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Agricultural Deskilling and the Spread of Genetically Modified Cotton in the Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh, India
January, 2007

Source: University of Chicago Press Journals

Study explores the effect of genetically modified crops on developing countries

A new study in the February issue of Current Anthropology explores how the arrival of genetically modified crops affects farmers in developing countries. Glenn Davis Stone (Washington University) studied the Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh in India, a key cotton growing area notorious for suicides by cotton farmers. In 2003 to 2005, market share of "Bt cotton" seeds rose from 12 percent to 62 percent in Warangal. Bt cotton is genetically modified to produce its own insecticide and has been claimed by its manufacturer as the fastest-adopted agricultural technology in history.

Monsato, the firm behind Bt cotton, has interpreted the rapid spread of the modified strain as the result of farmer experimentation and management skill – similar to mechanisms that scholars cite to explain the spread of hybrid corn across American farms. But Stone's multiyear ethnography of Warangal cotton farmers shows an unexpected pattern of localized cotton seed fads in the district. He argues that, rather than a case of careful assessment and adoption, Warangal is plagued by a severe breakdown of the "skilling" process by which farmers normally hone their management practices.

"Warangal cotton farming offers a case study in ‘agricultural deskilling'," writes Stone. The seed fads had virtually no environmental basis, and farmers generally lacked recognition of what was actually being planted, a striking contrast to highly strategic seed selection processes in areas where technological change is learned and gradual. Interviews also provided consistent evidence that Warangal cotton farmers prefer trying new seeds – seeds without any background information whatsoever – to trying several strains on smaller, experimental scales and choosing one for long-term adoption.

The problem preceded Bt cotton, Stone points out; its root causes are reliance on hybrid seed, which must be repurchased every year, and a chaotic seed market in which products come and go at a furious pace and farmers often cannot tell what they are using. Farmer desire for novelty exacerbates the turnover of seeds in the market, Stone argues, and seed firms will frequently take seeds that have fallen out of favor, rename them, and resell with new marketing campaigns. For instance, one recent favorite seed in several villages is identical to four other seeds on the market.

Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh, India, is a key cotton-growing area in one of the most closely watched arenas of the global struggle over genetically modified crops. In 2005 farmers adopted India's first genetically modified crop, Bt cotton, in numbers that resemble a fad. Various parties, including the biotechnology firm behind the new technology, interpret the spread as the result of farmer experimentation and management skill, alluding to orthodox innovation-diffusion theory. However, a multiyear ethnography of Warangal cotton farmers shows a striking pattern of localized, ephemeral cotton seed fads preceding the spread of the genetically modified seeds. The Bt cotton fad is symptomatic of systematic disruption of the process of experimentation and development of management skill. In fact, Warangal cotton farming offers a case study in agricultural deskilling, a process that differs in fundamental ways from the better-known process of industrial deskilling. In terms of cultural evolutionary theory, deskilling severs a vital link between environmental and social learning, leaving social learning to propagate practices with little or no environmental basis. However, crop genetic modification is not inherently deskilling and, ironically, has played a role in reinvolving farmers in Gujarat in the process of breeding.

Stone argues that the previously undocumented pattern of fads, in which each village lurches from seed to seed, reflects a breakdown of the process of "environmental learning," leaving farmers to rely purely on "social learning." Bt cotton was not the cause of this "deskilling," but in Warangal it has exacerbated the problem.

"On the surface, [Warangal] appears to be a dramatic case of successful adoption of an innovation," Stone explains. "However, a closer analysis of the dynamics of adoption shows that the pattern some see as an environmentally based change in agricultural practice actually continues the established pattern of socially driven fads arising in the virtual absence of environmental learning."

Strangely, in another part of India, a very different history of Bt cotton has led to an improvement in agricultural skilling. In Gujarat, the loss of corporate control over the Bt technology has led to an increased involvement of farmers in local breeding, and an apparent increase in knowledge-based innovation.

Sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. Communicating across the subfields, the journal features papers in a wide variety of areas, including social, cultural, and physical anthropology as well as ethnology and ethnohistory, archaeology and prehistory, folklore, and linguistics. For more information, please see our Web site:

Agricultural Deskilling and the Spread of Genetically Modified Cotton in Warangal.
Stone, Glenn Davis
Current Anthropology 48:67-103.

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