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AgBioForum, 12(1): 14-22. ©2009 AgBioForum.

Persistent Narratives: Why is the “Failure of Bt Cotton in India” Story Still with Us?

Ron Herring Cornell University

Science can say nothing conclusive about many important dimensions of the global cognitive and political rift on transgenic agricultural crops. Empirical studies will not answer questions in the realms of food preference, risk aversion, cultural construc- tions of rural society, or theology. But there are critical empirical questions and much empirical work on transgenic crops. This essay analyzes a puzzle: reports of “the failure of Bt cotton in India”—on agronomic, economic, and environmental grounds—continue to spread globally but are inconsistent with both farmer behavior and scientific studies. This narrative of agro-economic failure has arguably crowded out the more empirically robust story of farm-level success of one trait (insect resistance) in one crop. Why? Understanding this outcome requires conceptualizing the social conditions—interests, rela- tions, cognitive frames—in which production of knowledge claims is embedded. This article argues that there is a critical role for “epistemic brokers,” or hinges, between local, national, and international advocacy groups within larger transnational advocacy networks. Reports of failure of the Bt technology in India are not sustainable scientifically but do serve interests in the contentious politics around GMOs globally.

Key words: Pakistan, Bt cotton, India, farmer suicides, agricultural biotechnology, GMOs, NGOs.

“After a disastrous track record in 40 countries, Bt cotton is ‘welcomed’ in Pakistan.” Najma Sadeque, in Financial Post (May 12, 2008)

Whose Numbers Count?

Persistence of the Bt-cotton-failure story has seemed puzzling to me. The issue seemed settled: Indian farm- ers had collectively decided that Bt technology in cotton was useful—neither a miracle seed nor a suicide seed. Insect resistance was a valuable trait and offered some respite from the pesticide treadmill that is both financial and biological. How do we account, then, for the persis- tence of reports in and about India that “Bt cotton has failed”—in the sense of agro-economic catastrophes ending in suicides, deaths of livestock grazing in Bt fields, allergenicity, and so on? Could purely instrumen- tal reporting of failure be the reason? That is, are the reports of catastrophic failure at variance with the domi- nant global pattern and general Indian experience pur- posely falsified?

At the Ravello conference of 2008, my paper spent some time on the question of how honest—i.e., non- instrumental—errors could be made in measuring yield and income effects of Bt cotton on-farm in India. What had settled in India by 2008 was an empirical consensus about Bt cotton: the technology works as predicted, with

predictable results, increasingly well-understood by farmers, and incorporated into their risk-avoidance strat- egies (Roy, Herring, & Geisler, 2007). One excellent recent summary of studies, including their own, is that of Rao and Dev’s presentation entitled ‘Biotechnology in Indian Agriculture: Evidence from Panel Studies on Bt Cotton’ (2008).1 In what the Bush administration in the United States dismissively refered to as the “reality- based community,” something approaching consensus had emerged from years of partial results and some con- siderable confusion produced by studies claiming disas- ter in the Bt fields.

  • 1.

    Formal-sector studies (industry, government) in the beginning were most likely to find strongly positive agro-economic effects of Bt cotton; academic studies were more mixed but positive, and civil-society organization and NGO studies were likely to be strongly negative (AC Nielsen, 2004; APCoAB, 2006; Bambawale et al., 2004; Basavaraj, Patil & Hanchi- mal, 2007; Bennett, Ismael, Kambhampati, & Morse, 2004; Herring, 2007d; Naik, 2001; Naik, Qaim, Subramanian & Zilberman, 2005; Narayanamoorthy & Kalamka , 2006; Qayum & Sakkhari, 2005; Rao, 2004; Roy et al., 2007; Sahai, 2003; Sahai & Rahman, 2003; Shiva & Jafri, 2004; Zahoo ,

    • 2004)

      . In recent years, studies have narrowed to converge around the success story outlined in the text. See Herring (2008b).

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