Talking to a Vidarbha Bt cotton farmer

Cotton at the market

Cotton at the market (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

I wrote two posts on Bt cotton but I have to admit it left me more confused than before. I went into it expecting to find that Bt cotton had kickstarted an epidemic of farmer suicides. But the closer I looked, the more the claims of Bt cotton devastation seemed to vanish into thin air. What I was left with though, was a list of problems of technology adoption — the kind of list that is very familiar in every industry that tries out something new.

My mistake lay in hoping for an answer to a simple question — is Bt cotton good or bad? But this type of question might confuse matters more than illuminate them. A better question might be — what problems does it solve, what problems does it create? How does it interact with customs and practices in India?

Look, Bt cotton is a technology. It isn’t the devil himself in the form of a seed, nor is it a benediction from the gods. It is a human-made technology. All of us who use computers know what that means. When they work, they are great. But most of us have had the occasional urge to punch a fist through the screen when it doesn’t do what we expect.

Recap

Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002 by Mahyco in collaboration with Monsanto. The prior three decades had been tough for cotton farmers in India due to yield losses from the bollworm. Farmers had to spend a huge amount in pesticides and many had given up on growing cotton entirely.

Bt cotton comes with an insecticide in it (one that is safe for humans), that allows the cotton bolls to grow without being eaten by the bollworm. This makes it so that farmers don’t have to purchase extra insecticide and be exposed to those sprays. Plus, Bt cotton is a hybrid that seems to make bigger bolls.

It does come with strings attached. It isn’t the wild form of cotton that humans discovered thousands of years ago that belonged to no one and to everyone. This one has been through years of research and tinkering in the lab. It is a corporate product. Therefore, the seeds are more expensive. In addition, you cannot save seeds from your harvest. You have to purchase a new set of seeds each year.

Despite these strings attached, many (most) cotton farmers have made the determination that Bt cotton is worth growing anyway. I interviewed Bt cotton farmer Sudhindra Kulkarni, who gave me a precise breakdown of his profits from Bt cotton and a comparison with red gram. Please note the dramatically lower cost of the seeds for red gram, and yet, the dramatically higher profit for Bt cotton:

Bt Cotton Red Gram
Yield per acre 15 quintal 5 quintal
Rate for 1 quintal Rs. 5,000/= Rs. 4,650/=
Total for 1 acre Rs. 75,000/= Rs. 23,250/=
Total expense for input Rs. 27,000/= Rs. 7,000/=
Net profit for 1 acre Rs. 48,000/= Rs. 16,520/=

As a matter of fact, the adoption rate of Bt cotton in India is 90%. Farmers are small business owners, and like any other such, they make a business calculation to see if Bt cotton is worth growing for them or not. Sudhindra claims that Bt cotton lifted his family out of poverty. Much as us urban folks would like farmers to remain guardians of India’s halcyon past, they themselves have practical lives to lead in the present.

What’s the problem, then? Clearly the story does not end there or there would be no debate. Where’s the strum und drang here? Why has the Mahyco-Monsanto alliance aroused fears that India is being stealthily colonized again? What about the epidemic of farmers killing themselves?

Farmer distress

Any media consumer who has not investigated this issue deeply themselves gets a constant drumbeat about Bt cotton having devastated Indian farmers. Words like catastrophe, epidemic, even holocaust are thrown around. But upon talking to farmers, Bt cotton appears as a solution to a three-decade-old problem. What gives?

Here are some articles about the fears of farmer distress. Ostensibly the stories are about how Bt cotton is inadvisable to grow. But one has to read them a little smartly to see that the point being made is more nuanced than that: Bt cotton is inadvisable to grow when there is no irrigation. This makes sense — Bt cotton needs water. Being a cash crop, it can’t be eaten as a last resort if it can’t be sold. Plus, the farmers are being advised to be prudent and rotate their crops; plant non-Bt crops as buffers to avoid the bollworm becoming resistant; to grow lower-profit crops like sorghum as well for backup. None of it should be controversial. What is left unsaid are the reasons why farmers might not be following best practices. Some of those I alluded to in this article, where I mentioned the difficulty of disseminating information in regions of high illiteracy. The other reason is obvious when you look at Sudhindra’s chart above — cotton is a cash crop and has the potential to make a good profit, if things go right. Is there perhaps some excessive risk-taking going on?

But what do I know — I can speculate plenty but I know little. So I talked to a farmer from Vidarbha, Maharashtra, a that region is said to have been devastated by crop failures, in order to get some inside information.

Talking to a Vidarbha Bt cotton farmer

Prakash Puppalwar farms in Yavatmal district in the Vidarbha region. It is known as ‘Cotton City’ because of its traditional ties to the growing and manufacture of cotton goods. He has an ancestral cotton farming background. He is one of a group of farmers that got an education in agriculture and came back to their village to farm so he has a good understanding of best practices, and also a handle on the problems that smaller, less educated farmers may face. I asked him a few questions on the phone and on email, what follows is a translated compilation of his answers.

Prakash Puppalwar in Bt cotton farm

Prakash Puppalwar in Yavatmal Bt cotton farm

What problems do farmers face in Yavatmal?

  • Some farms lack irrigation. We sow cotton in June and expect to harvest in October or November. In June it rains each week, without fail. July too. In August, sometimes there are 15 or 20 dry days at a stretch. During this time, we need some extra water. In addition, sometimes there is power-load-shedding at times when we need electricity for irrigation.
  • We don’t get good weather reports at the time of sowing.
  • Everyone knows that the yield of Bt cotton is high. So labor costs have gone up. Out of the cotton cultivation cost 65% goes towards labor. Plus, it is hard to find skilled labor.
  • As far as good government loans with regulated interest, it is easy enough to get a 15-year loan to build a house. But if you are looking for a 5-year or 10-year loan for farming, it is difficult. You don’t get much and you don’t get it on time. [OP:This is why farmers would have to resort to unauthorized money-lenders.]
  • The government has fixed the MSP (minimum sale price) of cotton too low. In addition, some years back they had stopped the export of cotton entirely. Now it has restarted but not at the previous levels.  They should have an import duty on cotton like they have on sugar. For a while the rate of cotton had gone up to seven thousand. Lately we had to sell it off at three thousand.
  • We do not have crop insurance in case of crop failures.
  • Farmers are eager to learn but they lack knowledge about farming with this new technology. They also lack knowledge about marketing.

Do farms in your district follow best practices for growing Bt cotton?
We do rotate crops. We use chemical and organic inputs in the ratio of 60-40. We are also told by the agriculture institute to have a buffer area of non-Bt cotton surrounding the farm and though we try, we cannot always accomplish this.

Beehive in Bt cotton (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

Beehive in Bt cotton (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

You seem to have some practical problems. Why do people blame only Bt cotton?
I don’t want to speculate on their reasons. But if we farmers are the patients, shouldn’t we be asked first what our disease is? Look, 100% of the farmers here grow Bt cotton. Why would we do that? With Bt cotton we have got freedom from an old enemy — the pests. We have surety. Even the lady farm workers know that with Bt cotton we have higher production. We have gone from four to ten quintals. I don’t understand why the whole blame should go on the seeds. The seeds are a small part of our cost. Out of our total cost of growing, 65% goes towards labor. Then there is fertilization, irrigation, marketing. The seeds are only 5% of our cost. Why would we blame the seeds? There are a lot of factors that go towards a crop succeeding or failing. You might have great production but if you can’t sell it at a good rate you would have a failed crop anyway. This year we have had only 33% rain that we expected so far. Smaller farms who don’t have irrigation could be wiped out. Those who have irrigation will be fine. That is a very important factor.

But is it the case that conventional cotton is not as dependent on water as is Bt cotton?
It is all about the boll. Conventional cotton did not grow bolls as big as Bt cotton. Plus the quality of the cotton was not as good. Since the bolls are bigger with Bt cotton, naturally it will need more nutrition, and in turn, more water. Specially in the boll-formation stage. This is not surprising.

Have their been a lot of suicides by farmers in your region? 
No doubt, there have been some. But, one has to keep in mind that the government gives one lakh rupees to the families of the bereaved in case of a suicide. People can be asked to provide any kind of statement to the police. One has to keep this fact in mind. [OP: it was not clear to me what exactly he was suggesting here but I didn’t want to probe too much, as the conversation was getting a little too macabre for me.]

Swadeshi fever

Indians have always had a persistent phobia about being swallowed up by the west (clearly certain events in our history have had something to do with this). I don’t think anyone believes that we will literally be colonized again, but each new cultural encroachment by the west arouses fears of soft-colonization — the kind where we lose our cultural soul; where we become addicts who can’t do much but wait for the next cola-fizzed hit from western corporations.

Gandhi promoted this notion as self-reliance or Swadeshi. I have more than  a smidgen of this phobia myself. The sheer psychic disturbance I feel when I see a McDonalds franchise in a place where a vada-pav stall used to be is hard to put in words. I believe that GMO seeds arouse this fear in a visceral way because it is our very food production cycle that would now involve a reliance on products that are Videshi, not Swadeshi. I understand this fear and I feel it too. The blogger from Curry Leaf, one who I admire for her stories and her passion, expresses this fear in the comments on this post.

As this is an emotional reaction, it isn’t wrong or right, and there is no arguing against it. But let me give you a little glimpse of my own inner dialog around this subject.

Ground being prepared for sowing

Ground being prepared for sowing (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

I feel like the cultural influences we have already absorbed become invisible to us, and we fear the cultural influences that might occur in the future. Gandhi himself was educated in England and wrote books in impeccable English. We are debating this subject mostly in this foreign language as well, on the Internet created mostly by America. When one’s livelihood is involved, like for the farmers I have talked to, it becomes difficult to give primacy to an abstract principle above one’s own flight from poverty. It is often: Swadeshi for thee, but not for me.

And, one has to remember that cultural influence goes both ways. If Indian cities are now heavily dependent on computers, cell phones, software and the rest, mostly from American companies, one has to think about the legions of Indian engineers they hire too. Where GMO seeds are concerned, the enterprise from the beginning was a collaboration of an Indian company with an American company, and, now there are Indian companies doing the research and production themselves.

GMO is not the first interdependence we have with the west and it won’t be the last.

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References:
1. http://www.indianjpsychiatry.org/article.asp?issn=0019-5545;year=2008;volume=50;issue=2;spage=124;epage=127;aulast=Behere
2. http://artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/research/stone/stone-wd-largerquestions.pdf
3. http://sap.einaudi.cornell.edu/sites/sap.einaudi.cornell.edu/files/Failure%20of%20Bt%20Cotton%20Herring%20Rao.pdf

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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.

Background:

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.

Interview:

(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.

Thoughts

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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GMO cotton and the Indian farmer

Cotton farmer Warangal district (source: Flickr user Jankie)

Cotton farmer Warangal district (source: Flickr user Jankie)

Cotton is a light and breathable fabric but it sure does get itself into some very contentious debates. It has been a central player in colonialism in India, in the American Civil War, in the practice of slavery, and now, in the GMO wars.

I remember my mother recounting some history from the British Raj days. Can you believe, she would tell me, we grow cotton in India, but we are not allowed to make cloth from it. They ship it to England, it comes back as cloth, and then we have to pay expensive rates to buy it from them. It’s our cotton!

Gandhi at his charkha

Gandhi at his charkha

Mahatma Gandhi championed this viewpoint more than anyone else. He promoted the use of the charkha, the spinning wheel from medieval times. This was his method of thumbing his nose at the Raj. He intended to have every Indian make their own cloth the tedious way, by hand, and thereby collapse England’s profits. He knew what he was doing. Weaving khadi cloth at home became a political act. (Interestingly, today khadi has become a fashion statement.)

One could argue the opposite side as well. As egregious as it seems, England’s business model made sense. The cotton plants (India’s genetic asset) and their growing and picking (India’s manual labor) were only part of the story. Who would pay for the intellectual asset — the invention of the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, and other such picturesquely named devices that made much finer quality cloth, more tightly woven, and many times faster? These are not devices to be sneezed at. These inventions and others like it powered the Industrial Revolution.

A similar debate now rages over genetically modified cotton. The quixotic Gandhi who stands in the way of Progress is Dr. Vandana Shiva. Gandhi spoke up for the imperfect, but diverse, home-weaving industry. Dr. Vandana Shiva speaks up for the unimproved, diverse strains of cotton that haven’t gotten any love from biotech companies like Monsanto.

Is she right? Was Gandhi right? I don’t know, but I want to explore. Let’s talk about Bt Cotton.

Insecticide

I wrote about Roundup Ready crops some time ago. Bt crops work in exactly the opposite way. Roundup Ready crops make it so that you can spray pesticide without concern for your crops — clearly, you can see how they might incentivize more spraying of pesticide. While Bt crops are not immune to pesticide, they come with pesticide in them. So you can see that theoretically they should not need any pesticide sprayed at all. The pest in this case, is the bollworm — the caterpillar of a certain moth.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear a statement like ‘your food contains insecticide’ I start to smell the wonderful aroma of the Flit product from my childhood. There couldn’t be a better way to ruin my appetite for good. Now here we are talking about a plant growing with insecticide in its cells? Are you serious?

It’s not as bad as that. Let me explain.

I adore insects. But one has to admit, sometimes they work at cross-purposes to us — whether it is cockroaches in the kitchen cupboard, mosquitoes buzzing on a summer evening, or bedbugs making lurid bloodstains all over the sheets. Humans have spent a considerable time time trying to control them.

But we are late entrants to the game. Plants have been indulging in their own battle with insect pests for half a billion years. Since they can’t get up and walk over to the store, they need to make their own. And they do. Plants fight pests silently (to us) but with astonishing vigor. No quarters given.

"Who, me, insecticide?!" the Neem tree, looking innocent (source: Wikimedia commons)

The Neem tree, looking innocent (source: Wikimedia commons)

You know those lovely daisies that little girls make daisy chains from and put them around their pretty little heads? They produce pyrethrum, a compound that attacks the insect’s nervous system. Jicama — that recent favorite of Californian foodies (of which I am one, I guess?) — the root that one cuts into sticks and puts in salad — the stems of jicama produce rotenone, a chemical that attacks the energy-production of cells. It is extremely toxic to insects and fish. The Neem tree is famously antisocial, by which I mean it is anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory. Neem’s special contribution is azadirachtin, a chemical that prevents insects from growing, and while they remain stunted, it makes them lose their appetite to the point of starvation. Diabolical. But they actually need to eat the plant tissue to get the poison, so insects that care only about the nectar and pollinate the plant are not affected.

What one looks for in a ‘good’ insecticide is the following: it must not kill indiscriminately — in particular, it must not be toxic to mammals. It should only kill insects pests, not be poisonous to the pollinators, nor to the predators of the insect pests. It must not hang around in the soil for long, i.e. it must biodegrade, but while it is hanging around it must not slosh around and get everywhere.

Bt

Bacillus thuringiensis (source: http://bacillusthuringiensis.pbworks.com/)

Bacillus thuringiensis (source: http://bacillusthuringiensis.pbworks.com/)

In these ways, a certain bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis makes pretty much the ideal insecticide. This insecticide protein is called ‘Cry’ and that is probably what the insect does upon ingesting it. It works by perforating the insect gut walls full of holes. It can be very specific, as in, there are strains that will affect only beetles that chomp on some Bt, and others that will only affect moths. It is very, very safe for all other animals including us; this is because it cannot work in an acidic environment, which our bellies are, in general. Any Bt left over on leaves will simply degrade in the sun.

Bt has been known as an insecticide since the 1900’s. But no one understood why it killed only moth larvae sometimes and only beetle larvae other times. No one understood its mechanism. Only in the 1980’s, when consumers were souring on wide-spectrum synthetic poisons like DDT, did industry start to take a look at developing biological insecticides into products. Chemical companies across Europe and the US divided up the Bt strains between them — some focused on killing mosquitoes and flies, some on moths, and some on beetles.

Bt crops

Bt had been a sleeper in the insecticide world but its qualities made it a celebrity. Pretty soon scientists understood it down to the gene level, and at that point, given the advancements in gene modification, it was a matter of course to insert that gene into plants.

I mentioned above that Bt spray, when applied to plants, degrades in the sun or simply washes off. While that is one of its beautiful qualities (that it easily biodegrades), it does mean that one has to keep reapplying it. Wouldn’t it be great if the plant cells actually contained Bt inside, so it wouldn’t just disappear in the sun or wash off? Hello, Bt crops.

Bt Cotton in India — Seeds of Suicide?

Cotton with an inserted gene that produces Cry came into the Indian market in 2002. It protects cotton from its main predator, the bollworm. Before 2002, even though cotton was one of India’s main cash crops, the yield was one of the lowest in the world. Pests were a huge problem, and farmers spent more money on pesticide for cotton than for any other crop.

Bt cotton came with the promise of not needing pesticide at all, because it would inherently fight back the bollworm. Before the government approved it, Bt cotton had already created a buzz and seeds from Monsanto had been smuggled in to sell in the black market. After it was approved, by 2010, more than 90% of cotton growers in India used Bt cotton. But while Bt cotton was being widely adopted, activists raised the alarm. Dr. Vandana Shiva in particular called it the seeds of suicide.

Anyone (like your humble servant, The Odd Pantry) asking a simple question  — ‘so, how is it working out?’ — is immediately assaulted by a battery-pack of confusing assertions. Yields have gone up! No! Farmer suicides have gone up! Spraying of insecticide has reduced! No! The bollworm has developed resistance to Bt and aphids have attacked cotton! What is true? What is not? I did a lot of reading the past week to get answers to some basic questions. I may not find the Truth but I can certainly throw my lasso around some facts.

Q. Has Bt cotton improved yields overall? A. Yes. Overall, so far, from 2002 onward, yields have gone up a lot. Not all of the increase is due to genetically modified seeds — other factors have mattered too. But, 19% of the yield increase is because of Bt cotton.

Q. Has it cut down on the amount of insecticide that needs to be sprayed? A. Overall, yes, the use of Bt cotton reduced insecticide use by half in the ten years after it was introduced. This could change as the bollworm develops resistance to Bt or other insect pests start attacking cotton. But in the meantime, yes, insecticide use did go down. An added benefit here is that farmers have reported many fewer cases of pesticide poisoning.

Q. Has the Bollworm developed resistance to Bt cotton? A. Yes, indeed, it has, in some places. It has been 10 years of Bt cotton use in India and considering that 95% of the cotton grown now has the Bt gene, the bollworm has a big fat bull’s eye to evolutionarily aim at — the target being resistance to Bt, and the enormous benefit being that it doesn’t die. In 2010, Monsanto admitted that they had found bollworms in Gujarat that were resistant to the first generation of Bt cotton crops.

Q. Have other pests attacked Bt cotton? A. Nature seeks balance. If Bt cotton crops have become pretenaturally safe from bollworms, other insects will surely be emboldened to attack it. Have they? Yes. In recent years a new pest of cotton called the mirid bug, rejoicing in the absence of the bollworm, has been feasting on cotton (story from China). This did not happen directly because of Bt cotton, but because the farmers had massively cut down on spraying general insecticides on their crop. The rise of the mirid bug is eroding some of the benefits of Bt cotton by forcing them to run out and purchase insecticides anyway.

Q. Did sheep die after grazing on Bt cotton? A. Starting in 2005 shepherds in Andhra Pradesh reported that sheep that grazed on the remains of Bt cotton for 3-4 days seemed to pick up a disease and die. Surprisingly, no one seems to have gotten to the bottom of this claim; was Bt cotton to blame or not?

Activists claim that this is obviously GMO poisoning, but the case is not as clear-cut as that. There were cases of pneumonia mixed in with the sheep that seem to have been poisoned, which makes it hard to separate. And, some investigations found pesticide on the leaves, so it could have been that.

The authorities on the other hand, claim that this is just hearsay, that the sheep simply could not have died from any Bt cotton toxicity, and the tests they have done prove it. But, there actually haven’t been any tests done on sheep (there have been tests on buffaloes, goats, chickens and cows). Also none of the tests involved fresh plant material, they just involved cotton seed meal. It is also possible that the toxin came from the non-Bt parts of Bt cotton. So far, it seems like the authorities in India have failed to get to the bottom of this.

This article is very detailed but is a good account of the sheep deaths.

Q. Have farmer suicides shot up due to Bt cotton? A. Now we come to the most incendiary claim — that the use of GM crops have led to growing numbers of farmers taking their own lives. There is no way to discuss this that isn’t going to sound callous. But let’s try.

There are two ways to look at this — as statistics, or as anecdotes. This paper looks at the question statistically. They chose to use statistics from the crime bureau rather than the ones collected by the state governments, because the ones from the crime bureau are more accurate (and higher). What they found is that farmer suicides have not increased, overall, since the introduction of Bt cotton, although they found local variation.

This paper on the other hand, looks at the question anecdotally, although it doesn’t choose to word it that way. I don’t say this to knock it. Anecdotal accounts may bring tragedies to light that get elided into a blip on a curve when you look at it as a statistic. It seems clear that some farmers did face GM crop failures; and for some of those it meant digging deeper into debt. People in wealthier countries where one can declare bankruptcy might wonder why unpayable debt is a reason to take one’s own life. In India, among the poor, this can be a disaster. They mostly do not have good, regulated microcredit available. I’ve known loan sharks to send hoodlums out to their delinquents for beatings; having their meager possessions auctioned off is a regular occurrence.

If it was indebtedness, can it be blamed on GMO? Well, perhaps it wasn’t the Bt toxin itself. But the GMO seeds they obtained come with a context — a high price, marketing, regulations followed and not followed. I will explore that in the next section.

GMO in the Indian Context

Look, after my week of reading everything I could lay my cursor on, I think I am free to make a qualified claim: so far, overall, Bt cotton has helped Indian farmers. It has helped them, overall, get better yields and make more money. But, it has not been a uniform success. The Indian context in particular has had a bit of a culture clash with the more modern economy that Monsanto usually operates in. When Indian farmers have crop failures, this is often a life-destroying event.

What kind of culture clash? The rural population in India has high rates of illiteracy. Many farm workers cannot read or write, let alone get on the internet to look up seed laws. In this environment, hearsay will always have more influence than the latest official dispatch. Instructions from Monsanto about planting buffer areas with non-Bt cotton were not well understood, or, the farmers didn’t have the luxury to ‘do things right’, leading to some places where the bollworm developed resistance to it. In Andhra Pradesh, some farmers didn’t understand that they did not need to spray insecticide anymore, therefore cutting into the profit they might have had.

They are not jaded with years of marketing-speak and haven’t learnt to discount it. Farmers believed the most inflated talk about yields that they could expect from Bt cotton, and probably did not have the cynicism needed to know that this was advertisement. They might have taken more risk than they ought to have given the high cost of the seeds based on this marketing-speak.

The concept of intellectual property is not well understood either — I know this first-hand, because when I was in India we pirated software with abandon, not really understanding that there was something wrong with this. When we bought grain in bulk, some of the small-time vendors adulterated it with stones. Piracy, the black market, adulteration, these are ubiquitous, specially for poorer farmers who are price-conscious and have no consumer representation. There are several cases of unauthorized Bt cotton being sold in the black market, which is usually adulterated with cheaper conventional cotton. Clearly this crop is not going to be as resistant to the bollworm as the pure variety.

The practice of buying seed from a catalog for each new season, very familiar for American farmers, is a bit of a culture shock to Indian farmers. Monsanto’s seeds lose their vigor after single growing season; farmers who have become trained in the practice of growing GM crop have a high dependence on the private sector and are subject to their price whims.

It also seems like Monsanto and their Indian collaborators have not always chosen the best varieties of cotton for the Indian situation. Some of the initial hybrids they chose were not drought-tolerant; this is fine for modern societies where irrigation is a given, but in India, most farmers are still heavily dependent on the monsoon. Some of the GM crop failures in Andhra Pradesh were because of this. Other times, the hybrids they chose grew fine but had a shorter staple length and did not bring in as much profit as the farmers had counted on.

The Good, the Bad

On the plus side, Bt cotton has the potential to drastically cut down the use of pesticides. Not only is this a health benefit for farm workers (they can’t afford safety equipment like masks while spraying, or really, even shoes, so some exposure is guaranteed), it is also good for the environment. Recently, natural predators of insect pests have had their numbers increase. Also, if cash crops are less prone to be eaten by pests, this is a benefit in and of itself.

Let’s talk about the bad. With an engineer’s hat on, the problem of a pest on a cash crop has a simple solution: find a good insecticide and have the plant produce it. Done.

With an ecological hat on, one wonders about the system one is tampering with. The simple solution starts to look like a silver bullet. In general the scientists believe that a GM crop like this comes with a natural life until the target pests develop resistance to it. I’m not smart enough to think through this very well, but here is a question. We know that Bacillus thuringiensis produces insecticide, but we don’t quite understand its role in the ecology. What happens when these creatures develop a resistance to it out in the wild — what does that do in the environment? What balance does it wreck? I don’t think anybody understands.

But it doesn’t really matter anyway, because these ineffable concerns will never trump the immediate need for profit and predictability, and that might just be the story of industrial farming.

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