Cotton seed confusion in poor countries (14/3/2007)

1.Cotton seed confusion in poor countries
2.New technologies coming too fast for Indian farmers in key cotton-growing area


1.Cotton seed confusion in poor countries
Catherine Brahic, Online environment reporter
New Scientist, March 14 2007

On the surface, the figures show the genetically modified Bt cotton produced by Monsanto and a number of Indian partners has had real success in India. The seed produces its own insecticide, and its market share rose from 12% to 62% between 2003 and 2005. But according to Glenn Stone of Washington University in St Louis, the numbers hide the fact that the modified seeds are in fact contributing to a "complete breakdown in the cotton cultivation system".

Stone looked at cotton production in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh in India. He found that new seeds flooded the markets every year: in 2005, there were 78 different brands of cottonseed being sold, but only 24 of those had been around in 2003. You can read his research paper here.

Stone reckons the high turnover reflects a breakdown of the traditional approach of testing the performance of seeds and then sticking to the best ones. Instead, Stone found that the farmers increasingly rely on word-of-mouth, getting advice from their neighbours on what seeds to use which is all well and good until everyone is relying on everyone else, which is what he says is going on now.

The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that some companies have taken seeds that have fallen out of favour, and successfully re-launched them under new names.

So it looks like introducing large numbers of new GM seeds, whatever the effect on yield, brings the risk of undermining traditional - and effective - farming practices. I have to say, blaming it all on company greediness is a bit easy. In other parts of the world, traditional farmers have been more wary of GM seeds. For example, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, farmers have retained their approach to selecting seeds, despite a government drive to introduce GM versions. (I wrote about this in a chapter of a book called Dry in 2006.)


2.New technologies coming too fast for Indian farmers in key cotton-growing area
Farmers relying on word of mouth to choose cottonseed in place of experimental testing

The arrival of genetically modified crops has added another level of complexity to farming in the developing world, says a sociocultural anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Glenn D. Stone, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and of environmental studies, both in Arts & Sciences, at Washington University in St. Louis, 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 2007 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 says. "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."

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 says. "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 the farmers' inability to recognize the varying seeds being sold at market 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 says.

"Many different brands are actually the same seed," he says. "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 says. "The spread more reflects the complete breakdown in the cotton cultivation system."

Editor's note: Glenn Stone is available for interviews. Television and radio reporters can conduct live or taped interviews via Washington University's broadcast studio, which is equipped with VYVX and ISDN lines.

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