My Return to the Future of Farming: Organic and Genetically Modified Cotton in India

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.

“You’re going back?” Anthropologists have to get used to this question from their family and friends, because we specialize in long-term fieldwork. Going back to the same places, in my case to the same handful of genetically modified Bt and organic cotton planting villages in Telangana, India between 2012 and 2014, allows us to get a better perspective on the rhythms that define life in different places, even if it means more time away from home.

Fieldwork selfie - An anthropologist, a research assistant, and a field officer for an Organic NGO sip tea in a cafe in Telangana, India. My work would be impossible without the help and advice of local collaborators. Photo by Andrew Flachs
Fieldwork selfie—an anthropologist, a research assistant, and a field officer for an Organic NGO sip tea in a cafe in Telangana, India. My work would be impossible without the help and advice of local collaborators.
(Photo by Andrew Flachs)

This is truer for the study of agriculture than for many other research topics: one or two bad seasons aren’t enough to study the future of farming, especially when I’m trying to get to the bottom of something as contentious and important as the future of agriculture in a country that one-seventh of the world calls home. This summer is my chance to follow up on interviews, surveys, plant collections, and informal tea breaks that I use as data.

The sun rises over the path to an organic cotton field.  Farmers in this hilly area grow a mix of corn, sorghum, cotton, and peanuts.  Sometimes we have to get up long before the sun to catch farmers on their morning field inspections, where they check for insects and compare notes with their neighbors. Photo by Andrew Flachs
The sun rises over the path to an organic cotton field. Farmers in this hilly area grow a mix of corn, sorghum, cotton, and peanuts. Sometimes we have to get up long before the sun to catch farmers on their morning field inspections, where they check for insects and compare notes with their neighbors. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

It’s been an eventful year for cotton in India. In an encompassing review of the tragic epidemic of farmer suicide, a social statistician concluded that he could find no systematic relationship between suicide and Bt cotton planting, despite longstanding claims that Bt cotton caused suicides. An insect research team discovered resistance to the genetically modified Bt cotton genes across five continents, compromising the effectiveness of the genetic modification itself. Some of my own work suggests that genetically modified cotton continues to pose a problem for farmer learning, hurting its long-term sustainability, and a three year field trial showed that organic production can have similar yields and be more profitable for soybeans and cotton when compared with conventional and genetically modified crops, suggesting that both forms of production have potential.

A farmer shows me how cotton pests immune to the Bt toxin are plaguing Telangana communities even as sprays are decreasing overall.  Photo by Andrew Flachs
A farmer shows me how cotton pests immune to the Bt toxin are plaguing Telangana communities even as sprays are decreasing overall. Photo by Andrew Flachs

All of this happened in a year when India cultivated almost a third of the world’s cotton fields, and over 90% of cotton farmers planted Bt cotton.

Cotton piles up in a warehouse store room. Last year, India produced about 29 million bales of cotton, second only to China, on 11.7 million hectares of land, about a third of the land used worldwide to cultivate cotton. Photo by Andrew Flachs
Cotton piles up in a warehouse store room. Last year, India produced about 29 million bales of cotton, second only to China, on 11.7 million hectares of land, about a third of the land used worldwide to cultivate cotton. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

How to sort through all this? Is organic better than genetically modified? These are big questions, difficult to answer because they ask, “What does it mean to say that something is successful?” Do a lot of farmers plant the genetically modified Bt cotton? Absolutely. Have yields increased and sprays decreased since they started? Definitely, if not as dramatically or consistently as we might’ve hoped.

Farmers load pesticides to spray their cotton field, without the benefit of protective gear. Spraying is often a three-man operation: one farmer sprays, a second person walks behind him with the pesticide mixture, and a third person mixes the next batch of pesticide powder with water. Protective gear is often hot, uncomfortable, expensive, and unavailable to farmers who must work in hot, humid conditions for hours on end. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

But for my work as an anthropologist, it all comes down to the farmers. No solution, organic or genetically modified, can be truly sustainable if farmers can’t try out these technologies and trust their results, and that’s the kind of information that gets lost in the sweeping national surveys or field trials mentioned above. In fact, something always gets lost: for example, what does it mean that cotton pesticide sprays aren’t disappearing as quickly as scientists hoped? In an area where farmers plant food and medicine crops right next to their cotton, it means that pesticide consumption remains high. How can we judge the impacts of organic or Bt cotton? The only way we can—ask the farmers, year after year, after year.

Click here to read more by Andrew Flachs

Changing Planet

,

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.