Women and genetically modified crops: Bt cotton in India

Women and genetically modified crops: Bt cotton in India
Teaser Image Caption
Women working in BT cotton field in rural Maharashtra. Photo by Dev Nathan

For nearly two decades, we have been looking at the women’s increasing role in agricultural production. It was during the World Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995that one of the authors of this study (Govind Kelkar) heard about ‘the feminisation of agriculture in Asia’; a few years later it came to be correctly conceptualised as ‘the feminisation of agricultural work’. Subsequently in our reading and research on women’s roles and rights in agricultural production, we noticed an absence of women’s work and entitlement in the genetically modified (GM) crops or in the Bt cotton production. These concerns acquired a concrete shape during our discussion with the senior management of HBS in India in the latter half of 2018. Within the limits of time and resources, we decided to undertake a field based study on women and Bt cotton with a gender-specific perspective. The major question was: What were the roles and voices of women farmers in the production of Bt cotton in India? We hope that this study would generate research interest in the concerned academia and in numerous civil society organisations that are engaged in the promotion of organic production and consumption.

The Bt cotton landscape

In India, the first genetically modified crop of cotton was officially introduced in the year 2002. This cotton carried genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and is, therefore, called Bt cotton. These genes produce proteins that protect the cotton plant from the pest called bollworm. Following the introduction of Bt cotton, there was a rapid adoption of this technology by the farmers, covering an area of 3.8 million hectares in 2006-2007 to 10 million hectares in 2009-2010. According to the Government of India report on Status Paper of Indian Cotton of January 2017, Bt cotton area increased to 93.14 percent between a period of 13 years (2002-03 to 2014-15) with the consistent and perceptible increase in cotton production. Over 80 per cent of all cotton plants in India in these years were reported to be Bt cotton plants (VIB, 2013: 11-12).

Studies on Bt cotton swing between success and failure. Some reports attempt at proving the efficacy of Bt cotton and its contribution to rural growth, while others question the rights and choices of the farmers as well as the disappearance of many local varieties of seed. Reports also point at the farmers’ dependence on the private sector for inputs resulting in unsustainable debt, which in turn leads to farm suicides. According to reports by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) , 3,21,428 farmers committed suicide during the 1995-2015 period (quoted in Menon and Uzramma, 2017: 333). Several studies further question the loss of biodiversity and the indigenous skills of spinning and weaving cotton. At the time of writing this study we noted some leading feminists and environmentalists like Vandana Shiva, Kavitha Kuruganti, Aruna Rodrigues demanded “an indefinite moratorium on the environmental release of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in India” as part of new political manifesto at the time of general elections in India. Importantly, M S Swaminathan, who pioneered the development of Green Revolution technology in India, recently wrote a review article strongly criticising GM crops: “Critical evaluation of the most modern technology, modern bio-technology, reveals that Bt- and herbicide-tolerant crops are highly unsustainable….causing environmental harm and genotoxic effects” (Kesavan and Swaminathan, 2018: 1876). Nevertheless, this article was criticised for being unscientific by the proponents of GM crops. It is likely that they saw this questioning of GM crops as a threat to the efforts to introduce GM brinjal and GM mustard crops.

In the initial period, it was claimed that production of Bt cotton would confer two major benefits to the farmers: First, high yields due to effective protection of bolls from damage caused by bollworms; and second, reduction in use of insecticides for controlling bollworms. Some studies tend to conclude that Bt cotton has no adverse effects on human and environment, when compared with non-Bt cotton or conventional varieties. However, they emphasise that farmers need to follow good agricultural practices such as crop rotation, combined planting and use of organic fertilisers (Singh, RJ et al 2013; VIB, 2013). Against this position, a Chinese scientist, based on a ten-year field trial in Hebei province in China, noted that the reduced use of insecticides in Bt cotton fields results in an increase of mirid bugs that can grow into a secondary plague (Lu, et al 2010). Our field visits to rural Bt cotton areas in Maharashtra and Rajasthan did not show any positive results as made by these claims.

Pink Bollworm- Attack in the cotton field. Credit- Dev Nathan

In both the states of Rajsthan and Maharashtra field sites, women and men farmers and farm workers repeatedly confirmed that now the monetary value of Bt cotton produced in their fields did not differ in any way from the value of non-Bt cotton. The bollworm resistance is limited to the first generation of Bt cotton (Bollgard 1 cotton). There seems to be no resistance to the bollworm in the second generation of Bt cotton (Bollgard II hybrid).

In our field sites in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, we noted a state of confusion about Bt cotton crops, both among women and men farmers. There was also a lack of trust in using a cotton plant, which was known to host pink bollworm.
We observed that farmers preferred Bt cotton for its higher productivity compared to non-Bt varieties, and many of them were not happy about the decline in its productivity. They did not know the genetic background of these hybrids and its perceived impact on ecology and changes in pest and disease profile. Largely, they saw Bt cotton as one of the varieties giving good yield. They said that due to this cultivation of Bt cotton many have gained the opportunity and resources to build their assets and the concrete (pucca) houses.

During the discussions in Wardha, men referred to a few cases of buffalo deaths on consuming Bt cotton foliage, however it did not show any negative health effects on goats. Also they gave cotton seeds to cows to get milk with high fat content, but there was no case of death or disease in the cows. This was the perception of some farmers, which they frankly shared with the researchers in the field, with an explicit request to include in the report.

Women reported about adverse health consequences of workings in the Bt cotton fields: Persistent skin rash, blacking of toe nails, irritation and itching of eyes, and prolonged chronic coughs. Although these health effects were first stated by women yet in the subsequent discussions, men too agreed with these health effects.

The current practice of Bt cotton cultivation and its health effects

Based on our focused group discussions with women and men in the villages of Yavatmal and Wardha, we noted the following points:

  • Largely, cotton is cultivated in an intercrop system either with red gram or soybean at a ratio of 4:2.
  • Cotton crop is in the field for more than 210 days. Under rainfed fields, the farmers cultivate only one crop a year with a fallow period of a few months. They have been continuously cultivating cotton year after year without any other crops in rotation.
  • Bt cotton is mostly cultivated under rainfed systems, less than 30-40 per cent of farmers have access to small-scale irrigation. Those who do, increase yield by practicing extended cultivation by applying one or two irrigations after the main harvest is complete.
  • Bt cotton needs more fertiliser and farmers apply it in two to three split doses.
  • Farmers spray five to six rounds of chemical pesticides in Bt cotton fields; however, in the past they used to spray more than 10 doses in non-Bt varieties of cotton.
  • The amount of chemical fertilisers and pesticide application is based on the financial resources of the farmers.
  • Bt cotton is a hybrid and has more than 50 per cent higher productivity than non-Bt varieties: Currently 7-8 quintals/ acre in Bt (in the initial period they harvested 12-13 quintal/ acre), and 4-5 quintals/ acre in non-Bt. Currently there are two hybrids by Ankur, seeds which are largely used by farmers.
  • Pink bollworm attacks have increased in the last several years, as also infestation of sucking pests (whitefly); virus and fungal attacks are more common in Bt cotton.
  • Productivity is lower under organic farming. Many farmers did try it, but small holders could not make a shift due to the decrease in the level of yield. A few large land holders have partially put their land under organic farming.
  • During the current season, 10 farmers have tried non-BT varieties in village Bodad in Wardha district.
  • WellSpun Foundation is promoting non-Bt cotton varieties by providing seeds and necessary farm machinery.
  • Raising refugee or border crops: A few farmers said that there is no economic benefit and hence they stopped cultivation.
  • Two farmers in Bodad village who have been practising the refugee crop method (putting some rows of non-Bt cotton around the field) confirmed that the infestation of pink bollworm was less in their fields.

The different perspectives of women and men on health effects brought us to the question of gender roles and relations in the cultivation and management of Bt cotton in India.

Gender analysis of Bt cotton production

Throughout in our discussions in the field sites in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, women reported that they wake up at 5 am and sleep by 10 pm. After getting children ready for school, and then making lunch and packing it for men and themselves, they would leave for farm work around 9 am and work in the fields throughout the day. Both women and men work in the cotton fields, but women additionally do all household work and most of agricultural work, such as sowing, weeding and harvesting of cotton bolls. An older woman in Kushalgarh village added to our discussion, “Women do all kinds of work in the home and in the fields, men plough and sleep… Men also do marketing of the cotton harvest, in order to keep at least one-third of sale money for their drinking and other such purposes.”

We wanted to learn about Bt cotton from women’s unhindered stories. We raised questions about the role of women and men in cultivation and management of Bt cotton and who preserved and used cotton and other seeds. We conducted our interviews in an informal setting, facilitating talk, and not in any sequential order.

Both women and men repeatedly affirmed that it is the men who have the major decision making power, and the existing norms did not allow women to make decisions on what to grow and how much to sell. In a few cases, men participated in cooking by cutting vegetables. They also shared with women information about sale of cotton in the local market, showing them the sales voucher when they returned from the market.

In households where the men migrated out, it was said to be a common practice for them to return at the time of land preparation, ploughing and harvesting of the crop, as well as for transporting cotton to the market. A few women also did some marketing, but not of cotton; it was limited to purchasing minor items such as grocery for household use.
In a village in Yavatmal, we began with the question:  In one acre of Bt cotton field, what kind of work women would do? And what kind of work men would do? One acre of Bt cotton field would need a total of 60 hours of work. Women’s work would be for 45 hours and men’s work for 15 hours, in the following order:

Women’s and Men's work per acre of Bt cotton field

Notwithstanding women’s disproportionate hours of farm work, we noticed muted voices of women about the social neglect of their rights to resources and knowledge.

Women’s muted voices: The coloniality of knowledge and power

As noted by scholar Ester Boserup in her pioneering work Woman’s Role in Economic Development (1989), women have played a key role in traditional and more developed agricultural production. Much of the knowledge used in seed conservation and traditional forms of biotechnology, such as food processing, was developed by women using their local and indigenous knowledge. This, however, with some exceptions in the field of medicine, was unrecognised and even lost in the process of Western domination and corporatisation of agricultural production.

With modernisation and technological development, the use of indigenous knowledge in food production became the monopoly of research units in the global North. In the majority of cases, these practices emanated from national institutions and policies in the global South, in which corporations and firms, with their research and development units, became producers of this knowledge. Increasingly, the market processes driven by profits ignored both the role of women and their indigenous knowledge in creating new ‘scientific knowledge’. These monopolistic trends became more complex with traditional as well as modern forms of patriarchy, resulting in non-recognition of women’s work and knowledge in agricultural production, including traditional forms of biotech methods of food preservation and cultivation of crops.

Women have to buy hybrid seeds afresh every year. There are restrictions on saving seeds for successive sowing of Bt cotton. This, in turn, results in (1) denying women farmers the right to seed management, thus impacting their traditional knowledge of seed preservation and resource management; (2) providing handsome profits to the corporate sector through production and sale of hybrid seeds at exorbitant rates; and (3) making it extremely difficult for women from resource poor, marginal farm households to withstand financial losses when their Bt cotton crops fail for natural or other reasons.

Importantly, a recent study reveals “the gender gap on public opinion towards genetically modified foods” published in The Social Science Journal (2018, Vol. 55: 505-509), evaluated data from more than 1,500 people, noted a huge gender difference in opinions towards GM foods. About 49 per cent of men in this data agreed that GM food was “generally safe”, while only 30 per cent of women agreed with that position. “Women are more wary of GM foods; they have greater concern about their safety. Men are simply more comfortable with genetically modified foods” (Elder et al, 2018: 507). This gender difference in attitudes was explained by the authors through the different life experiences of women and men. One of the authors Steven Green explained the gender difference lies in male confidence in science: “Men have more confidence in science and scientists and are much less inclined to focus on the risks in various science fields” (https://phys.org/news/2019-01-maternal-instincts-dont-gender-gap.html) Not surprisingly, women generally assess risks differently in pollution, nuclear power, or in production and consumption of GM products.

Social norms that perpetuate women’s dependence on men and an all-powerful patriarchal ideology in rural and indigenous India, are predictors of women’s hushed voice or silence towards production of Bt crops and a range of GM related food crops. Men are seen having ‘scientific and technical knowledge’ about Bt cotton. Hence, women see themselves as having similar views as those of men. Women’s attempts to overcome the barriers of gendered social norms have resulted in policies that deny them ownership and control of land and other productive resources. They can work on Bt and non-Bt crops but have limited rights to decision making on what crops to grow and on the sale of produce. The pattern of Bt cotton production remains overwhelmingly masculinist and ‘Monsantocentric’, dominated by western seed corporations.

Men who see themselves as having greater knowledge and interest in GM crops provided more support for Bt cotton as a “high income earning crop” than women, who worked in the cotton fields but had no right to decision making and access to “scientific and technical knowledge” gained through social and technical interaction with Bt cotton promoters, seed agencies and male farmer peer groups. In these Bt cotton fields, women are the workers and men are the decision makers and owners of land.

The monopoly of knowledge creation in the global North is seen as a major factor in global inequality and inequality between nations. What is not fully recognised is that the male monopoly of knowledge creation in countries of the global South is a major factor in gender inequality that is pervasive in families and in wider societies. Dealing with this and in the process drawing the talents and capabilities of women farmers, along with women scientists and technicians is an important part of development. The key issue is to see how the knowledge of agricultural processes that women (and men) farmers have used, can be developed in a gender-responsive and sustainable manner.

Undoubtedly, there is need to understand how women’s knowledge of agricultural production has been deprivileged and delegitimised by powerful agricultural academic discourse (largely masculinist) that operate in the ways similar to the corporations. The dependence of farmers on the corporations and local power brokers for seeds, fertilisers, and energy have made the communities vulnerable, their needs for credit to buy all inputs made the cultivation of Bt cotton unsustainable.

The failure of Bt cotton

From recent discussions led by civil society organisations, there is conclusive evidence that ‘Monsantocentric’ Bt cotton has failed in India. Bt cotton has faced serious opposition on the basis of its implications for human and environmental health. The cotton farmers, both women and men, no longer see this agricultural technology as sustainable and capable of providing livelihood security. A massive pink bollworm infestation, affecting 80 per cent of the cotton area in the state of Maharashtra, has caused concern about poor production; though unsuccessful efforts have been made to introduce other GM crops, such as brinjal and mustard, (The Economic Times,  December 15, 2018). Reportedly, a number of cotton cultivators have shifted to other varieties of hybrid cotton and soybean. However, farmers seemed to be in a state of confusion, as we observed in the field sites. It was not precisely understood what to grow that can ensure human and environmental health and agricultural productivity.

Interestingly, at the international level we noted two positive signals indicating brakes on Bt cotton production. First, largely as a result of the concerned feminist voices and civil society lobbying efforts, the corporations, which played major roles in the spread of GM technology, have emerged as the ones who abused their dominant position in the market for Bt cotton technology in India, with deceptive practices of overcharging resource poor farmers for license fee and Bt cotton seeds (Sally and Singh, , The Economic Times, May 22, 2019). Second, Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas of December 17, 2018, extended protection to farmers whose human right to ‘seed sovereignty’ is threatened by government and corporate practices. This Article further stipulates that women and men farmers have the right to participate in making decisions about conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources, as well as the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their own seeds and traditional knowledge.
These factors along with the losses caused by the pink bollworm infestation have alarmed women and men farmers about poor production and unsustainability of BT cotton and other GM crops.

Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.


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