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Study explores the effect of genetically modified crops on developing countries

A new study in the February issue of Current Anthropology explores how the arrival of genetically modified crops affects farmers in developing countries. Glenn Davis Stone (Washington University) studied the Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh in India, a key cotton growing area notorious for suicides by cotton farmers.

In 2003 to 2005, market share of "Bt cotton" seeds rose from 12 percent to 62 percent in Warangal. Bt cotton is genetically modified to produce its own insecticide and has been claimed by its manufacturer as the fastest-adopted agricultural technology in history.

Monsato, the firm behind Bt cotton, has interpreted the rapid spread of the modified strain as the result of farmer experimentation and management skill – similar to mechanisms that scholars cite to explain the spread of hybrid corn across American farms. But Stone's multiyear ethnography of Warangal cotton farmers shows an unexpected pattern of localized cotton seed fads in the district. He argues that, rather than a case of careful assessment and adoption, Warangal is plagued by a severe breakdown of the "skilling" process by which farmers normally hone their management practices.

"Warangal cotton farming offers a case study in ‘agricultural deskilling'," writes Stone. The seed fads had virtually no environmental basis, and farmers generally lacked recognition of what was actually being planted, a striking contrast to highly strategic seed selection processes in areas where technological change is learned and gradual. Interviews also provided consistent evidence that Warangal cotton farmers prefer trying new seeds – seeds without any background information whatsoever – to trying several strains on smaller, experimental scales and choosing one for long-term adoption.

The problem preceded Bt cotton, Stone points out; its root causes are reliance on hybrid seed, which must be repurchased every year, and a chaotic seed market in which products come and go at a furious pace and farmers often cannot tell what they are using. Farmer desire for novelty exacerbates the turnover of seeds in the market, Stone argues, and seed firms will frequently take seeds that have fallen out of favor, rename them, and resell with new marketing campaigns. For instance, one recent favorite seed in several villages is identical to four other seeds on the market.

Stone argues that the previously undocumented pattern of fads, in which each village lurches from seed to seed, reflects a breakdown of the process of "environmental learning," leaving farmers to rely purely on "social learning." Bt cotton was not the cause of this "deskilling," but in Warangal it has exacerbated the problem.

"On the surface, [Warangal] appears to be a dramatic case of successful adoption of an innovation," Stone explains. "However, a closer analysis of the dynamics of adoption shows that the pattern some see as an environmentally based change in agricultural practice actually continues the established pattern of socially driven fads arising in the virtual absence of environmental learning."

Strangely, in another part of India, a very different history of Bt cotton has led to an improvement in agricultural skilling. In Gujarat, the loss of corporate control over the Bt technology has led to an increased involvement of farmers in local breeding, and an apparent increase in knowledge-based innovation.

Suzanne Wu | EurekAlert!
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