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Who benefits from the cultivation of Bt cotton?

Esha Shah

The debate on genetically modified organisms in India is overly focussed on determining success and failure or developing means to bureaucratically impose bio-safety regulation.

THIS IS in continuation of what Suman Sahai and K.R. Kranthi have written in The Hindu on success or failure of Bt cotton in India. Sahai calls India's Bt cotton technology a failure whereas Kranthi thinks that Bt cotton is the best available option for bollworm control.

Success or failure, both Sahai and Kranthi talk on behalf of farmers. This article intends to engage with this category called "farmers." Who is this "farmer" usually referred to in these discourses on success or failure of Bt cotton? In other words, who is cultivating Bt cotton? The following discussion is based on my research in Gujarat, which may be relevant for the other States.

The last three years have seen a substantial spread of Bt cotton cultivation in Gujarat. The total production increased from 11 lakh to 54 lakh bags and the average yield increased from 122 to 483 kg per hectare between 2000-01 and 2004-05. Gujarat farmers have adopted Bt seeds, allegedly not those marketed by the Monsanto Mahyco Biotech (officially permitted by the GEAC) but the seeds descended from the Navbharat seeds (declared illegal by the GEAC because they were commercially sold without the formal permission), which are now locally multiplied and sold by the several seed companies and farmers themselves. In the year 2004-05, Bt seeds were multiplied in 20,000 acres in Gujarat, from which 60 lakh packets were prepared. Of these, 24 lakh to 25 lakh packets were consumed in Gujarat and the rest were sent to the other States. (These figures are based on the personal interviews with staff and owners of the seed companies in Gujarat and the information provided by the State Agricultural Department).

Even when one calls this a failure of Monsanto's seeds in comparison with seeds locally multiplied and sold, it would be difficult to call this a failure of Bt technology. The important question to ask is who among farmers are investing in multiplying and diffusing Bt seeds?

It has largely been the dominant Patel and Thakore farmers (capital rich but not necessarily holding large pieces of land) in Gujarat who have invested, first of all, in developing locally suitable Bt varieties and then in marketing them through social and kinship networks. The currently popular Bt cotton variety is produced in Gujarat after a few informally conducted experiments, the social and material investment for which has been facilitated through control over cheap (seasonally migrating) Adivasi labour, skilled in plotting hybrid seeds.

There are other reasons that give an advantage to historically and materially dominant farmers in Gujarat to invest in adoption, development, and diffusion of Bt technology. The history of cotton cultivation in Gujarat is a history of a war between nature and technology.

The only thing predictably produced in this not-yet-concluded tussle is risk. Especially since the introduction of hybrid varieties of cotton in the 1970s, nature has responded by massively multiplying American bollworms.

A series of hybrid varieties were introduced, more so in the 1980s and 1990s, to make up the fall in production as a result of the pest problem (among other things). These were martyred, within 5 to 7 years of their introduction, on nature's citadel protected by worms.

Worms are one type of actors in nature's drama that produce risk and uncertainty. The second element involves water. A large part of mainland and north Gujarat — the cotton growing tract — is dependent upon ground water, which has plummeted in this region to between 600 and 1000 feet. Access to groundwater needs access to capital. Farmers without ownership in tube-wells rarely grow cotton.

The risk involved in cotton cultivation from two of nature's agencies — pests and water — is substantial, and requires considerable social and material resources to be mitigated.

Two factors — control over cheap and skilled labour and social and material capacity to take up a fight with nature — has given an edge to already historically advantaged farmers in Gujarat to invest in, first of all, indigenising and, then, diffusing the multinational Bt technology.

The debate on genetically modified organisms in India is overly focussed on determining success and failure or developing means and methods to bureaucratically impose bio-safety regulation. Adoption, development, and diffusion of Bt cotton technology in Gujarat by farmers themselves implies that the technology finds a smooth insertion in the existing agrarian space that is ridden with unequal and exploitative social relations.

Who wants the technology? Who invests in its development and diffusion and how? Who benefits from the technology at whose cost? These are questions that have not yet been sufficiently addressed in the debate on the social desirability of Bt technology.

(The writer works with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore.)

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