels. Same will be the effect of GM foods and crops in India in future. Moreover a GM tomato for instance can come with a gene from a pig who knows and what are its long term effects in humans. We have more autistic kids in India than ever before..The question is whether we in India need GM seeds or food in the first place. If BT cotton is good with short term yields, so were the many fertilizers and pesticides marketed by the west and we now know what has happened with Punjab and Kerala that had used these farming methods for decades. One hopes PM Modi will act tough and root out completely the GM crops from India just the way he has acted tough at WTO recently taking on the west single-handed, securing our national interests and assuring us of our food security. Not only BT Cotton, please also check out how Amway has exploited rural India to shaming levels.


    • There are no GM Tomatoes on the market and there hasn’t been for over a decade. The only one that was ever commercially available Flavr Savr used an additional gene from a tomato to delay ripening.


    • Hai Ravichandran, Thanks for comment,some one writing Against Bt seems those are not farmers (If farmers,but not cultivating Bt cotton) no practical can they justify..Bt good or bad.i am requesting..please start cultivate Bt cotton first.


      • Thanks Mr. Kulkarni, first of all I am Ravindran and not Ravichandran. I may not be a farmer but as the citizen of India, I am an interested party who has been watching and learning from media for over last 10 years what Bt cotton has done to farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, pushing thousands to suicides and there is no need for them to lie.Even if BT cotton is not harmful, we DON’T WANT IT TO INDIA – we view it as nothing more than biological warfare by the west initiated against our nation. A day might dawn when our farmers and the Indian govt could be held to ransom by exporting farmers/foreign governments. We can do without Bt cotton just the way we can do without pizza and coke and pepsi in India, thank you. Some vested interests could be looking at short term gains, but as an honest and patriotic citizen of India, I want nothing but the best for my country.


  3. The government of Maharashtra, a state in western India, has acknowledged for the first time that Bt cotton is a failure that will likely reduce yields by 40%, from 3.5 to 2.2 million quintal. The region’s cotton farmers will face about Rs6,000 crore, over 1 billion USD. Accumulated losses are to be even more staggering: Rs 20,000 crore, or about 3.6 billion USD, due to rising cultivation costs.

    Faced with unbearable debt and health problems, the National Crime Records Bureau predicts that 5,000 farmers will have committed suicide by the end of the year, compared to last year’s 3,500.


  4. As a farmer growing cotton for about 30 years and Bt Cotton since 2003 -2004, I have the first hand experience on the economic loss of non Bt Variety Cotton and non Bt Hybrid Cotton. Ever since I started growing Bt Cotton , my pesticide bill came down drastically. Though Bt Cotton is meant to address the problem of boll worm alone,from my experience I would say Bt Cotton yield is much higher than it’s non Bt Counterpart, as the boll retention rate is much higher in Bt Cotton. I fully endorse the views expressed by my Karnataka farmer friend. As a farmer who is interested to increase the productivity I feel we must adopt all scientifically proven technologies. Though GM Crop is not the only solution to solve all the problems ,we the farmers face, AS A FARMER, I EMPHATICALLY SAY THAT IT IS CERTAINLY ONE OF THE IMPORTANT TECHNOLOGIES THAT WE CAN NOT AFFORD TO IGNORE. Should you need more clarification from my end I am too willing to provide. I invite you to our village,interact with any of the farmer friends and see for your self the truth.


  5. Dear Ravindran,I know you are not Ravichandran,You are not a farmer!!,you don’t know,what farmers facing problem in agriculture,he ( I ) need more yield and and money,my father and forefather was also cultivating cotton ( local variety)but taht time we didn;t get yoeld and profit.and also we faced lot of pest in Bt cotton,we are safe,because it is bollworm resistant.and the person who oppose Bt,please ask him advise very good seed, and also we are nor depends Bt cotton,we grow chick pea,red gram,wheat,chilly,onion,jowar also.althogh,we get more yield in cotton. in this year i got 15quintal per acre. rate for one quintal @5000/ amount for 1 acre=@75000/- expense @27000/- ( expense may less or more depends upon farmers conditions and working style ) net profit for 1 acre @48000/-. in red gram yield per acre 5quintal x rate for redgram 4650/-per quital .,total amt 23250/- and expense around @7000/-. profit 16520/-. please think farmers economic condition,sir, where can go ?more yield only one way to me.i know what is your feelings..tell me alternative way?…how to come out from my poverty?…think i too citizen of India.


  6. I guess the initial alarm sound was not from your brain or heart must be a phone call from USA Monsanto, promising you to give lots of money to bully like this. Bastards, haven’t you seen how our farmers have lost the traditional God given seeds and are becoming puppets in the hands of foreign bio-companies and banks. This is pure slavery. Its not about yield, profit (business trick to attract poor, uneducated farmers of India!)


  7. are you saying that bt cotton causes autism? really? you mean something like vaccination? as far as I know, when we cook food, the genetic material is totally destroyed. even if it isn’t, that doesn’t mean it gets inserted in our genome automatically. if that be the case, we ingest zillions of living micro organisms daily in our food. who knows what might be happening. genes are exchanged between various organisms on a regular basis even in nature. if you don’t want pesticides and herbicides, are you willing to pay higher prices for your agri produce?
    please also see this link about organic farming


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