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Persistent Narratives: Why is the “Failure of Bt Cotton in India” Story - page 7 / 9





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AgBioForum, 12(1), 2009 | 20

producers of contention who walk the fine line: indige- nous enough, but fluent in English. “Third-world” intel- lectuals play an especially important role; their authenticity rents are accordingly high. Because of the extra-local nature of knowledge consumption, facticity itself retreats from salience; as the audience shifts to global fora, local confirmation is not critical for success. Cotton farmers in Gujarat do not know what Vandana Shiva is saying about “genocidal” Bt cotton seeds in Curitiba, Brazil—or even who Vandana Shiva is. If one sensibly asks, how did the terminator-suicide-seed nar- rative survive in India so long after being proven so decisively wrong, one answer is that production of claims is mostly for international networks, and cer- tainly not for farmers (Herring, 2006).

Audience is critical to the strategies of advocacy organizations. Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch could not relay dubious or sensationalist informa- tion without fear of undermining their legitimacy in cir- cles that count. Legitimacy of these INGOs depends on credibility. It is difficult to document the horrors that both organizations expose, and there is intense pressure to go with less rather than more documentation; but the credibility concern remains a powerful counterbalance. For local NGOs active in the Bt cotton controversy, it is almost impossible for their consumers and funders to disconfirm even the most incredible accounts. As Heins (2008) has noted, the very lack of grassroots connec- tions that prompts reliance on local NGOs in the first place renders international funders dependent on them for epistemic mediation. If HIVOS (Netherlands) had grass-roots support in Warangal district (India), they would not have to depend on the regional Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (Secunderabad), which in turn relies on reports from the village-level CROPS (Jang- aon).

Manufacturing contention then constitutes a highly specialized mode of production. The means of produc- tion are owned by relatively few leaders, whose rewards are significant; relations of production critically deter- mine the objective veracity of accounts. Production is in part for domestic consumption, but mostly for interna- tional networks. Contentious knowledge claims repre- sent an interactive effect of the characteristics of the domestic network and international coalitions.

International Coalition Dynamics and Hinges

Coalitions seek to broaden support by weaving seem- ingly incongruent strands together: “Code Pink Says No to GMO,” but so does the Pesticide Action Network

(and not unimportantly, the pesticide industry). Interna- tional networks facilitate flows of reciprocal but asym- metric authoritative knowledge; “Monsanto’s terminator gene” as settled fact moves center-periphery; farmer sui- cides and dead sheep move periphery to center, then back to periphery with the added credibility of reports published in Europe. A reciprocal authenticity dynamic develops: ex-colonial powers and their press authenti- cate global narratives for local networks, and local sto- ries with authenticity based on indigeneity provide confirmation for global narratives. Authenticity rents are enhanced by the celebration of local knowledge that dovetails with the skepticism about science that under- lies the epistemology of protest and simultaneous valo- rization of participatory development. There is no reason, for example, for a global advocacy network to know that there are no patents on Bt cotton (or other plants) in India, but the global narrative requires patents as a mechanism for enforcing both corporate power and peasant exploitation.

Normative Conclusion

The answer to our puzzle about farmers adopting disas- trous technologies—perhaps the most rapid global adoption of any technology in history—is that the disas- ters exist entirely in the ideational imaginary of transna- tional advocacy networks. Nevertheless, the narrative of Bt-cotton catastrophe in India is coherent and globally distributed; it catches attention and compels action. It is also without any empirical or biological basis. The spread of molecular breeding technologies in India is rooted in precisely the agency and rationality of Indian—and other—farmers denied in global narratives of GMO opponents.

Rather than putting “peasants” at great risk, Bt cot- ton in India has proved a scale-neutral partial solution to a pressing agronomic problem: bollworm destruction of crops. Externalities seem, so far, to be positive, in the form of reduction of pesticide application. And there seems to be no evidence that even the labor-displacing effects once feared are materializing; larger harvests mean more work harvesting. India in this sense con- forms to a more general pattern. There is now consider- able evidence accumulated by authoritative institutional sources establishing the pro-poor potentials of genetic engineering in agriculture (Herring, 2007a). Caveats both real and imagined with regard to bio-property and bio-safety do not seem to obviate real potential for enhancing the developmental prospects of some of the world’s most disadvantaged people (Herring, 2007c).

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

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