Biotechnology and the Political Ecology of Information in India

Article excerpt

The move of crop biotechnology into the south raises issues about effects on cultural agricultural practices. The case of recently introduced genetically modified cotton in India is used to explore how crop biotechnology can affect change in processes underlying local practice. The particular focus is agricultural skilling-acquiring information and adopting management practices derived from that information-based on both environmental learning and cultural transmission. Impediments to skilling include inconsistency, unrecognizability, and overly rapid technological change; these processes may lead to agricultural deskilling, which has similarities to and differences from industrial deskilling. India's first genetically engineered crop, Bt cotton, has recently been released into an unsustainable situation plagued by deskilling, yet biotechnology has brought new disruptions of information flows and thus of the skilling process. The India case shows how susceptible to political manipulation the cultural agricultural practices become when skilling is disrupted.

Key words: political ecology, biotechnology, genetic modification, indigenous knowledge, India

In today's debates on transgenic, or genetically modified (GM), crops for third world farmers, some of the most diverse positions have come from the third world itself. For instance, Indian physicist-cum-activist Vandana Shiva is one of the world's most potent opponents of GM crops, while Kenyan biologist Florence Wambugu is a leading proponent (and practitioner) of crop genetic modification and literally a larger-than-life figure at Monsanto headquarters.1 What these disparate writers agree on, however, is the importance of indigenous cultural farming practices. Shiva (1996) writes that:

traditional knowledge, innovations and practices are of importance to the conservation of biological diversity and that indigenous and local communities have a close and traditional dependence on biological resources. Their livelihood and life styles often depends [sic] on it and is shaped as it.

Wambugu's (1999:16) position, oft-quoted in industry media and congressional hearings, is that:

The great potential of biotechnology to increase agriculture in Africa lies in its "packaged technology in the seed," which ensures technology benefits without changing local cultural practices. In the past, many foreign donors funded high-input projects, which have failed to be sustainable because they have failed to address social and economic issues such as changes in cultural practice.2

Monsanto, the global leader in crop genetic modification, takes a different view. Its business is developing technologies to replace current practices, and it targets practices such as plowing, weeding, and seed-saving for replacement.3 Recent Monsanto literature has even suggested that traditional African hoe cultivation should be replaced by "sustainable" biotechnology. In Biotechnology: Solutions for Tomorrows World (Monsanto 2000), a Sudanic hoe is depicted with the caption: "Farmers in Ghana currently use this tool to till their fields. Through biotechnology, farmers in developing countries such as Ghana will be able to implement sustainable agricultural practices." (Ironically, on the facing page, Florence Wambugu poses in a laboratory.)

The insinuation that the Sudanic hoe is "unsustainable" may strain credulity, yet in one limited but important sense, Monsanto is closer to the truth than Shiva and Wambugu: cultural agricultural practices change all the time, as does the indigenous knowledge on which practices are based (Agrawal 1995; Dove 2000; Sillitoe 2000a). Each plot, each year, is an experiment, and practices may change in response to population density; market signals; the arrival of new crops, tools, or neighbors; pests and diseases; government policies; and even new ideas (Stone 2001). The notion of preserving indigenous, and particularly "traditional," cultural agricultural practices is not entirely realistic or, as argued below, necessarily desirable. …