GM crops and a herd mentality (26/2/2007)

GM WATCH comment: Here's another interesting piece about the Washington University researcher Glenn Stone's multiyear study of the behaviour of cotton farmers in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, which found that seed fads underlay the rapid spread of Bt cotton there.

It's been suggested the study may have more general relevance to GM crop adoption in the developing world, but could there be still wider lessons?

Stone's study suggests that it's wrong to see the number of farmers growing Bt cotton as an automatic endorsement of the effectiveness of the technology. This is because he found 'social learning' was taking place rather than careful assessment ('environmental learning') - 'everyone is copying everyone else, which results in fads, not testing'.

This is totally at odds with the endlessly repeated claims by Monsanto and others that the increase in Bt cotton acres in India 'bear testimony to the success of this technology and the benefit that farmers derive from it.' (Ranjana Smetacek, Director of Corporate Affairs for India, Monsanto)

But, however extreme the seed fads Stone found in Warangal, should we assume that it's only developing world farmers who are vulnerable to hype and fashion. After all, Donald White, a University of Illinois plant pathologist, has described some US GM crop adoption as the product of 'a herd mentality'. 'Everyone has to have a biotech program', he says, and this chimes in with a University of Iowa study on why farmers are growing GM soya. That study found that while increasing yields was cited by the majority of farmers in the study as the reason for planting GM soya, the research showed they were actually getting lower yields.

And this isn't peculiar to Iowa. An ISAAA annual review of the uptake of GM crops for 1998 reported yield improvements of 12% for farmers in the US growing GM soya, based on their own estimates. But a review of over 8,000 university-based controlled varietal trials involving GM soya in the US for that same year showed almost exactly the opposite - yield reductions averaging 7%. This suggests a serious gap between perception and reality.

It's interesting in this context that with biotech traits, the industry has abandoned its previous practice of making its new seeds available to extension ag. scientists first to run controlled trials on and then recommend to farmers according to the results. Instead, the companies have gone direct to the farmers with their PR machines at full throttle.

Stone's paper also contains the suggestion that this kind of agricultural deskilling may have occurred in the US over a long period, starting with the Green Revolution. He notes that, 'In her history of maize breeding in the United States, Fitzgerald (1993) argued that adoption of hybrids led to 'deskilling' of American farmers, turning farmers into passive customers of seed firms. Within a few years of the spread of hybrid corn, farmers who had previously been developing landraces and collaborating with public-sector breeders were told, 'You may not know which strain to order. Just order FUNK'S HYBRID CORN. We will supply you with the hybrid best adapted to your locality' (Funk Bros. 1936 Seed Catalog, quoted in Fitzgerald 1993, 339).

Agricultural Deskilling and the Spread of Genetically Modified Cotton in Warangal by Glenn Davis Stone, Current Anthropology Volume 48, Number 1, February 2007 67

Genetically modified crops add new layer to Indian farming
By Neil Schoenherr
Washington University in St. Louis RECORD, Feb 26 2007

Glenn D. Stone, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and of environmental studies, both in Arts & Sciences, has completed the first detailed anthropological fieldwork on these crops and the way they impact - and are impacted by - local culture.

The study, published in the February issue of Current Anthropology, focuses on cotton production in the Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh, India, one of the nation's key cotton-growing areas. There, Stone found several factors affecting farmers' ability to adjust to new developments by practical methods. Among them are the speed of change, the overwhelming number of choices in the seed market and the desire for novelty - all of which lead to lack of proper seed testing by farmers.

'There is a rapidity of change that the farmers just can't keep up with,' Stone said. 'They aren't able to digest new technologies as they come along. In Warangal, the pattern of change is dizzying. From 2003 to 2005, more than 125 different brands of cottonseed had been sold. But the seeds come and go. In 2005, there were 78 kinds being sold, but only 24 of those were around in 2003.'

[image caption: 'Farmers buying cotton seed at a shop in the Warangal District, India.']

Farmers buying cotton seed at a shop in the Warangal District, India.

Bt cottonseed, genetically modified to produce its own insecticide, was introduced in India in 2002. Between 2003 and 2005, the market share of Bt seed - created through collaboration between Monsanto Co. and several Indian companies - rose to 62 percent from 12 percent.

Stone's research reveals that the increase resulted not from traditional farming methods of testing seed for efficacy, but from a pattern of 'social learning' - farmers relying on word of mouth to choose seeds.

'Very few farmers were doing experimental testing, they were just using it because their neighbors were,' Stone said. 'There has been a breakdown in the process of farmers evaluating new seed technologies.'

While Bt seed exacerbates the problem by creating yet another option, the farming troubles predate its introduction. In the late 1990s, there was an epidemic of farmer suicide in the Warangal District. Many farmers are deeply in debt and have been for generations.

Stone's study shows that a problem of recognition contributes to those woes. The farmers' desire for novelty leads to rapid turnover in the seed market. Seed firms frequently take seeds that have become less popular, rename them and sell them with new marketing campaigns, Stone said.

'Many different brands are actually the same seed,' he said. 'Farmers can't recognize what they are getting. As a result, the farmers can't properly evaluate seeds. Instead, they ask their neighbors. Copying your neighbor isn't necessarily a bad thing; but in this case, everyone is copying everyone else, which results in fads, not testing.'

Stone argues that the previously undocumented pattern of fads, in which each village moves from seed to seed, reflects a breakdown in 'environmental learning,' leaving farmers to rely on 'social learning.' Stone refers to this situation as 'de-skilling.'

'The bottom line is that the spread of Bt cotton doesn't so much reflect that it works for the farmers or that the farmers have tested it and found it to be a good technology,' Stone said. 'The spread more reflects the complete breakdown in the cotton cultivation system.'

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