AgBioForum, 12(1), 2009 | 15
Then a Pakistani colleague sent me an article about Bt cotton in Pakistan, the conclusion of which is in its title, which heads this article. Najma Sadeque, in Finan- cial Post (May 12th, 2008), wrote a piece entitled ‘After a disastrous track record in 40 countries, Bt cotton is ‘welcomed’ in Pakistan.’ This title reflects the fact that much of the world still believes that Bt cotton has failed in India, and the case is commonly used to energize opposition to biotechnology globally.
There have been unconfirmed reports of transgenic cotton illegally growing in Pakistan for some time, much as Bt seeds in India grew and spread under the radar screen of Delhi and Mahyco-Monsanto from 1999 to 2001 (Herring, 2005). Anecdotal and informal confir- mation of this phenomenon has been extensive, and it would not be surprising, given farmer agency and pro- pinquity. But, this article was about official approval of Bt cotton, not the ubiquitous stealth seeds that defy both IP and biosafety regimes globally (Herring, 2007b).
This dramatic and counter-intuitive title would be puzzling even if one did not follow agricultural biotech- nology at all. If disastrous in 40 countries, why does the Pakistani government “welcome” the technology? If one does know the recent history of Bt cotton, the title is even more stunning: why does Bt technology in cotton spread so rapidly across nations and farms if it has already failed in 40 countries? Are farmers irrational or duped? Who is doing the counting? By what criteria is failure measured? And how can there be 40 countries with sufficient experience with Bt cotton that a judg- ment of “disastrous” can be rendered? Only 23 countries claimed to allow transgenic crops at the time of this arti- cle; only some of those countries grow cotton. Granted, there is underground stealth movement of cotton trans- genics—Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan—but 40 countries with a track record long enough to be deemed disastrous seems a wild guess rather than information.
Framing the Farmer: The Gullible Peasant
Najma Sadeque’s (2008) article about official adoption of Bt cotton in Pakistan is worth analyzing as an arche- type. It reveals dominant elements of the construction of India’s Bt cotton story in global networks advocating restrictions on transgenic crops.
The narrative we seek to understand is one of gulli- ble peasants and colossal failure. In Sadeque’s (2008) article, we find, for example, that in 2002, farmers in Madhya Pradesh planted Bt seeds and “ended up with 100% failure.” The seeds were too expensive, and, as the narrative goes: “How could farmers fail to see the figures that showed it really didn't make sense to grow Bt cotton? They were deceived by false claims.” How do we know for sure that such large-scale miscalculation is plausible? The article relies on the authority of local studies: “the Deccan Development Society (DDS), an Indian grassroots NGO…found [that] those who grew non-Bt cotton made six times more profits than the Bt cotton farmers!” The terrain has shifted, from the state of Madhya Pradesh to the state of Andhra Pradesh, but the narrative is the same: farmers forgoing significant profits and encountering disaster by sowing Bt cotton seeds. The most obvious way to make sense of these numbers—perhaps the only way—is to assume peasant gullibility.
Peasants have a tragic role in history, a history of subordination and exploitation. Yet there is a romantic penumbra around the peasant as well: the evocation of a simpler time. In terms of behavior on the land, the evo- cation is one of traditional society in which the calcula- tions of marginalist economics are largely irrelevant. Tradition rules among peasants. One of the more promi-
(INGOs) opposing Campesina, which ant's voice.”
transgenics calls itself
in agriculture is La ia “the international peas-
More puzzling still is farmer behavior. If Bt cotton has proved disastrous, why are farmers growing it, legally and illegally, in numbers that increase steeply every year? Why do they risk prosecution for illegally growing a crop that destroys their farm economies and kills their livestock? Most important, why does misin- formation persist and have power? As a corollary: why does the global selection of knowledge formation pro- cess not weed erroneous accounts? I will use an exam- ple from Pakistan, not to embarrass its author—as we shall see, the article is egregiously inaccurate—but as a diagnostic tool, as a clinical case of sorts.
Lacking in Marshallian logic, the peasant is con- structed as vulnerable to crafty representatives of the market economy, as well as simple and gullible. The notion that cultivators in India continue to choose a technology that is self-destructive is consistent with this construction, but one must further assume that peasants are incapable of learning. In this narrative, over the last 10 years Indian cotton farmers have not figured out that they have been deceived—or are sufficiently innumerate that they cannot tell profit from loss and therefore do not know whether or not they are being duped. What is striking about this story is that the farmers of India—often branded as peasants in the narrative—have
Herring — Persistent Narratives: Why is the "Failure of Bt Cotton in India" Story Still with Us?