Genetically modified crops were supposed to improve efficiency and make life easier for farmers in poor countries. The opposite may be true, according to a Washington University in St. Louis study. Technology may be racing too fast for farmers to keep up. It may even be linked to higher suicide rates.
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."