Farmers in tech trap

Cotton cultivators are on a seed and pesticide treadmill that is draining them of traditional skills

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Thursday 15 December 2011

Farmers in tech trap


As vast tracts of cotton fields in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra turn into a suicide belt for farmers, there is increasing worry that the dizzying speed of technological change, both in seeds and pesticides, is leading to a critical problem for Indian farmers. Ever since GM or Bt cotton made its debut in 2002, farmers have been on a technology treadmill that is robbing them of their traditional agricultural wisdom that had earlier stood them in good stead. And scientists and academic researchers are warning that this is at the heart of the problem plaguing cotton cultivators, specially in rain-fed areas of the country where farmers have been trapped in a spiral of increasingly high input costs, although the success of the crop is dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon.

According to the Raitu Swarajya Vedika, a collective of 40 farmers’ organisations, there have been 90 suicides in six districts of Andhra in the last month alone. There is even more dismal news from the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, which spearheads cotton growers’ cause in this arid region of Maharashtra: 671 suicides in the current year. In both states, the area under cotton has risen dramatically.

To be sure, it is the failure of rains that has led to the failure of the cotton crop and the resulting suicides. But, says Glenn Davis Stone, professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University, who has been studying farmers in Warangal district since 2000, GM or Bt cotton has been exacerbating a key problem underlying the suicides:ÔÇêtechnology treadmills.

What exactly is a technology treadmill? A pesticide treadmill occurs when pests like weeds and bugs evolve to resist the poisons designed to destroy them, forcing farmers to apply ever-higher doses or resort to novel poisons. Similarly, seeds are changed with equal rapidity when it is found that yields tend to taper off. For instance, there are over 800 Bt hybrids in the market developed from four gene constructs, a bewildering array for farmers to choose from.

Stone, who makes it clear that Bt technology did not originally cause the treadmill problem, warns that technology treadmills can have disastrous effects on farm management. The seed and pesticide treadmills are slightly different, but both have vicious effects on local ecology, farm economy, and on the farmer’s decision-making ability. And the worst consequence is that they “destroy the farmer’s confidence that he will ever dig his way out,” he says.

“I saw how farmers were trapped on the pesticide treadmill the first time I came to Warangal in 2000,” Stone says adding, “They kept asking me if I knew of any new pesticide because the insects had developed resistance to the last pesticide.” To press home their desperation, the farmers had made a bonfire of all the pesticides which they had tried and were no longer effective. Similarly, the rapid proliferation of Bt hybrid seeds has exacerbated the problem.

Farmers get confused with the dozens of brands of seeds and pesticide that flood the market every year, says Keshav Kranthi, director of the public sector Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur. It is extremely important that only tested and approved hybrids/varieties that are best suited to the region, along with the best package of practices developed by the research institutions should be made available to farmers.

In the absence of such systems, farmers would resort to random use and inadvertent misuse and over-use of technologies, generally referred to as “treadmill”, thus wasting input resources and leading to higher costs and lower yields, he adds.

However, companies tend to pooh-pooh such concerns. For instance, K K Narayanan, managing director of Metahelix Life Sciences which has several brands in the market, says, “Simple arithmetic will tell you that on an average a company has approval for 30 hybrids.” However, reality is not based on averages. “Some companies have over 50 hybrids approved, whereas some like our own have only a few. So even if all these companies are in the market, tell me how many hybrids will be there to really ‘flood’ the market?” Narayanan asks.

More than enough, it appears, to confuse the farmers judging by their responses. Narsi Reddy, a farmer who grows cotton in four of his eight hectares farm in Mekaboddu village in Warangal, confesses it is always a toss-up which seeds to buy. “What happens is that usually most farmers pick what the neighbour is buying because we are not sure which seed to buy. Just as we were getting the hang of Bollgard I, we are told that Bollgard II is better.” Bollgard is a Monsanto brand marketed by its partners and its licencees.

While Bt cotton was developed initially to fight the bollworm, now there has been a major surge in attacks by sucking pests against which this technology is ineffective. Kranthi warns that with an increasing number of new Bt cotton hybrids hitting the market every year, “there will be more and more new insect pests and diseases that multiply on the susceptible hybrids and create hotspots for the pests and diseases.” And the farmers will find themselves on a faster moving technology treadmill.

The same problem, although with different species of sucking pests, has emerged in China and in some cases it has eliminated all the benefit of Bt seeds, says Stone. “Companies have a history of opportunistic statements about farmer wisdom” (see “Idea of farmer wisdom is relentlessly manipulated”).

Reddy says that earlier he and other farmers would evaluate the seeds over a season or two before deciding which one to opt for. “But now everything changes too fast for us,” says neighbouring cultivator Chinatala Balaiah, who adds that such problems do not occur with rice cultivation. Apparently, in the case of rice, the same variety is grown till an improved variety promoted by the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) is tested by the bigger farmers. KVKs are state-run extension service centres.

Both Stone and Kranthi are critical of the manipulative attitude of companies. “It is unfortunate that farmers are being expected to experiment with so many hybrids on their small farms to decide which is best suited to his field based on their ‘traditional wisdom’,” says Kranthi. Several farmers would have lost their yields to pests, diseases and “location-unsuitability” factor in this hit-and-miss method over the past 10 years. It requires huge effort, infrastructure, and scientific manpower even for organised expert agricultural research systems to identify the best hybrid for a specific location. Leaving such a scientifically intensive process to farmers is unfair, they add.

Stone believes the choice of seeds was frequently the result of a fad. Based on his surveys conducted in 2005, the US academic found that often two nearby villages would have completely different favourites, with no agro-ecological rationale. “It is a clear result of farmers not being in a position to make any assessments,” he insists.

With things changing so fast in the fields, the farmer may find that his traditional wisdom is an attribute of the past—that is, if he can get off the treadmill long enough to understand this disconcerting fact.


Idea of farmer wisdom is relentlessly manipulated

imageAs a visiting American academic, Glenn Davis Stone has put in over 60 weeks of field research on the impact of Bt cotton on farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Stone, professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University, looks closely at how traditional farmer knowledge breaks down when technology changes too fast. In an interview to Latha Jishnu, he explains why this should cause concern

You speak of a seed and pesticide treadmill that farmers are on. Why is it worrying?

It is right at the heart of the problem that farmers are facing. The problem became serious as hybrid cotton seeds spread. The seeds were pest-prone and they spread along with increased insecticide use. Both technologies have some inherent unreliability and both change quickly in India, and the problems in each technology exacerbate the problems in the other. It is important to note that while Bt technology did not originally cause the treadmill problem, it definitely has exacerbated it.

You also say Bt cotton is a craze with localised fads. What do you mean by this?

Data show the 2005 Bt cotton craze fits into a strange and disquieting pattern of localised cotton fads. Farmer experimentation and evaluation play a much smaller role in seed choices than innovation-diffusion theorists and seed companies claim. Instead, seed fads result from agricultural deskilling, in which farmers fail to experiment and evaluate the seeds because of the unpredictability of key variables in cotton cultivation. At present, Warangal farmers have more to teach us about the social nature of decision-making in unpredictable and unstable environments than about the benefits of GM crops.

Cotton scientists say that one of the problems is the indiscriminate release of seeds across the country, ignoring the need for specific hybrids for each agro-climatic zone. Seed companies and their scientists trash this idea, saying farmers are wise enough to know what is good for them. What has been your experience in Warangal?

The seed company employee is in the business of selling seeds, and the companies have a long history of treating farmers like backward, tradition-bound idiots who need to be told how to farm, until the farmers buy their product. At this point they gush about the wisdom of the farmer. Let's not forget that the whole reason there is a market for Bt seeds is the agro-ecological debacle that resulted from farmers adopting another technology: insecticides. What I call the ‘skilling process’ breaks down when technology changes too fast and is too hard to assess.

But technology has its own dynamic and is a continuous process, right?

No one is against development of improved technologies in general. The seed-pesticide technology is a problem because it is deceptively labelled, rapidly changing and ecologically unstable. On the other hand, the Agriculture Research Station in Warangal does an expert job of developing new rice seeds. They release one every few years and make sure farmers know how it works. Thus, farmers are able to make informed decisions.

What do you mean when you say ideas of indigenous knowledge of farming practices are being relentlessly manipulated?

People and firms with a financial interest in agricultural technologies have a distinguished history of depicting farmer skill in ways that suit their interest. The general pattern is to depict farmers as hapless, tradition-bound dunces when they do not adopt the technologies the people and firms are making, and to depict them as wise when they do. Monsanto, having recently emerged as a major seed vendor, specifically equated lack of purchased seeds with general indigenous haplessness. It is interesting that when GM seeds were first being promoted for farmers in the global South, those with interests were sticking with this condescending view, implying an indigenous inability to learn to cultivate new kinds of seeds. The claim was made most prominently by the industry-supported African biotechnologist Florence Wambugu: The great potential of biotechnology to increase agriculture in Africa lies in its “packaged technology in the seed” which ensures technology benefits without changing local cultural practices (Nature 1999).

imageIt was then expanded and repeated widely. Biotechnologist Martina McGloughlin elaborated: For years people have tried to change cultural practices of these farmers, and it just has not worked. It has been a complete failure, because you have to modify infrastructure, you have to re-educate them as to how to modify their farming practices themselves. But with biotech, the technology is in a seed. All you have to do is give them the seed (Nova 2001). This was soon picked up by a range of allies, including industry scientists.

This narrative reached something of an apogee with academic biotechnologist Bruce Chassey: Genetic farming is the easiest way to cultivate crops. All that farmers have to do is to plant the seeds and water them regularly. The GM seeds are insect resistant, so there is no need to use huge amounts of pesticides (Thaindian News 2008). This statement, arguably the most idiotic thing written yet on biotechnology, was reprinted by industry-supported biotechnologist C S Prakash on the biotechnology propaganda website AgBioWorld in 2008.

So when did this portrayal of the clueless farmer change?

When Indian farmers adopted Bt cotton seeds, Monsanto replaced their image of the bumpkin farmer with a farmer who was a more astute observer of seed performance. The ever increasing Bollgard plantings demonstrate that the Indian farmer is willing to adopt a technology that delivers consistent benefits in terms of reduced pesticide use and increased income. Farmers recognise the value of Bollgard, which continues to gain acceptance (Monsanto spokesperson, 2005).

This industry talking point is now being repeated widely by people with vested interests in GM seeds. It is a self-serving claim that is based on no research whatsoever. My long-term multi-village research in Andhra shows most Bt cotton plantings to be seeds the farmer is trying for the first time, and it shows a strong pattern of village-specific seed fad that reflects an extraordinarily high degree of emulation. How could farmers be making wise choices when the seeds, pesticides, and insect populations change so rapidly?

Have you looked at the situation of farmers elsewhere to put your Warangal findings on cotton farmers in some context?

A lot of work pertains to US farmers. But the deskilling is not as severe as with the Indian cotton farmers. I have also redefined what deskilling really means for a farmer. It is different from that of industrial deskilling in which skilled jobs disappear and you end up with less skilled, lower-paid workers who can't really use the skill and knowledge of their predecessors. The farmer still needs to be skilled on technologies—to figure out how they work and how to integrate them in the farm operation—but is unable to. The main cause of this is the overly rapid rate of technological change and a related problem of unrecognisable technologies. There is a fair amount of scientific research on this. Farmers are not omniscient; there are some things they can figure out better than other things.

Are farmers on a faster technology-pesticides treadmill on account of GM technology?

Of course. Farmers didn't really start adopting Bt cotton until around 2005, and within five years we have gone from one genetic construct to four. We have gone from terrible problems with American bollworm to greatly reduced problems with that pest but huge problems with aphids. Meanwhile, there are now hundreds of Bt hybrids available, and there is still a need for new pesticides.

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