How GM Cotton is Stalling, Not Solving Pesticide Exposure – By Andrew Flachs

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Anita Chary

Anita Chary

Anita Chary, MD PhD, is an anthropologist and resident physician at the Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency. She is Research Director of the non-governmental organization Maya Health Alliance | Wuqu' Kawoq, which provides health care and development services in rural indigenous communities of Guatemala.

“If They Spray Four Times, You Have to Spray Five”: How Genetically Modified Cotton is Stalling, Not Solving Pesticide Exposure

A Guest Post By Andrew Flachs

flachsAndrew Flachs is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.  His  His research follows agricultural change and the adaptation of ecological knowledge among small farmers in the newly formed state of Telangana, India.  While in India he works with the Rural Development Foundation, helps manage the RDF Kalleda School Photoblog, and is a contributor to the National Geographic Society Explorer’s Journal.  He can be reached at aflachs@go.wustl.edu.

All individuals photographed gave their permission for images herein to be used.

 

 

 

“You have to treat the crop like it’s your child, working hard and being attentive to its food and protection”. The cotton crop in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh, India, is starting to bear fruit, which means that insects and humans alike are gearing up for the harvest.   It’s my last interview of the day among cotton farmers planting Genetically Modified (GM) cotton and Malothu is helping me understand the impact of GM seeds among small farmers. “You should always seek to produce more than your neighbors. If they spray four times, you have to spray five. That way, you’ll always have the best yield”.

 

Lit bidi, a local cigar, behind his ear, a farmer sprays his cotton crop for pests that desiccate the leaves.

Lit bidi, a local cigar, behind his ear, a farmer sprays his cotton crop for pests that desiccate the leaves.

 

Since June 2012 I have been involved with a long-term research project that’s investigating the impact of GM cottonseed on farmer management skill and livelihoods. As part of my dissertation research in cultural anthropology I’ve been interviewing 377 farmers on various aspects of their field management, especially their seed choice. Cotton in India is modified to produce its own pesticide, and my research is focused on how farmers choose which seed to plant and evaluate their crops in the field. Farms in this part of India are small and farmers are by and large poor and indebted, sometimes carrying a seasonal debt of twice their annual income. In a place where one’s position in society is tied to being a ‘good’ farmer and producing a large, healthy crop, these farmers face extreme pressure to produce. The cycles of debt and repayment inherent to cash cropping cotton have led farmers to take on expensive investments in seed, irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides that counter those insects immune to GM cotton. These extra costs make successful harvests all the more important and all the more devastating when crops fail. In fact, there’s strong evidence that the tragic epidemic of farmer suicide in India, where hundreds of thousands of farmers have ingested pesticide, is being driven by the complex intersection of social pressure, crop failure, debt, and the uncertainty of farmer safety nets as India expands neoliberal policies (Gruère and Sengupta 2011; Plewis 2014; Sengupta, Gruère, and Mehta-Bhatt 2008).

Cotton farming is a war against insects and most of what we humans like about cotton appeals to the bugs as well – large bolls, tall plants, and bright leaves perform double duty as signs of a good harvest and a waiting buffet. By 2001, the year before GM cotton would be commercially released in India, cotton insecticide use accounted for 46% of the total insecticides used in India, about $175 million (Kranthi et al. 2011). In the war against insects, Indian farmers had climbed on to a pesticide treadmill, spraying ever increasing amounts of poison to combat a quickly adapting foe. Eight years after the introduction of this GM cotton, cotton insecticide consumption dropped by $30 million while overall insecticide use nearly doubled (Kranthi et al. 2011). Fewer sprays means fewer opportunities for acute pesticide poisoning while spraying, weeding, or picking cotton in a place where the nearest hospitals are at least an hour away on unpaved roads. GM cotton was celebrated worldwide for not only lowering pesticide costs but saving millions of farmers from pesticide poisoning (Huang et al. 2003; Kouser and Qaim 2011; Pray et al. 2002; Qaim 2009).

 

Seed shops sell a dizzying array of pesticides, some of which are chemically identical but marketed differently to different farmers. “If I can see that he can afford it”, confided one shop owner, “I will encourage him to buy the more expensive brand. The brand is famous, so that helps too”.

Seed shops sell a dizzying array of pesticides, some of which are chemically identical but marketed differently to different farmers. “If I can see that he can afford it”, confided one shop owner, “I will encourage him to buy the more expensive brand. The brand is famous, so that helps too”.

 

But while pesticide sprays have decreased overall, farmers still spray an average of seven times, about once every two weeks, to combat non-target pests like aphids, whiteflies, and leaf-hoppers. As Malothu says in the epigraph to this blog post, production is key and farmers apply extra sprays if they fear that their crop will underproduce. Like many small farmers in developing nations, almost no cotton growers in the Telangana region wear protective clothing or masks while spraying pesticides. People spray barefoot or in sandals, wearing short-sleeved shirts and a wrap that leaves most of their legs exposed. Despite farmer field schools and corporate outreach, men and occasionally women are engulfed in mists of pesticides that fall on their uncovered skin, into their eyes and mouth, and settle on their clothing.

 

This mural by the Syngenta company advises that children younger than 15 should stay out of the fields and that all sprayers should wear protective clothing. Such advice is unheeded because of the difficulty in obtaining suitable protective gear. While children do not typically spray pesticides, they are an integral part of harvesting crops, weeding, and picking vegetables planted in the field for the household, exposing them to pesticides.

This mural by the Syngenta company advises that children younger than 15 should stay out of the fields and that all sprayers should wear protective clothing. Such advice is unheeded because of the difficulty in obtaining suitable protective gear. While children do not typically spray pesticides, they are an integral part of harvesting crops, weeding, and picking vegetables planted in the field for the household, exposing them to pesticides.

 

Hundreds of thousands of people die each year from pesticide poisoning, and long-term exposure to these chemicals has been shown to cause birth defects, nervous disorders, and skin and eye problems (Dawson et al. 2010; Maumbe and Swinton 2003; Rupa, Reddy, and Reddi 1991). It’s not as though the farmers are simply too stupid to realize that the pesticides may be harmful – pesticides are often deceptively labelled, farmers lack access to masks or full-body protective gear (let alone access to protective clothing suitable for spraying by hand for hours in tropical heat and humidity), and the immediate threat of insects often takes precedence over the long term threat of pesticide poisoning for heavily indebted farmers. As shown by Ryan Galt’s (2009) excellent study of pesticide use among small Costa Rican farmers, the lax regulation of pesticides in developing nations perpetuates a double-standard for pesticide consumption and exposure between producers and consumers of agricultural products.

Dharma is blind in his left eye from a pesticide accident.

Dharma is blind in his left eye from a pesticide accident.

Even though sprays have been reduced, the way that people apply pesticides remains the same and so the risks for acute poisoning remain the same – they fall on unprotected parts of the body, they are stored and accidentally spilled inside one-room homes, they drip off of the hands that farm workers in India use to eat meals in the field, they are washed in the rivers where people bathe and fish.

A fisherman demonstrates his technique as farmers wash out pesticide bottles and fertilizer bags behind him.

A fisherman demonstrates his technique as farmers wash out pesticide bottles and fertilizer bags behind him.

The actual application of pesticides is usually a three-person job. The sprayer carries a 50 pound pack through the cotton field producing a steady stream of pressurized poison that settles both on the cotton and on his clothes; another person walks behind him carrying a metal pot of water mixed with pesticide to refill the pack when necessary; a third person is tasked with bringing pots of water from pipes to the center of the field where the pesticide is mixed. Within minutes, all parties are covered in a fine pesticide mist.

A farmer squints as pesticide mist enters his eyes, nose, and mouth. His clothing is typical of this area, and many farmers report feeling nauseous after spraying.

A farmer squints as pesticide mist enters his eyes, nose, and mouth. His clothing is typical of this area, and many farmers report feeling nauseous after spraying.

 

In exchange for a photograph with his prized bullocks, one farmer allowed me to watch as he took over four hours to spray his six acre field. Worried that the monsoon rains would wash the pesticide off the cotton, he had hastily bought a cheaper generic brand pesticide. “It was a waste”, he told me bitterly a few days later. The pesticide had only killed about 30% of the insects and he had to travel to a larger town with a better agricultural shop to buy a more powerful pesticide. “What if this one doesn’t work either”, I asked. He shrugged, saying simply that he’d have to get something even stronger. Frowning, he absentmindedly picked a leaf from a gongura plant, a local sour herb used in raw chutneys. The gongura was growing in line with the cotton, and brings attention to the more subtle public health hazard of chronic pesticide poisoning.

A farmer shows off his gongura, eaten raw, planted between two cotton plants. He sprayed this field three times during the last cotton season.

A farmer shows off his gongura, eaten raw, planted between two cotton plants. He sprayed this field three times during the last cotton season.

 

GM cotton instructions advise farmers that cotton seeds’ legal germination rate is 75%. That is, as much as a quarter of the field may never sprout and cotton fields are indeed dotted with holes. Some farmers plant new cotton in these gaps, but to take advantage of the most fertile land with the best water facilities, most farmers use them as an opportunity to plant vegetables like the gongura. In the course of my interviews about cotton seed I began to realize that these vegetables were being heavily dosed with cotton pesticides every two weeks, including endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.

To add hard data to these observations, I conducted the most basic kind of ecological survey possible – I took half of the most representative farmers in two representative villages, totalling sixty-two, and went through every plant that they grow in or on the boundaries of their farm fields. More than half showed me how they planted tomatoes and pigeon pea, a common ingredient in the local lentil soup; forty-seven percent planted okra in cotton fields; more than a third planted ridge gourds. Tomatoes, as well as the guava and broad beans planted by about a third of the farmers, are eaten raw. In fact, in fields that I and every other researcher were recording as “cotton” fields, farmers were managing an average of 17.31 plants including flowers, trees, and vegetables.

Tomato is the most common vegetable planted in the cotton fields and are often eaten raw as a snack while farmers inspect their fields for problems.

Tomato is the most common vegetable planted in the cotton fields and are often eaten raw as a snack while farmers inspect their fields for problems.

 

While a good strategy to maximize land use for small farmers, these non-crop plants are covered in insecticides during biweekly sprays designed for cotton production, not for use on edible plants. When confronted with the potential danger of eating recently sprayed food, a farmer offering me cherry tomatoes turned over a cotton leaf to reveal leafhoppers and remarked: “look, the sprays aren’t hurting the insects, and they won’t hurt us”. Looking at children in other fields gather vegetables for the evening meal, I ate the tomato.

Expired pesticides are commonly sold in shops, both at a discount and at full price to illiterate or unsuspecting farmers.

Expired pesticides are commonly sold in shops, both at a discount and at full price to illiterate or unsuspecting farmers.

 

The risk of poisoning, especially the potentially dangerous residue of cotton pesticides on food (Jeyaratnam 1990), persists despite evidence that Bt cotton helps alleviate pesticide poisoning and overall use (Huang et al. 2003; Pray et al. 2002; Qaim 2009). Farmers surely planted vegetables in their fields before the 2002 but because GM cotton is celebrated for reducing pesticide sprays, concern over pesticide consumption is largely overshadowed by the documented reductions. GM cotton may ironically exacerbate the risks of pesticide consumption in India by giving the false impression that pesticide use has been eliminated rather than reduced.

There is a failure of understanding between the people who design agroindustrial products and those who use them on small farms in the developing world. Cotton farmers need pesticides designed with their needs in mind – a mixture of home and cash crops, applied without protective clothing. Driven by a need to grow food and maximize yields, exacerbated by poor equipment and infrastructure, chronic and acute pesticide poisoning illustrates part of the systemic violence inherent to cotton agriculture – unless sprays stop entirely, people will continue to eat, breathe, and wear pesticides. The problem persists because of the way that small farms work in India and no technological intervention, GM cotton included, can change that. A truly just solution for small farmers lies not in higher cotton yields but in policies that encourage diverse agriculture, transcending cycles of debt and desperation.

Morning sunlight shines on newly planted rice fields in Telangana.

Morning sunlight shines on newly planted rice fields in Telangana.

 

 

References
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