AgBioForum, 12(1), 2009 | 16
survived so long with such a high level of incompe- tence.
I have repeatedly raised this puzzle of farmer behav- ior with opponents of Bt cotton in India: even if we accept the argument that all official data are tainted by corporate interests, or those of a government influenced by corporate affiliations and power, and officially com- mitted to developing biotechnology, surely farmers are counting costs and returns in the fields. Even in official counts of acreage and farmer adoptions, which under- state the extent of Bt cotton use because of the under- ground seed market, more than two-thirds of farmers growing cotton have now adopted some Bt hybrid. There is, so far as I know, no evidence of dis-adoption of the technology, though particular hybrids rise and fall in popularity, as always. Since farmer experience with Bt hybrids goes back to at least 1999, would farmers not by now be catching on to “disastrous” results and dis- adopting in droves? Why does the technology spread? Why does it persist in farmer choices?
In explaining the rapid and widespread adoption of Bt cotton in India, one prominent NGO opponent told me that Indian farmers are easily duped by corporate propaganda: “farmers in Europe are ten times more sophisticated than our farmers.” It may not be widely known in opponent circles that eight European Union (EU) countries now have farmers growing transgenic crops, though acreages are small. Nevertheless, interests are clear. When the Sarkozy government banned one transgenic maize variety in January 2008, it was French maize farmers and the Spanish government that appealed the decision. The interest of maize farmers is obvious, but why Spain? The Spanish government did not want doubt cast on a cultivar widely grown by its farmers. Globally, 23 countries have officially approved transgenic crops growing in fields; many more nations—for reasons of global market pressures—deny that their farmers are growing unofficial, brown bag, or illicit transgenics (Herring, 2007b). Despite the political rhetoric of north versus south, the top 5 countries in acreage after the United States are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, and China.
Adoption of Bt cotton has been rapid and almost universal in many cotton areas of India. Stone’s (2007) anthropological work in Warangal district found farmers adopting Bt cotton with such alacrity that it was “more than innovation adoption, more than a tipping point: it was a craze.”
The number of genetic events, firms, and farmers involved with Bt cotton in India increases sharply month by month, year by year. Monsanto gets all the
press, but there were Bt cotton hybrids bred in “cottage industry” sites beginning in Gujarat in 2001, where the Navbharat 151 stealth transgenic had been growing for 3 years unknown to Delhi or Monsanto. Despite talk of ‘monopoly’ in virtually all oppositional narratives, by 2007 there were 137 officially approved Bt hybrids—up from 3 in 2002—involving four genetic events and doz- ens of firms, in addition to the vigorous illegal ‘stealth seed’ market of farmer-grown transgenics. Variously called ‘indigenous Bt,’ ‘deshi Bt,’ or ‘Navbharat vari- ants,’ farmer-bred Bt hybrids became a cottage industry, especially in Gujarat (Herring, 2005; Jayaraman, 2004). The reason for more rapid adoption of illegal versus legal transgenic cotton is primarily price, though some farmers believe stealth seeds are better-adapted to local conditions; new varieties are produced by hybridizing the transgenic with a local variety (Gupta & Chandak, 2005; Roy et al., 2007).
Stealth hybrids had robust names like Maharakshak and Agni, Luxmi, and Kavach. There are hybrids from the Chinese public sector via Nath Seeds. There are indigenous Bt hybrids both licensed from Mahyco- Monsanto and invented locally (JK Agri-Genetics Lim- ited of Hyderabad). To code this outcome as a function of deception by clever agents of multinational corpora- tions requires a doubly problematic assumption: not only do peasants not know their business, but neither do commercial firms that survive in a capitalist economy.
Biology: Confounding Plants and Traits
A second way the Bt failure narrative goes astray is lack of attention to or curiosity about basic plant biology. Some reports of Bt failure may be honest, but wrong. Others fail to distinguish plants from traits.
Shortages of Bt cotton seeds in the early period arose because of excess demand, regulatory restrictions, and farmer excitement; demand exceeded supply in many areas. As a result, uncertified seed stock of ambig- uous heritage entered the villages and was sold as Bt; there was widespread fraud, the extent of which is inde- terminate for obvious reasons. In Warangal, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, one duplicate called itself Mahaco to trick farmers into thinking it was Mahyco (Herring, 2008b). Seed certification for Bt cotton is not available in Andhra Pradesh; in the absence of certification, a farmer may honestly believe that she has planted Bt seeds but has in fact been victimized by hucksters responding to supply-demand gaps. To say decisively that a farmer’s Bt cotton has failed requires a simple test—like the one developed by the Central Institute for
Herring — Persistent Narratives: Why is the "Failure of Bt Cotton in India" Story Still with Us?