Review: Biotechnology and Agricultural Development

Biotechnology and Agricultural Development. Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions, and Resource-Poor Farmers

By Robert Tripp
NY: Routledge

Reviewed by Ellen Messer
Visiting Associate Professor
Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy Tufts University
Boston University Gastronomy Program


Perhaps no modern agricultural topic raises so much controversy as genetically modified (GM) seeds and foods for everyone, but especially for small, poor, rural farmers in developing countries.  As Glenn Stone and his commentators pointed out in his Current Anthropology article, “Both Sides Now” (2002), there is much hype about benefits and risks on both sides, and too little research leading to policy action or practice based on careful assessment of the situations under which biotechnology might offer benefits and a way out of poverty to low-income farmers.   Biotechnology and Agricultural Development. Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions, and Resource-Poor Farmers, as the title indicates, is an attempt to analyze the circumstances under which some of these farmers, in India, China, Colombia, and South Africa, adopt the most controversial crop of all, which is GM cotton.  Cotton is an export cash crop that no one can eat, and is highly subject to price fluctuations on internal and external markets, which are furthermore skewed in some places, like the US, by government subsidies.  Cotton is also in many places the biggest user of pesticides, which pollute soils and groundwater and affect the insect and weed ecologies for all other crops, and also can damage human health directly or indirectly.  Yet people continue to grow cotton because it may be the only crop that provides some sure income, however meager or uncertain, which householders require to meet financial needs like school fees, taxes, and health emergencies.

This book provides substantial background and four national through local case studies on insect-resistant GM cotton adoption. It concludes, not surprisingly, that the real challenges facing small or all farmers in developing countries are not GM seeds as a particular set of technologies that hold potential to transform agriculture, but reliable rural institutions, which can deliver quality seed and inputs, accurate and timely information about production and market conditions, and truthfully and helpfully respond to farmers’ concerns.  Chapter 1 offers a balanced summary of agricultural biotechnology developments, including institutional safety precautions and regulations across the world.  Chapter 2 examines the applications of biotechnology specifically to cotton production.  It traces the history of cotton cultivation in New World and Old World settings, including cross-breeding, and production and market developments in European colonies, and the kinds of water management and labor arrangements accompanying the crop, including its troubling associations with slave- and peon- labor, but not its connections to famine or British famine codes, or its associations as a conflict crop and war commodity that opposed combatants fight to control, and use to fund their war operations, in modern Sub-Saharan African civil wars (e.g., Chad) as in the earlier U.S. civil war.  Nor does this this chapter privilege water or water-control as a key factor motivating cotton production and land and water fights or seizures, which greatly influence productive outcomes.

Chapter 3 then offers a technical assessment of the different GM approaches to insect control, through various classes of Bacillus thuringiensis  (Bt) bacterial toxins, which are inserted as single genes, or in stacked combinations, sometimes with herbicide resistance as an additional feature.  Non-biological scientists who find this chapter tough going can read the summary.  There follow a chapter assessing economic performance of GM relative to traditional cotton cropping systems, another judging institutional performance, the four case studies, and a final summary and conclusions that favor greater investments in institutions at all, but especially at local levels.

With the exception of the technical assessment and the four case studies, all chapters are authored by Tripp, an anthropologist who has worked with international agricultural research centers since he was a Rockefeller Foundation social science postdoctoral fellow.  Significantly, the volume was conceptualized by Oxfam America’s research division project, “Learning from the Experience of Small-Scale Farmers. The Case of Transgenic Cotton” and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and the project also has linkages to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s earlier exploration of “Best Practices for Assessing the Social and Economic Impacts of Transgenic Crop Varieties in Small-Scale Societies” that had been funded by the Canadian International Development Research Center.  Teams of social-science and technical researchers from these, and national agricultural research institutes all contributed information at various stages.  To meet the evidence demands of multiple disciplines, each chapter contains careful framing of research questions, evidence concerning cotton production and monetary costs of inputs and outputs, then summaries and conclusions.  The case studies rely substantively on interviews with farmers as individuals and in farming associations, and input purveyors who interact with government and non-government institutions and private sector companies.  The considerable technical information on pests, investments in pest control, seeds and seeding rates on irrigated and non-irrigated land, and productive returns to investments is presented in tables and figures, and each case study also includes maps showing main cotton-growing districts, flow-diagrams tracing seed developments and flows and regulatory institutional arrangements that affect farmers’ lives. The most important findings across these case studies are that cotton growers of all sizes, and in great numbers, do adopt Bt cotton seed, even though it is risky and much more expensive than conventional seed.  The question is: why?

The multi-faceted answers that the researchers in each case seek and find for adopting GM seeds are lower input and labor-management costs for pesticides, less risk of insect damage, and higher productivity for cotton overall.  Yet the evidence shows that the risks are still very high for two reasons.  One is that rainfall is uncertain and small farmers often lack sure access to irrigation, so can lose their crop investments quite easily in cases of drought or plunging water tables.  The second is that no GM strategy eliminates all classes of insect pests.  Indeed, the technical chapter and parts of most case-study chapters discuss this conundrum, which shows that breeding strategies to control boll worm may unintentionally raise predation by other classes of insects, such as sucking predators, and that hairy-leaf strategies that control one class of sucking insects may provide refuge for another class of predators to thrive!  In addition, the hairs may catch on to the cotton fiber, so cotton ginners do not like cotton from hairy-leaf varieties and may pay less for this cotton lint.

Additionally, seed supplies are not perfectly predictable and the seed industry in these cases is still under-regulated in practice, if not in policy. In some cases, farmers save or multiply seed, in others government certified producers grow and maintain quality seed, and in others the private sector contracts and supplies seed from external sources.  In all cases, researchers found that seed markets and multiplication were still in the process of formation, which meant that farmers could not always access quality seed or inputs, and that farmers, either because they had inadequate information about seeds and their properties, or because they feared damage from multiple insect classes they did not think would be controlled by GM seeds, also used high quantities of pesticides at much extra expense.  Consistent with what Tripp observed in his very early work in Mexico, government programs, while offering important credit and subsidies, do not always deliver quality inputs on time, so people may prefer to deal with the private sector.  There is also an enormous amount of informal seed production and distribution, which cuts into Monsanto’s or other private company sales, but also may significantly reduce the added value of GM seeds, because they are counterfeit (i.e., do not perform as advertised), and either do not contain the correct Bt toxin or do not offer the best, locally adapted varieties.

For the anthropologist familiar with Glenn Stone’s descriptions of “chaotic” seed markets aggressively marketing GM seeds to naive Indian farmers, the Indian case study may be of most interest.  This is not only because the authors pointedly find in their samples better market organization and more savvy farmers choosing seeds based on experience, but also because this chapter spotlights the role of Indian public and private research enterprises rather than foreign companies, in producing and marketing seed.  Indian state research institutes pioneered hybrid cotton, which compelled Indian farmers to purchase seed anew each season or suffer declines in yields.  Indian plant breeders then added Bt genes (Monsanto’s construct) to their elite lines to produce the first Bt cotton and only Bt hybrid cotton marketed in the world.  In fact, the first transgenic cotton, very well adapted to Indian conditions because it was introduced in locally adapted varieties, appears to have pirated Monsanto’s proprietary trait into local seed without permission. (The seed firm that introduced this impressive insect-resistant variety was prosecuted and punished by the Indian government on the grounds of violation of biosafety rules, not intellectual property rights violations, but the farmers were allowed to harvest their crops.)  Thus, anti-GM interests can assert that these researchers were influenced by international agricultural research institutes and transnational companies, and that farmers are bamboozled by GM-seed promotions.  But the data in this and other chapters indicate there is great demand for transgenic solutions to cotton production challenges.

Nevertheless, across the case studies, the lack of reliable institutions to regulate quality seed (and also other input) production and sale, suggest that especially small farmers, who are entirely reliant on cotton for cash income, face considerable risks.  For inputs, many depend on credit extended from cotton dealers, who then demand the crop, which means that small farmers may have little control over the price they get in return for their investments.  The South African case study, in fact, offers a chilling example of what can happen when an exclusive credit to market arrangement is damaged: the company that extends the credit goes out of business, and the farmers cannot access credit so cannot plant cotton at all (p.220)!  In addition, seed may be true or not, and even if true undermined by changing pest conditions.  In all cases, these conditions need to be constantly monitored, and refuge areas or other strategies worked out.  But in all or most places, the institutional infrastructure is simply not yet available to monitor pest damage, and keep a steady stream of adapted seeds in the pipeline to counter constantly evolving threats.  Overall, weather is the biggest wild card, which can destroy farmers dependent on rainfall or even tube wells, as these dry up after multiple years of drought or multiplying numbers of wells.  Finally, there is the simple answer, oddly ignored in this volume, to why so many farmers adopt GM crops even with all the added expenses and risks, which is that if their neighbors adopt GM seed, they do not want to become the “refuge” area for insects by default!

Curiously, Tripp and his authors focus mainly on the technical, economic, and institutional issues, and hardly at all on this final simpler reasoning or on the larger, more complex social factors that make cotton of any kind a risky undertaking.  Agricultural and economic researchers and policy makers, who appear to be the main audience, should be pleased with the format.  Anthropologists should be happy that there is some attention to emergent farmer associations, who are improving knowledge, communications, and technology flows in each of the case study areas.  But they may also be frustrated that there is not more attention to these and other social, cultural, and political issues surrounding cotton livelihoods, and cultural perceptions of risks and benefits.  Significantly, Tripp, a social anthropologist by training, does return to the livelihoods conundrum in his final chapter, where he notes that GM cotton production will form part of future agricultural livelihood scenarios which will see farmers diversifying into new and more varied crops and markets, combining farm with off-farm income, or leaving agriculture altogether.  Much will depend on agricultural and food value chains for these additional crops, especially basic foods, which since the mid 2000s have been rising in price. Food crops, Tripp notes, have always been part of multi-cropping strategies, which fit cotton into a rotation that includes wheat or some other grain or tuber crop.  In this context, farmers aim at optimal total yields, calculated over the seasons as income and food, which may not conform to maximum yields of either cotton or the food crop, which are the numbers that concern the agricultural economists in judging decision making, rationality and value.

In the future, one might hope to find more information about these multiple cropping strategies, especially in the context of diminishing moisture availability and input-sparing strategies, and opportunities for farmers to flexibly adjust production strategies for different crops, based on better market information and expanding demand for remunerative products other than cotton.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s