Genetically Modified or Organic Farming: Which Will Sustain a Growing Nation?

In a place where population growth is moving incredibly fast, added pressure on farmers in India in the wake of crushing debt and failed crops calls for a new agricultural approach. Genetic modification and organic farming present promising solutions. Young Explorer Andrew Flachs will investigate the effect of both growing strategies by interviewing farmers in Southern India.


On the Trail of Bt Cotton:  How One Small Gene is Having a Big Impact in India

In his study of the empires that spanned South India, historian David Ludden argued that this region only ever had one true ruler – the monsoon. Reaching for my raincoat to catch farmers during their 7 am breakfast, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion.

In hot son or monsoon rain all-female teams of hired labor transplant rice.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.
Despite hot sun or monsoon rain all-female teams of hired labor transplant rice. Photo by Andrew Flachs.

In the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, India, farmers grow cotton and rice, as they have for centuries.  Rice seed changes slowly and carefully, in part because farmers have no real need to take risks – if the crop fails or the market crashes, they can always just eat it.

Yet with cotton, the same farmers face a more complicated situation.  Since 2005, almost everyone here plants genetically modified Bt cotton, a controversial plant modified to produce a toxin innocuous to humans but deadly to the cotton-loving caterpillars of the lepidopteran family.

The jury is still out about the effects of this change: pesticide use appears to have fallen while yields increased, but other studies warn that farmers have stepped on to a kind of technology treadmill, in which they must continually run ahead with new technologies or risk falling off into financial ruin.

Although Bt cotton has a built-in resistance to some insects, pesticide sprays are still required for non-target pests like aphids and whiteflies. Photo by Andrew Flachs.

As a PhD candidate in anthropology, my research is less about the mechanics of farming than about the social consequences of this agriculture on environmental knowledge and farmer livelihoods.  Or, as I recently explained to my mother:  “I talk to Indian farmers about their feelings”.

Five days a week I speak to cotton and rice farmers armed with a household survey and the help of my research assistant, Arun Kumar.  I spend the other two days volunteering with the Rural Development Foundation’s Kalleda School, a primary school that provides meals, English classes, and the opportunity to photoblog to an international audience.

After churning the soil with tractors, farmers here use bullock-driven steel to level rice paddies, ensuring that water and nutrients flow to all of the plants equally.
After churning the soil with tractors, farmers here use bullock-driven steel to level rice paddies, ensuring that water and nutrients flow to all of the plants equally.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

The survey questions record dry agricultural data such as plants grown or quintals of cotton harvested, but they’re really launching points for a more meaningful ethnography of environmental knowledge.  Emduku?  I ask after each question on seed choice or land management.  Why?  Can you show me?

Such questions can get frustrating, the same reaction I might have if interrogated about why I prefer Wisconsin cheddar to provolone.  But as we talk, one farmer shows me how he has lined his field with watermelons to provide respite from the hot sun; another curses the shop that assured him that this brand rather than that one would produce the best yield; another laments the falling price of cotton in American markets.

Gradually, banal decisions like seed choice illuminate a more complicated discussion of local knowledge, the influence of new experts, and global networks of economy and power.

While it may seem quaint, bullock-driven plows can be more efficient and effective than tractors for small farmers when doing the fine-tuned, difficult work of constructing rice paddies. Photo by Andrew Flachs.

After thanking a few hundred farmers for their time, I will ask the same questions to organic farmers, with the aim of understanding how agricultural knowledge, biodiversity, and local hierarchy play out among that population.  Right now it’s impossible for me to say which method is better for the farmer, but it is my goal to understand how lives change because of these big questions.


NEXT: Indian Farmers Cope With Climate Change and Falling Water Tables

Andrew Flachs is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. His research follows agricultural change and the adaptation of ecological knowledge among small farmers in the newly formed state of Telangana, India.
  • Rubab Zahara

    so nice

  • Siva Arumugam

    Please talk to Dr.Nammalvar in Tamil nadu related to organic / natural way of farming and how we can build a sustainable society.

  • Loren Eaton

    Who says it has to be organic OR GMO OR conventional. The real answer is the wise use of all three. I don’t think the GMO or the conventional supporters will object…not so sure about the first group.

  • Art Toegemann

    If organic and inorganic produce are equal, organics win. It is a simpler, less expensive process.

  • Andrew Flachs

    Hi Loren,

    It’s a good question. Right now, the answer is – the organic regulatory agencies and the consumers say it has to be all all or nothing. Under current certification standards, no GMO products may be labelled as organic.

  • T. Heinrichs

    Plants share genetics. You can’t grow GMO and Organics together, because you quickly get GMO patented genes in all the plants. Ask Canadian canola, soy, flax and corn farmers.

  • Andrew Flachs

    Hi T,

    Your comment is well taken – one of the major concerns about GMOs is the possible cross pollination that would bring genes from GMOs into other crops. However, those crops need to be closely related enough to be successfully fertilized by GM pollen. In this particular example, Bt cotton pollens are unlikely to contaminate non-Bt cottons as virtually all the cotton in this area is GM. Unlike in Canada or the United States, organic agriculture in this area most often occurs at the larger, village level rather than at the level of the individual farmer because the concerns of certification, oversight, marketing, etc. tend to be handled by development groups that find it more efficient to work with groups. In those areas, no one plants Bt and this distance seems to be enough to keep the transgenes at bay. However, the case of Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser, in which some GM canola likely blew off of a truck and took root in the field of a farmer who had not purchased it, may be relevant here – Seeds set from the previous year can be found in the edges of fields here while cotton, a seed more or less surrounded by a parachute of fibers, tends to blow off trucks headed to markets. It should be noted that pollen from cotton can only pollinate and thus influence the genetic structure of closely related species in the Malvaceae family. In this area, hibiscus and okra are both commonly grown near cotton (often in the same field), but one study from Burkina Faso suggests that cotton is not that promiscuous. In the Canadian case of GM canola, there are many closely related Brassicaceae plants happy to receive the genes. Some of them, unfortunately, are noxious weeds.

  • Charles Flachs

    Andrew – Great work! I am always reminded of how we in the Western World thought that the new antibiotics were the best thing to happen to medicine and would cure the world. As we now know the antibiotics only work as a helper for the body which has to respond eventually with antibodies of it own to win the battle. Not to mention the very scary strains of microbes showing up because of resistance. So… perhaps we need to rethink the intervention at every step of the way for farmers. It seems as if the GMO story is driven in some part by money not necessarily what is sustainable. I hope you can prove me wrong!

  • Dorian


    The physicist and ethics activist from India, Vandana Shiva, in her book “Water Wars” published in 2002 makes it perfectly clear that the feelings and livelihoods of Indian Farmers have been severely hurt by genetic engineering:

    “…drought resistance is a complex multi-genetic trait, and genetic engineers have so far not been successful in engineering plants that possess it… In fact, GM crops… such as Round-Up Ready soy beans and corn have lead to soil erosion… Investing in indigenous breeding knowledge and protecting the rights of local communities are more equitable and sustainable ways to ensure access to water and food for all.” (pg115)

    Does the supposedly ethical effort by GE corporations allegedly acting to “feed the world’s starving” essentially cancel itself out by threatening and compromising the thousands-year-old emotionally intelligent relationship between people and their place that evolves between the indigenous economy and farmer’s mind, body, soul even and the natural cycles of the monsoon ecosystem?

    What is the National Geographic Society doing to encourage this investment in “indigenous breeding knowledge?”

    Are you studying the feelings that come with participating in the essentially multilingual conversation of exchange of products, services, language and identity that occurs naturally indeed, “organically” between plants and people when collaborative work structures are allowed to flourish?

    Have you noticed some levels of emotional intelligence in more ancient societies like India that develops as a form of multilingualism between indigenous farmers and their landscape/ecosystem that GE corporations and GE hired farmers lack or cannot understand?

    In other words can the differing approaches to the issues/challenges of food production such as seen between GE and Organic Ag. be seen as issues of language: A choice of preferring either Monolingualism or Multilingualism? A choice of ignoring or listening to diverse opinions/ideas?

    Which does the Biosphere prefer?

  • Chaitanya

    I have recently been able to work closely with people who work to save farmers from suicides in India and it is very rare that I get to see the media reporting what we are seeing on the ground. The scene is a lot worse than this:

    I think our whole approach to living on this planet needs a rethink. There are billions of years worth of natural systems built into the ecosystem that can be harnessed and there is plenty of research starting with Masanobu Fukuoka (Japan) and Subash Palekar in India on how that can be done. It is perfectly possible to work WITH the ecosystem rather than AGAINST it.

    There is plenty of scientific evidence that any toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers slowly destroy the soil fertility and thereby decrease plant immunity to diseases over time while the pests start their own arms race as they start developing immunity to not only specific pesticides but also GMO. This is simply unsustainable and has already started having irreversible consequenses on the quality of groundwater and river water. Small farmers in India are on a vicious cycle of more pesticides and larger debt while crop yield is falling incessantly. Here is one report on what’s happening in Brazil: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/farmers-say-gmo-corn-no-longer-resistant-to-pests/

    Farmers who are taking to Subash Palekar’s well researched natural farming methods have been able to save themselves from debt while working WITH nature to take care of its own pest control and making sure the main contributors to soil fertility, that is soil bacteria and earth worms are thriving.
    Here is a very nice animation on what exactly soil fertility is about and how somehow we have got all our basics about it wrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J07njntb1vY

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