As seeds grow, farmers care for them, continuing to make choices that they hope will lead to yields, profits, and a good life. In Telangana, India, the seemingly simple decision about which seed to plant has taken center stage in a larger debate over two mutually exclusive visions for the future of agriculture: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and certified organic farming. By asking how cotton farmers learn about their seeds and put that knowledge to use, Andrew Flachs’ book Cultivating Knowledge: Biotechnology, sustainability, and the human cost of cotton capitalism in India illuminates the local impact of global changes: the slow, persistent dangers of pesticides, inequalities in rural life, the aspirations of people who grow fibers sent around the world, the place of ecological knowledge in modern agriculture, and even the complex threat of suicide. It all begins with a seed.
Drawing on over 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted over six years (2012-2018), Flachs provides a unique multi-year study of the impact of GM and organic technologies in the fields of farmers struggling with low yields, chemical overuse, pest attacks, and a tragic epidemic of farmer suicide. While some analysts have blamed GM seeds or insects for this agrarian distress and others celebrate new technologies and programs as means to empower rural economies, Flachs uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative social science research to argue that this technological focus draws attention away from the daily, social ways that people make decisions. Instead, through first-hand case studies with farmers, rural professionals, NGOs, government officials, and plant scientists working on GM cotton and certified organic supply chains, he shows that the biggest impact of these technologies is in the ways that they transform farmer knowledge and thus reshape agrarian life.
Commercially introduced in 2002, farmers now choose between over 1,500 potential seeds to sow. Each one is a potential windfall in a context where agriculture is always a gamble. In the GM cotton sector, farmers leverage ambiguous input and labor costs against uncertain benefits of profit, often mimicking the decisions of their neighbors or seeking the advice of seed dealers before planting. In this speculative environment, wanting good yields can be very far from taking steps to get them. Through a wide range of data, Flachs shows that there is no yield rationale for choosing particular seeds. Farmers gamble by switching seeds frequently, farmers themselves don’t know very much about the seeds they are planting, and the market is increasingly confusing. Seed choice is paradoxically crucial yet uncertain, made amidst a deluge of marketing, competition, consumption, and the persistent erosion of experiential knowledge. This new normal of the farm masks a deep ambivalence about what it means to farm and to live well in rural India. Today, more than 95% of all farmers sowing cotton use GM seeds. This system is very effective at selling seeds and associated inputs, but because it erodes farmer knowledge in favor of commercial expertise, it fails to address the underlying problems driving rural distress.
Much like GM technology, organic agriculture may help some farmers, under certain conditions, through alternative marketing. However, this story is complicated. Organic agriculture is not a panacea and it rarely works according to the same agricultural logic of investments and yields that many farmers are used to following. Most organic cotton farmers in practice reap far lower yields than their GM-growing neighbors, and so organic certification programs incentivize low yields and strict regulatory protocols with material rewards like seeds, jobs, and financing, as well as new forms of celebrity and media attention. However, Flachs does not argue that these spaces are performative and thus illegitimate. Quite the opposite: the ways that organic programs underwrite vulnerability, create social capital, and create new reward structures for farmer success determine their lasting success. That is, farmers experience the promise of organic cotton agriculture as a strategic choice to follow didactic instructions and a performance on a new kind of agricultural stage, and Flachs’ data show that these projects tend to succeed or fail on those terms.
Ultimately, Flachs argues that the key underlying issue cotton farmers face is the unstable nature of seed choice, investments, and returns. Seeds, GM or not, sold and managed in a more collective system help to alleviate the symptoms of South India’s agrarian distress. By filtering the seed market, storing cotton, securing financing, and connecting farmers with buyers, cooperatives across South India help farmers learn about their seeds and apply local management knowledge. Through collaborative meetings and grassroots consultations to troubleshoot the local complications of farmwork, cooperatives are restoring trust and iterative learning to a labor sector in dire need of stability. Cooperatives in both settings are taking the time to work with farmers and incentivize a different set of ways to be successful in an agricultural sector where cotton farmers internalize their failures and commit suicide. In doing so, they address fundamental causes of agrarian distress where GM seeds or mandatory organic regulations only scratch the surface.
Cultivating Knowledge stresses the danger of seeking technological fixes for problems rooted in complex agricultural, political, social, and historical issues. In part, this is because the practice of sustainable agriculture on the farm, let alone the global challenge of feeding or clothing the world, is a social, and not technological, question. Ultimately, the allure and danger of technological fixes is that they ignore the daily, messy, important, social work of agriculture. People wishing to wear clothing have an imperfect choice in an imperfect market. As consumers we can, in some ways, vote with our dollars to support social institutions that benefit farmers. This requires us to be an informed populous capable of exercising these choices, and we do not always have such information available in the moments when we buy cotton. And yet, sometimes and if we can, our choices do have measurable impacts on others – not because our consumption or lack thereof will lead to transformative change, but because we support larger institutions that incentivize local knowledge, management, and technology that allows rural communities to live well, on their own terms, as farmers.
About the author of Cultivating Knowledge: Andrew Flachs is an assistant professor of anthropology specializing in food and agriculture. His work has appeared in venues including American Anthropologist, the National Geographic magazine, and Nature:Plants. Flachs is an editor for the journal Ethnobiology Letters and is the guest editor of the December 2018 special issue on “Agriculture and Performance” in the Journal of Political Ecology.