Farmers Living and Dying by Cotton Seeds in India

Fingers pull open ball of cotton

Going to Market

In June 2014, I sat next to Shiva on our way to Warangal, a regional capital in Telangana, India, where we would buy cotton seeds. Encouraged by a promising monsoon forecast, the city’s agricultural input shops were mobbed by farmers and chemical brokers hawking new technology. The crowd’s anxious energy reflected new fears that genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton was losing its resistance to bollworm pests, driving that season’s profits down even as labor and pesticide costs rose to squeeze farmer budgets.

I asked Shiva if he knew what seed brand he was going to buy. “Maybe Dr. Brent, maybe ATM,” he answered noncommittally, naming privately developed cotton varieties that he has seen advertised in the village. This time of year, even the bus we rode was painted with seed advertisements. Our time at the shop went by quickly. “What do you want?” asked the shop clerk. Shiva replied, “Give me what is good this year.” “All my seeds are good,” retorted the clerk, gesturing to dozens of glossy packages on the shelves behind him. His eyes traveled to me and lingered on the customers outside. “Many people have been buying ATM this year. Buy that.” Shiva nodded his head in assent. “Are you finished then?” the clerk asked, looking back to the street of potential customers.

Signs in an Indian Market
Seed shops and advertisements in Warangal, Telangana.

That day, ATM, whose packet bears a cash machine in a cape shooting cotton bolls, was one of over 1,200 cotton seed options Shiva could have bought. Privately bred hybrid GM seeds carry the promise of high yields against the threat of debts, chronic chemical exposure, and suicide. Shiva was hoping for a good harvest. Six months later his cotton field was a sea of fluffy white bolls, which he plucked alongside his family and a team of hired female workers. Selling the cotton harvest in time to celebrate the autumn Diwali festival, Shiva transformed those seeds into school payments, savings, and new clothes for his family.

Shiva was relieved. His neighbor Bhadra, who lived across the road, had been less lucky in the previous year. Several bad seasons, money lost to laborers, and debt from borrowing to buy agricultural inputs like fertilizers and pesticides had Bhadra growing increasingly anxious. Bhadra was a young man. His marriage prospects, his standing among his peers, and his place in the village were in jeopardy with every insect attack and lost rupee. He heard a rumor that the woman to whom he was arranged to be married was now pursuing other husbands. Bhadra didn’t want to be a cotton farmer forever. He hoped to leave his village and get a higher-paying job in Hyderabad, but a few poor seasons led him to feel this dream would never come to fruition.

Cotton seeds illuminate the ways that neoliberal capitalism is changing agrarian life in India.

Overwhelmed, he drank several gulps of the concentrated insecticide present in every Telangana cotton farmer’s home. Bhadra vomited twice and died later that day, joining 11,771 Indian farmers who committed suicide in 2013. GM cotton alone didn’t kill Bhadra. Like many Telangana cotton farmers, he saw his debts growing and couldn’t imagine a viable way to preserve his family’s land or pursue his own dreams.

I met Bhadra, like Shiva, during the 16 months and five cotton seasons from 2012 to 2018 when I lived in rural Telangana. Many of these months were spent between two Warangal villages, living out of an NGO-run school. Conducting doctoral fieldwork as an anthropology PhD student, I walked along fields each day, finding farmers in their fields or at home in order to ask about their experiences with GM seeds and organic agriculture. Some of these farmers, like Shiva, are learning to succeed in the new normal of aggressive rural capitalism. Others, like Bhadra, will never get the chance.

When Seeds Become Commodities

One of the strengths of anthropology is its use of seemingly small things to tell the story of global transformations. Sidney Mintz used sugar to explore the rise of class and capitalism in the Atlantic, while Anna Tsing used matsutake mushrooms to search for meaning in ecologically and economically disturbed landscapes. Cotton seeds illuminate the ways that neoliberal capitalism is changing agrarian life in India because a seed is a choice that cannot be taken back.

Cotton seed advertisement with cartoons
Seed advertisement for ATM and Jaadoo (magic, in Telugu), both marketed by the Kaveri Seeds company.

With hundreds of new seed options in glitzy packaging available each year, Indian farmers increasingly see seeds as indistinguishable commodities on a store shelf, much like my own eyes glaze over as I consider the few dozen varieties of mustard at my local grocery store (I’m a Gulden’s spicy brown guy, by the way). Consumer scientists call this phenomenon ‘choice overload’—there are too many choices and no good way to discern between them. The difference between my mustards and farmers’ seeds, of course, is that my family’s fortunes don’t rise and fall on choosing the right mustard.

This excess of new brands and aggressive marketing centralize expertise off the farm, in biotechnology labs and shops. Farmers are thus asked to be consumers but not producers of seed knowledge. This change speeds up the release of new seed brands and varieties and increases uncertainty about any particular product, a common feature in the neoliberal capitalism described by economic geographer David Harvey.

In farming communities, this aggressive consumerism and market logic collides with the existential stakes of maintaining a land ethic—especially for the most marginal cotton farmers who were denied land tenure rights before India’s independence in 1947. As debts rise and farmers see new seeds on the shelves, cotton makes plain the vulnerabilities of neoliberal rural life in India. Economically vulnerable, farmers purchase more inputs to produce more profits and satisfy creditors. Socially vulnerable, they feel pressure to be seen as good farmers by a larger community undergoing rapid socioeconomic change. Ecologically vulnerable, they have a sense of duty to steward the land in order to pass it on to children and grandchildren.

Boys harvest cotton in field
Children help parents pick cotton as an after-school chore.

When asked to justify their seed decisions, most GM cotton farmers sigh “manci digubadi annakunthunnanu,” literally meaning, “I’m hoping for a good yield.”  Like Shiva, many sow seeds they’ve never planted before, purchased as one among many possible glitzy commodities. Despite aggressively adopting and then abandoning particular seed brands, Telangana farmers do not see statistical differences between the yields of different, popular seeds. The farmers disagree widely when predicting critical agronomic qualities of those seeds, and then end up planting their chosen variety for a year and a half on average before planting something else. The strongest predictor of a given farmer’s seed choice is its sheer presence in the field of a neighbor, indicating the lack of alternate guidance.

These difficulties in farmer learning are not because Telangana cotton farmers are inept or incapable. Tellingly, most cotton farmers also grow rice—a crop where seed choices are far more stable—according to their personal experience and knowledge, and with wide agreement on key rice seed qualities. Farmer difficulties in cotton agriculture are the result of an unstable market for this important cash crop.

In this information-poor environment, manci digubadi (good yield) is the obvious answer to a question about seed choice for GM cotton. Of course farmers plant seeds that they hope will bring them high yields. But with so many options and no reliable way to differentiate them, farmers are left making a decision that is less a rational choice than an aspirational performance. What is a farm if not a public stage?

Farmer sprays pesticides in field
A farmer belonging to a historically marginalized Adivasi community sprays pesticides on his field.

Understanding how farmers make seed choices sheds light on both an agricultural decision and the existential stakes behind its rationalization. What kind of farming is possible in this seed market? Why do farmers adopt the vocabulary of agribusiness in coming to terms with those new possibilities? Farmers’ pursuit of good yields results in good seed and input sales for agribusinesses, and it raises India’s overall cotton production. But unaddressed in this search for good yields is the hope to send children to school, to live without spraying poison, or to steward land and eventually distribute it among family. As ethnographer Priti Ramamurthy has argued, cotton may be a vehicle for these aspirations, but the highly commodified seed market is a highly uncertain means for attaining them.

Individual and Cooperative Solutions

To be sure, there are success stories. By the time I started this research in 2012, a spike of suicides that began in the mid-1990s plateaued, bollworm pesticide use dropped precipitously, incomes rose, and India’s national cotton yield per hectare had nearly doubled. During the same time period, Bt cotton came to be planted in more than 95 percent of Indian cotton fields, radically changing the cotton sector by directing farmers toward private hybrid seeds in far greater numbers. Yet these benefits are complicated by the unintended consequences of a complex rural world that biotechnology has never been equipped to fix. Suicides persist, hitting hardest the poorest farmers and those least connected to regular irrigation or electricity. While farmers spray for bollworms at only a fraction of pre-GM levels, spraying for other kinds of insects has climbed since 2008. In fact, farmers now spray greater quantities of pesticides on cotton than they did before the introduction of pesticide-reducing GM seeds.

Farmer spraying pesticides on cotton plants
Cotton farmer spraying for pests unaffected by insecticidal Bt proteins.

Twelve five-year plans, which guided the Indian government’s policy priorities until 2017, sought to move farmers out of agricultural work and into urban industrial sectors in the name of development, supposedly balancing loss in rural production against new technologies and infrastructures. Scientists and policymakers are now doubling down on Bt cotton cultivation in the face of evolved pest resistance by advocating high-density planting systems that require as many as twelve times the number of cotton plants in a field as farmers would have sown in 2012.

Persistent vulnerabilities in rural life are unsolved by an agricultural logic that lives and dies by manci digubadi, least of all for the poorest and most marginal farmers in rainfed areas excluded from multinational and state development projects. One key problem with GM cotton is the confusing individualistic economic system in which farmers plant their seeds. This suggests that GM seeds sold and managed in a more collective system may address the fundamental problems of GM seed capitalism.

Warangal’s shops are busy and stressful, while some smaller village shops may sell dubious or expired products. The cooperative shop in a village I’ll call Srigonda is different. It is welcoming. Unlike many rural shops, the cooperative’s cement foundation extends beyond the storefront. Most days, the cooperative’s manager sets out chairs and extends a cloth awning over this porch. As soon as the shop opens, farmers linger on the porch, drinking tea and debating newspaper and television reports. The cooperative is the first place I go when I arrive in Srigonda because it is a central node in this local social network.

Audience of people sit in chairs under tent
A cooperative meeting in Srigonda.

The cooperative was growing when I first visited in 2012, attracting forty-five members by 2013 and offering discounted prices to the region at large. Established in partnership with a prominent crop scientist based at a Warangal plant science research station, the shop lowers prices through wholesale buying and reduces farmers’ exposure to spurious seeds, expired pesticides, and corrupt shop owners. By organizing shares from members, the cooperative has arranged for interest-free loans and purchased collective equipment.

As rumors flew during a 2012 seed shortage, the cooperative manager called a meeting to explain why some popular seeds were unavailable. He suggested, and participating farmers agreed, to democratically distribute the seed packets that their shop had been allotted. Farmers wanted to know the best alternative seeds, so he called the crop scientist, who in turn consulted with his colleagues at the extension service and at corporate breeders. This lengthy and collective discussion of seeds and their alternatives would be unfeasible for any normal village shop. It is unthinkable in the melee of the Warangal seed and input sellers, who have their own problems with inventory, thin profit margins, and stiff competition.

Social institutions like farmer cooperatives sustain plural visions of living well as a Telangana cotton farmer.

The cooperative is not a perfect social institution. The manager belongs to the village’s most prominent high-caste family. Farmers belonging to historically marginalized caste or Adivasi communities complained that the manager’s family continues to control access to agricultural resources and the flows of information from the university extension offices. Because the cooperative demands monetary shareholder investments, some poorer farmers do not participate. As wealthier and predominantly high-caste farmers invest more money in the cooperative, they have a greater say in how money is spent. The manager’s friends and social circle are often the first to participate in new and subsidized development schemes. For example, a rice sorting machine that cleans grains and filters away dust is housed at the manager’s uncle’s house, meaning that anyone who wants to clean their grains must go to him to use it.

And yet the institution as a whole strengthens farmers’ ability to learn about their seeds and apply local management knowledge. When the cooperative makes demands, experts listen and help. Member farmers lean on a social institution that centralizes expert knowledge and administers it collaboratively, returning trust and iterative learning to cotton agriculture.

Non-agricultural benefits like lengthy consultations or comfortable porches are not a distraction from solving agrarian problems—they are the reason that these interventions become sustainable. Dismissing this social work is especially unhelpful when farmers are considering public suicides. Rather, to understand agrarian capitalism, we must understand the audiences and the stages that structure farmers’ performances in the fields where they work. Social institutions like farmer cooperatives sustain plural visions of living well as a Telangana cotton farmer because they provide opportunities to learn and to adapt agricultural knowledge.

Indian woman and child sit atop a pile of cotton
A cotton worker and her son rest during a break at a Warangal gin.

The challenges of global environmental change and intensifying planetary interconnection ask scientists, policymakers, activists, and anyone curious about the lasting impacts of new technologies to look beyond these abstractions and understand what happens in the field, and to whom. The cooperative’s manager grimaces when I tell him about Shiva’s experience in the Warangal shop. “We’re all part of the cooperative,” he explains, gesturing to fellow farmers on the porch. “There wouldn’t be any point in cheating them.” This grain of trust in an anarchic cottonseed market may explain why he sold fully half of the cottonseeds purchased by Srigonda farmers from 2012 to 2014, dwarfing the market share of any other individual vendor in this area. Farmers from around the district, whether they are members of the cooperative or simply browsing, know and trust the shop.

A new seed brand could never hope to calm anxieties of debt or seed uncertainty, let alone make one seem like the “right kind of farmer” in the eyes of a neighbor. But a cooperative helps because it provides a larger stability. The allure and danger of technological fixes is that they ignore the daily, messy, important social realities of agriculture. Ultimately, there is a persistent danger in seeking technological fixes for problems rooted in complex political, social, and historical issues. In part, this is because the practice of sustainable agriculture on the farm, let alone the global challenge of feeding or clothing the world, is a social, not simply a technological, question.

All photographs by Andrew Flachs.

Featured Image: A farmer’s hands pulls apart a cotton boll.

Dr. Andrew Flachs researches food and agriculture systems, exploring genetically modified crops, heirloom seeds, and our own microbiomes. An assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University, his work among farmers in North America, the Balkans, and South India investigates ecological knowledge and technological change in agricultural systems spanning Cleveland urban gardens and Indian GM cotton fields. His book, Cultivating Knowledge: Biotechnology, Sustainability, and the Human Cost of Cotton Capitalism in India, was released in November 2019 with the University of Arizona Press. Website. Twitter. Instagram. Contact.