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Persistent Narratives: Why is the “Failure of Bt Cotton in India” Story - page 5 / 9





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AgBioForum, 12(1), 2009 | 18

other invasive and radical alterations of plant genetics, nor do demands for labeling extend to these other forms of genetic modification. “GMO” is a political framing of transgenic plants, but one now so ensconced in common parlance that few stop to ask precisely what it is about transgenesis that warrants a special category of risk and surveillance (Herring, 2008a).

The confusion of cultivar and trait is responsible for much of the spread of Bt disaster stories. The problem is that the means of insertion of a trait into the genome becomes a criterion for creating a whole category of phenotypic characteristics. For example, addition of an insect-resistant trait to cotton is charged with increasing susceptibility to drought, whatever the specific cultivar. Sadeque (2008) warns Pakistanis to learn from Indians:

Bt cotton requires 20% more water than other hybrid cotton, which needs more water than tra- ditional varieties to begin with. No one said any- thing about Bt cotton being drought resistant. The truth was that Bt cotton was unable to adapt to stress conditions. It was criminal to encourage Bt cotton in drought-prone areas—and not telling farmers about this drawback in Bt cotton. (para- graph 12)

Cotton is a risky crop; government agencies in India strongly advise against its cultivation in many drought- prone and marginal areas without irrigation. This agro- nomic caution applies whether the cultivar is Bt or non- Bt. Without water, cotton fails. In thin red soils without irrigation, the risks are very high. Farmers know this; the alternatives are often worse. Cotton is often the only cash crop that has real potential to change a family’s financial circumstances, but at considerable risk. The lure of “white gold” is strong. But there is no reason that addition of the transgene for insect resistance would affect drought tolerance one way or the other; drought tolerance as a trait would be among the very first priori- ties of Indian cotton farmers if transgenesis could pro- duce it, but to date they have only promises, not products.

The Handmaiden State

Sadeque’s (2008) article, like many in global advocacy networks, assumes the worst about the state. Govern- ment approval of Bt cotton in Pakistan is explicitly called an “imposition” of the technology on the nation. To the question of why any government would approve a technology already proved “disastrous” in 40 coun-

tries, the answer is corruption. The immediate case cited for this argument is usually Indonesia:

Later, Monsanto's own records revealed that between 1997 and 2001, it paid some $700,000 in bribes to at least 140 current and former gov- ernment officials and their family members. In 2002, it was caught red-handed paying $50,000 to a high-level official in the Indonesian environ- ment ministry. It was disguised as a consulting. (paragraph 19)

The assumption that the Pakistani government oper- ates on the basis of bribes will resonate widely. The notion that the major question about adoption of trans- genic crops is in the hands of multinational firms and states seems curiously at odds with the real experience of Bt cotton in India, which involved “Robin-Hood” tac- tics, “cottage industry” production, and significant ille- gal spread of cultivars and technology among farmers (Gupta & Chandak, 2005; Herring, 2005; Roy, 2006). Embedded in the government’s announcement of offi- cial approval was tacit recognition that Bt cotton had already arrived in farmers’ fields, via the common stealth routes. No one doubts that corruption is perva- sive, but in the case of Pakistan, approval was more a recognition of a fait accompli than a decision requiring mobilization of power. As in much of the oppositional literature, all power seems to rest with corporations and states; the agency of cultivators to operate beneath the radar of both state and firm is somehow missing, despite clear evidence of its pervasive character (Herring, 2007b).

The Meaning of Numbers

The first diagnostic in this narrative is the loose use of numbers, itself indicative of a casual approach to the empirical world. I’ve come to believe that in opposi- tional literature the numbers do not matter; they are semiotic devices, not outcomes of counting exercises. Their function is rather to provide motivation via shock value, as in the dead sheep story discussed above. More- over, numbers carry credibility; they lend an air of preci- sion to generalizations that have no basis in empirical studies. It is not “several” countries with disasters, but “40;” not some increase in drought susceptibility but 20%; not some dead sheep but “1,800.” The use of pseudo-precision indicated by hard numbers is a conces- sion to the power of arguments that are being coun- tered—the many empirical studies by scientists and

Herring — Persistent Narratives: Why is the "Failure of Bt Cotton in India" Story Still with Us?

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