Profile of an Indian GM farmer: high-tech seeds on a traditional farm

It is already dusk in Nimbhara — a small, nondescript village deep in the heart of India — but early morning for me. I am on a phone call with a farmer named Ganesh Nanote who has lived here all his life. Almost all of Nimbhara’s 500 or so working adults find employment as cultivators. A single road connects Nimbhara to the highway system; it was only built about eight years ago, and is now plied by a regular traffic of bicycles and three-wheeler rickshaws. Nimbhara’s heritage, culture, and industry all spring from its soil — an alkaline black heavy soil, broken down from the Deccan lava flows that might have killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Black soils of that sort are known to support the growing of cotton, as farmers in Nimbhara have done for 4000 years. This fact has brought this village and others like it into the forefront of one of the most fraught battles of recent times — around the growing of genetically modified crops. Since 2003, more and more Indian farmers have been growing genetically modified cotton, using technology licensed from US seed giant Monsanto. Arguments of activists against it have earned this region a dismal moniker: ‘the suicide belt’.

A confluence of old and new

Ganesh Nanote is sitting alone out on his fields although the work of the day is done and there is no one else around. “I just like to do that,” he laughs.

I have been conversing with him over the period of some months to gain his perspective as a grower of GM cotton. What led him to grow it — why has he continued to for over a decade? Does he feel duped by corporations like Monsanto, as activists have claimed? How does he explain the unfortunate suicides that have occurred in his region?

“I never intended to take on farming,” he tells me, “though farming is part of my heritage. When my father passed away in 1991 I was studying Commerce and intended to continue. I have a lot of interest in reading; I read anything I can get my hands on: India Today, local Marathi newspapers, listen to BBC News. But I was the oldest in the family when he passed, so I had to take on the farm.”

While Ganesh has fifty acres, most farmers in Nimbhara have much less. Government projects over the years have made at least some form of irrigation available to most farms, though there is still a heavy dependence on monsoon rains for water needs — monsoons that are increasingly unreliable due to climate change, Ganesh explains. Most of the population lives on less than ₹200/= [USD 3.50] a day. And yet, somehow, Indian villages like this one have become avid consumers of cutting-edge research.

Genetically modified crops are banned in Europe; hotly debated in the US; and face public opposition in China. But India has seen one of the most inflamed battles — even though the only genetically modified crop grown is cotton, and food safety is not an issue. From the beginning, genetically modified crops have led to protests and activism, both for and against.

Monsanto began testing their GM cotton in five Indian states in 1998. Instantly, forces arrayed on both sides. On the one hand, Monsanto’s licensed product was bootlegged and sold under the label of a hybrid brand all over fields in Gujarat. When discovered, farmers protested the uprooting of these unlicensed crops. At one of those protests, farmer activist Sharad Joshi offered a new take on the phrase seed freedom: “This is a question of the farmer’s freedom to select his seed and access technology,” he said.

On the other hand, activists protested what they saw as corporate control of seeds. One such group, the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), organized Operation Cremate Monsanto to burn fields that were being used for tests of GM cotton. In a foreshadowing of what was to come, one of the farmers whose plots were used for the tests deserted the movement when he saw that rather than bringing ruin, GM cotton sprouted with an excellent germination rate.

In recent times, the main voice heard on this issue is that of globe-trotting environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva. She has claimed that Indian farmers were duped into purchasing these seeds; and that far from helping them, the use of technology has pushed them into debt and suicide.

However, Ganesh sounds pragmatic as he describes his history with this crop. “The year I started to grow GM cotton is etched in my mind because that is the same year my son was born — 2003. He is now twelve, in the seventh standard at school, and that is how old my GM crop is”, he says. “I was the first farmer in my local area to try it out. The first year, I grew it in two acres as an experiment. The next, I expanded that to ten acres. The third year onwards I went up to a hundred percent. Other farmers have looked at my example and now most (you could say all) are growing GM cotton.”

“A craze”

Fairly or unfairly, some have characterized Indian farmers’ enthusiasm for GM cotton as a craze or a fad. How does Ganesh see it? In response to my question, he recounts a bit of recent history.

Many people imagine that Indian farmers were growing native cotton using thousands-of-years-old traditions before GM cotton dragged modernity in. This is not the case. Most farmers had moved beyond native cotton because its short fiber length and low yield makes it unsuitable for what the market demands — raw cotton that can feed high-volume mechanized production of fabric. Most were already growing modern hybrids, with high yields and large bolls — that were also unfortunately more susceptible to pests. In the 1990s, before GM cotton came into the market, farmers all over the country were fighting a serious infestation of cotton bollworms. Sometimes, Ganesh told me, especially given long stretches of cloudy weather, farmers would lose more than half their cotton to it, and could not harvest enough to cover their costs.

Bollworm damage in green boll

They had resorted to using lethal doses of chemical pesticides in order to vanquish it. Due to overuse, bollworms had become resistant to four generations of insecticides.

Endosulfan, Monocrotophos, Cypermethrin, Quinalphos, and Decametherin,” Ganesh reads off the names of the cocktail they sprayed. “We did not have much knowledge about how to use them, aside from the information I could gather from retailers. Occasionally if the sprays fell on the skin some people would get nauseous or dizzy. Occasionally they would have to take a trip to the hospital.”

Despite this dousing, Ganesh says, he used to get barely three or four quintals of raw cotton for sale a year.

This is why the promise of a cotton crop that came with its own insecticide created such a buzz. While chemical pesticides work like bulldozers, mowing down all life, scientists now favor biological controls that are targeted towards specific pests. For instance — the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that has been used as an organic pesticide for more than five decades, works in a surgical fashion, much like a key for a lock. It is not toxic until it enters the guts of its target — moth and butterfly larvae — where it causes them to starve to death.

Monsanto’s Bt cotton includes a gene from this soil bacterium. Such genetically modified crops produce the Bt crystal inherently, throughout their lifecycle. Therefore, they do not need added spraying in order to kill larval pests. It has helped Ganesh cut down on chemical pesticide usage, he says, since bollworms now leave his crop alone. His experience is not unique — a study from China found that Bt cotton caused the reduced usage of broad-spectrum pesticides, which allowed the numbers of beneficial insect predators to rise. A study from India found a causal link between use of Bt and reduced pesticide poisoning.

Sowing cotton

He also mentions other benefits that have nothing to do with Bt, but with the particular cultivar that the Bt gene was inserted into.

“The thing about Bt cotton is, it has guaranteed production,” he says. “If you grow more of it, you get more of it. The more you feed it, the more you get. I don’t over-feed my soil though — I limit the NPK I add to the soil. Still I get about 12–13 quintals per acre. Before Bt cotton, the hybrids I was growing were longer duration crops. For ten months of the year my farms were occupied by cotton. Bt seeds grow a crop that is ready to harvest in six months. I can then plant a different crop for the Rabi (winter) crop after Diwali, permitting me to rotate my crops.”

Some critiques

Farmers have taken to Bt crops not just in India, but in the United States and China as well. Meanwhile controversies have raged around them.

One of the most cogent critiques that have been made about Bt crops is that it pushes farmers to be reliant on a single method of pest control — therefore unwittingly training cotton bollworms to become resistant to it. This critique ties in with fears that corporations might be encouraging this in order to find markets for new research and new products.

While that could be true, seed companies do sell a about a fifth of non-Bt seeds along with each packet of Bt seeds, in order to encourage farmers to devote some percentage of their lands to crops that will fail by design — but give the cotton bollworms a safety valve and prevent (or at least postpone) the inevitable Bt-resistant bollworms.

In India however, farmers in general have too meager land to devote some of it to deliberately non-productive crop. As for Ganesh, he has adopted an interesting solution to the problem of resistance — intercropping. He grows pigeon pea in rows intermixed with cotton.

Intercropping pigeon pea and cotton

“The same worms also attack pigeon pea,” he says, “so it does the same work as planting non-Bt cotton.” He is right. The pest known as pod-borer when it infests pigeon pea is the same species as the cotton bollworm.

For many well-meaning people around the world, most of whom are not farmers themselves, it is simply galling that poor farmers might be asked to pay for seeds each year due to patenting laws, when they might obtain them for free by saving them from the previous season. Ganesh sees it a little differently. For him, it is a cost-benefit calculation. Does the expense of seeds pay for itself in increased yield, less spent on pesticides?

“The seeds are not much of an expense when you count everything else,” he says. “My expense for an acre of cotton is about ₹25,000/= [USD 375/=]. Out of that, the seeds only cost ₹1,600/= to ₹1,700/= [USD 25/=]. The rest goes on labor, fertilizers, pesticides, and so on. So why would it bother me that I would have to purchase seeds every year?”

Other critiques have ranged from tendentious to simply wrong.

For example, one of the greatest benefits of Bt used as a pesticide is its targeted action towards a single type of pest. The fact that it is not a poison for any other forms of life is what makes it a more environmentally-friendly choice than chemical pesticides.

However, the fact that it is not a panacea has become a cudgel against it. Recently, Bt cotton crops in Punjab saw many losses due to whitefly attacks. Whitefly is not one of Bt’s target pests, and it can have no protective action against it. Farmers demanded compensation and blamed spurious pesticides; their protests saw them lying down on train tracks and stopping traffic. The protests also saw activist Dr. Vandana Shiva out in front blaming their use of GM cotton for the whitefly attacks.

“Whitefly has nothing to do with Bt,” says Ganesh. “It is not a new problem. Farmers have been dealing with it since I got into farming, twenty or twenty-five years ago. It gets worse with overuse of nitrogen fertilizers, as they have been doing in Punjab. Overcrowding of the cotton bushes will make it worse too. They might have overused pesticides as well. Plus, because of global warming we may have long dry stretches and then too much rain, which doesn’t help.”

Ganesh’s crops are attacked by other sucking pests similar to whitefly; so far, he has been dealing with them using Neem oil. “They are controlled up to about eighty percent with four sprays early in the season,” he says.

At other times Dr. Shiva has claimed that GM seeds are monopolizing the seed market and that prices have been hiked up 8000% (80 times) since the monopoly was established.

These claims are easy to counter. Rather than going up, prices for GM cotton seeds halved since 2006 due to government pricing controls. The reduction took a bite out of the licensing fee that Indian seed companies paid to Monsanto. Nor did they ever cost 80 times any comparable seeds — they were originally selling at about four times the rate of the hybrids that were available then.

“All kinds of seeds are available, from desi (native) cotton to many hybrid varieties,” Ganesh says. “But since everyone wants Bt only, the retailers are not able to find customers for anything else. So they don’t bother to bring the other types to their counters.”

While adoption is now at 95%, and practically indistinguishable from a monopoly, if one looks at how adoption of GM cotton has proceeded over the last decade, it has not been one big tidal wave but rather little swirls and eddies. It took several years for farmers to be convinced to grow this crop. Some grew it and dropped it for the next season; some grew it, dropped it, and tried it once again. Larger farms adopted it sooner and smaller farms later. The numbers tell a story of a populace thinking it through.

“People say Bt crops hurt the environment,” Ganesh says. “But we have been growing it for twelve years and I spend all day in the farm. My wife does too. My family eats from the farm. Nothing has happened to us or to our animals. We have neither high sugar nor diabetes or anything. I take very good care of my soil, and no harm has come to my soil, it is still performing well after twelve years of Bt.”

He bristles at critiques from people who are far removed from farming themselves. “I would invite anyone who opposes Bt to be a farmer for a while,” he says. “Not just as a hobby, but actually make it the only source of income for them and their families. Only then can you understand our difficulties, and what we have to go through to make a living on the farm.”

The only way to make people understand, he says, is to include Indian farmers in the conversation. While Indian and international media has been preoccupied by tales of their distress and suicides, no one, he claims, actually asks them what they think. “I feel good that someone like you is bothering to talk to me,” he says, “I feel like I have a sister all the way in America. No one usually bothers us for our opinions, not even the Indian press. They just write anything they want. If farmers didn’t like Bt cotton, why would 99% of farmers seek them out in the market?”

Pragmatism, not ideology

Ganesh and other farmers like him regularly blur categories, far removed from the ideological food-wars of the West. Still deeply connected with the farming traditions of his father, he traces his influences back four thousand years. But his hunger for knowledge leads him into making pragmatic choices wherever they can be found.

“I use a tractor, but I also use bullocks,” he laughs. “I use gobar (cow dung) on my farm, as I learnt from my father. But modern technology helped me too — I made enough money to purchase a Rotorazor. Now I use that to crush my cotton plants after harvest to put into my soil. This increases my soil’s ability to hold water. Farmers around here burn their crops after harvest. For me this is a terrible waste. I don’t treat anything like garbage.”

In fact he is a local leader, and often showcases his techniques to teach other farmers. This has gotten him several awards, the most recent of which was the Fellows of the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy from the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in 2015. But when asked what he teaches them, he finds it hard to verbalize.

“This is hard for me to explain…. Let me try. For instance I tell farmers, if your IQ is high you can learn well, if not you can’t. In the same way, you have to see the IQ of the soil to see what it can support. I take my soil samples to the university regularly to test it, only then I decide how much fertilizer to add, or what to grow. I do not add too much fertilizer. Only after testing my soil do I add the appropriate amount.

“I tell farmers, you would not eat the same food for every meal, right? Just like the body needs a variety of foods for good health, the soil needs to grow a variety of crops. You cannot grow only one thing. The soil is alive. You have to treat it like that. Otherwise, it will produce maybe for three or four years, then it will stop working for you.”

Indian farmers do not have easy lives, nor have they had an easy history. The lack of regulated credit, climate change, the absence of modern infrastructure, the lack of education and sometimes even literacy, are all part of their lot; but Ganesh sees GM crops as one tool in their toolbox of potential solutions, not the cause of distress.

“The biggest problem is the lack of irrigation,” he says. “If everyone had irrigation no one would think about things like suicide. Nowadays the monsoon has become unreliable. If it rains, it rains a lot, or there might be drought. I have heard that this is because of global warming. We get sudden flash floods. This never happened before. A flood can ruin the fields. We have also gotten hail sometimes…we never saw hail in this region before. About five or six times a year we get hail. We have other problems too. We have high costs of labor…the government subsidizes grain for people so that raises labor rates for us. The minimum sale price for cotton is too low; we can’t get the rates we would want.”

Indian farmers are much more accessible, even to the Western media, than they have been. The rural parts of India mostly sat out the broadband revolution and even prior to that were never well-connected with landlines. But lately mobile phones have become ubiquitous. Though India ranked in the bottom third of countries for broadband penetration, it ranks third in the world as a smartphone market. Farm workers who have never had a number attached to their names before — and might still not own televisions or even toilets — might carry mobile phones around in their pockets.

Some have even developed a presence on social media. Connecting with each other on Facebook and WhatsApp on their smartphones, farmers might share pictures of harvests and share tips on sowing or irrigation techniques. They are easy to reach. This might change their relationship with the Western media, who have habitually thought of them as victimized naïfs.

In the meantime, it would be nice for Western audiences to develop some healthy skepticism about anyone who claims to speak for an entire population; and recognize that sometimes what appears to be a spontaneous farmer protest is being played entirely for their benefit. A recent example — a protest featured on Navdanya , the NGO co-founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva, used the slogan “Farmers’ lives matter” as its rallying cry.

Nothing remarkable about that, you might think? Well, farmer protests in India do not usually convene around slogans in English (with properly placed apostrophes, no less) that reflect contemporary American Twitter memes. These things are usually signs that one has been had.

More on this subject: Were the Seeds of Suicide sown 200 years ago?

Follow me on Twitter: @TheOddPantry.

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