Andrew Flachs researches the trials of Indian farmers and their rush toward modern farming practices, such as GMO crops and new pesticides. The choices these farmers make aren’t always easy, even if they seem obvious—an entire host of factors may pressure them one way or the other. One big dividing line is whether to “go organic” or stick to “industrial farming.”
“Okay schoolboy, what did you learn?”
After three seasons of introducing myself as a student learning about genetically modified and organic agriculture in India, the question seems only fair. But despite more than 1,000 farmer surveys, focus groups, plant collection, and more than a few cups of kallu, the local palm wine, I struggle for the soundbite answer people are hoping for. I’ve talked with farmers growing genetically modified Bt cotton that makes its own insecticide, farmers involved with organic projects that prohibit Bt seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, and even a few farmers growing desi cotton indigenous to India. But answering which is “best”? Farming is intensely social, and like our lives it’s messy. “Well”, I say, clearing my throat, “it depends.”
In the years before Bt cotton was commercially introduced to Indian farmers, India was suffering from a plague of bollworms that ate away cotton fruits destined to give birth to white fibers. Pesticide consumption was especially high in the Telangana region where I work.
Dr. Gyanendra Shukla, managing director of Monsanto India, explains: “It was, A: a very expensive proposition and B: it was very torturous. Imagine, in this kind of heat, you have to haul 200 liters of water to the field to spray insecticide every third or fourth day. As it is hot, you can’t put a lot of protective clothing—that was another problem with these insecticides.” Bt cotton, equipped with a gene poisonous to the bollworms, offered one possible solution to this problem.
But as the number of Bt cotton brands diverged from a handful to more than 1,000, farmers have increasingly turned away from their own experiences and followed the advice of shops and neighbors. Bigger, wealthier farmers can hedge their bets by planting both seeds that they know perform well and new seeds that they hope will perform well. Their yields increase, and on a practical level it makes sense that wealthier farmers would perform better than their less-equipped neighbors.Pesticide sprays, greatly reduced but not eliminated by Bt cotton, help to control aphids and other pests that suck water out of cotton plants. Over the course of three growing seasons in about a dozen villages, I have seen one farmer wearing protective face gear. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)
However, smaller farmers don’t have the resources available to test a handful of seeds and if the crop fails, they are left without any tested seeds to turn to. With an unknown seed, the whole season is a gamble. “I’m not sure what seed I took this year,” one farmer tells me. “The picture on the seed packet had a big flower so I’m hoping it will grow well, but only God knows”.
Organic farmers are spared the uncertainty of new Bt seeds because they are legally prohibited from planting them—ironic, as early developers of the Bt modification were themselves Rachel Carson enthusiasts trying to reduce pesticide sprays. But organic agriculture, especially in the developing world, relies on regulation and marketing. The people who buy organic clothing and who oversee organic programs tend to turn away from Bt not because of the gene itself so much as the kind of world it represents: more machines, more products, more corporate influence in our lives.
Organic yields are lower for the farmers where I work. Period. But there’s more to farming than cotton yields. By making their own pesticides and fertilizers, farmers save money, and in an acre of “cotton land” farmers also plant dozens of other plants for food, for alternative incomes, or to attract predator insects.
Organic programs tend to reach out to poorer farmers or farmers in crisis. Such people are more open to change, and in some cases never used that many genetically modified crops and pesticides to begin with. For the most part, everyone benefits—farmers get to make more money doing the same work, organic groups get sympathetic recruits, and consumers can buy clothing with a story behind it. But in a rural world where good growing is equated with being a good person, the poor yields in combination with social pressure from friends, neighbors, and family members can lead frustrated farmers to abandon the program. Once back in the normal market, they’re even worse off than the small Bt farmers. When asked the majority answer that they don’t know the name of the seed they planted this year. “Whatever the broker was willing to give on credit, that’s the one I took,” explains one farmer.
For me, in the end the technology is secondary to these social and cultural factors. Different kinds of farming work differently for different kinds of farmers, because of their resources and the institutions helping them. Faced with an unpredictable environment, farmers have to balance what they know works with what they hope and fear about new technology. But nothing, be it genetic modification or organic outreach, lasts forever. Only with money, yield, credit, social standing in the community, managed risk, knowledge about the environment and improvisation in the field can farming be resilient, just, and, dare I say, sustainable.