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.

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