Con-seed-ing the Limits to Progress

By Sarah Gomez

The lives of farmers are notoriously, historically grim. With their livelihoods entirely dependent on unpredictable and uncontrollable natural elements, farmers compose an industry of gamblers. For thousands of years, Indian cotton farmers have led this lifestyle, one that forms the foundation of the powerful  cotton industry. To cultivate and harvest the immense amount of cotton that the industry demands, they have relied on ancient methods of farming and organizing farm systems. To purchase seeds, farmers would contact local seed vendors and buy open pollinated varieties of seeds, which they could then save and replant year after year. But this ancient agricultural tradition is slowly being phased out of practice as the large biotechnology companies continue to transform seed industry.

Cotton picking in India. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1988 the World Bank implemented a Seed Policy that allowed foreign companies access to the traditionally closed Indian seed industry, forever transforming the industry. With the emergence of foreign companies in the Indian seed industry, genetically modified seeds were able to quickly enter into and dominate the market. According to a study by Jonas Kathage and Matin Qaim sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, more than 7 million Indian farmers had adopted Bt, or genetically modified, cotton by 2011. The 26 million acres under Bt cotton cultivation amounted to roughly 90% of the total Indian cotton area.

These statistics are especially shocking when one considers the fact that within a time period of only around twenty years, almost an entire industry of farmers was convinced to abandon thousands of years of agricultural tradition to adopt a new method of farming. Unlike traditionally used open pollinated varieties of seeds, these new genetically modified seeds must be purchased by farmers on a yearly basis to protect the intellectual property of the companies who engineered the crops. Further, the researchers affiliated with the Brookings Institute found that these GMO “cannot be reused without a significant reduction in yield and quality.” Thus, the companies that control the seed industry have engineered both a legal and a scientific barrier to prevent the reuse of their seeds and entrap farmers in contractual obligations. In this way, GMOs and the companies that designed them together have virtually killed the historical tradition of seed saving, inventing a new industry composed of monopoly-beholden farmers. In an Al Jazeera op-ed, Dr. Vandana Shiva, a pioneer in the Indian environmental activism movement, described how, when genetically modified seeds were introduced to the Indian seed industry, “A renewable resource became a non-renewable, patented commodity.”

With the Indian cotton industry’s commercialization, the startup costs of becoming a farmer have dramatically increased. The Wall Street Journal quoted Shiva as saying that “after Bt seeds arrived in the country in 2002, the price of cotton seeds jumped from Rs. 7 [7 rupees] a bag (which covers one acre) to Rs. 1,700 a bag.” Yet, the true cost of growing these seeds is much higher than this, as farmers must also purchase expensive pesticides to protect against the pests that the GMO seeds cannot guard against and pay maintenance costs to keep up their farms. In addition to covering these costs, farmers must produce enough cotton and make enough money to cover other basic costs of living include health costs for themselves and their families, food costs, and the cost of shelter. The pressure of finding ways to afford the seeds often leads farmers to seek out the aid of exploitative loan sharks. Understanding that the farmers would not be able to obtain loans from other sources, they consequently loan them money at extremely high interest rates.

Why would farmers choose to rely upon these GMO seeds and actively forfeit their autonomy to large corporations and predatorial loan sharks? The answer to this question lies in the historical war between farmers and nature. Indian farmers spend their lives in a ceaseless struggle against the forces of nature. Draughts, hurricanes, temperature shifts, crop diseases, new pests, and are among the many threats farmers face. It is easy, then, to imagine why Indian cotton farmers might find GMO seeds to be so attractive. GMO seeds promise security in controlling at least one of the countless variables a farmer worries about.

But the problem with GMO seeds is that the security they market is over-exaggerated. While GMOs can protect a cotton crop from certain pests, and increase crop yields, they cannot prevent any other natural forces from devastating a farm. GMO companies advertise their products by promising farmers tangible protection against pest devastation and increased crop yields, which will lead in turn to increased profits and higher standards of living. According to Karthage and Qaim, under the optimal conditions that companies like Monsanto conduct their research, GMO cotton seeds prove to expand cotton yields by 126 kg per acre, “equivalent to a 24% gain over mean yields on conventional cotton plots.” Yet these tests fail to consider the significance of other factors and costs of production that farmers face. They fail to consider unpredictable, catastrophic natural phenomena that can devastate any crop regardless of whether or not it contains a special gene. They fail to consider the cripplingly high-interest loans farmers are pressured into taking. They fail to consider the costs of maintaining  a farm and household. Yields, profit, and standard of living will increase only if the rain comes at the right time and in the right amount, if new pests and diseases do not affect the farmer’s cotton crop, and if a farmer is fortunate to find a forgiving loan shark who will charge him a reasonable interest rate. The odds have always been stacked against farmers. With the emergence of GMOs, and the commercialization of the seed industry, however, the odds of success have become worse, and the consequences of losing have become more severe.


Sarah Gomez ’18 is in Pierson College. Contact her at