It is certainly possible that the truth is much larger and complex than these individual accounts of farmers. Establishing correlations, much less causation, in agriculture is a daunting task. Individual accounts of farmers in these two villages need to be seen against the larger social reality.
Ten years after its arrival, Bt cotton varieties occupy 92 per cent of the total cotton area in Maharashtra. Shouldn't the choices of millions of farmers speak far more loudly about their own self-interest than the interviews with select growers? And, as almost all the cotton area in Maharashtra is rain-fed, this fact should also give pause to those who believe that Bt cotton varieties can never work in dry land agriculture.
It is little surprise; therefore, that academic research has largely confirmed substantial yield and income gains from Bt cotton varieties. The recent issue of Nature, a prestigious international weekly journal on science, has reported significant benefits of Bt cotton to Indian farmers. Citing a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it says that data collected from 533 farm households during 2002-08 shows that Bt cotton raised the yield by 24 per cent. This translated to a 50 per cent increase in profits, and during 2006-08, families that adopted Bt cotton spent 18 per cent more money than conventional farming households, suggesting an increase in living standards.
Although articles critical of Bt cotton can be read as indictments of big business and big media, what they do is offer a fable of their own, couched of course, in the voices of farmers. In this narrative, farmers are always victims of senseless technologies pushed on to them by greedy corporations. This is sought to be obscured from public record by a campaign of ceaseless propaganda that includes big media houses as willing participants.
Critics' concern about private monopolies and planted media coverage is understandable. However, this should not prevent recognition of the popularity of Bt cotton varieties. None of this is to say that there are no problems with the technology. However, denying farmers the capacity to make a reasoned choice demeans them and is a poor foundation for policy prescription. Banning cotton exports has demonstrably hurt millions of farmers. Yet, while the supposed adverse impact of Bt cotton finds repeated mention in urban discourse, stopping farmers from accessing markets and getting higher prices is par for the course and hardly attracts comment.
This article was originally published in the Economic Times dated 27th September, 2012, written by Milind Murugkar.