GM Crops: From St. Louis to India

By Glenn Stone

Anthropology may have been slow to engage the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops, but this new technology intersects many core anthropological questions.  The following images juxtapose contested (but linked) terrains in St. Louis and Andhra Pradesh (southern India).
St. Louis is a global hub of GM crops chiefly because of Washington University and the Monsanto Company. Among Washington University’s contributions were Mary-Dell Chilton’s pioneering work on the use of Agrobacterium to transform plants and Wayne Barnes’s discovery of the now widely-used Bt genes which make crops produce their own insecticide (Charles 2001). Monsanto has dominated agricultural biotechnology worldwide, and owns a commanding portfolio of gene patents including many based on research at Washington University. St. Louis is also home to the non-profit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which houses ILTAB (the International Laboratory for Tropical Agricultural Biotechnology) -- a lab focused on GM crops for farmers in the global South.  Not surprisingly, St. Louis has on occasion been a lightning rod for anti-GM activism.
India has played a pivotal role in GM crop development and controversy for years. By 2000, much of the debate on GM crops had turned to their potential role in feeding populations the global south (Stone 2002; Stone 2005). However the main GM crop available to farmers was Bt cotton; this put India, with its enormous but highly troubled cotton sector, directly in the global spotlight. Indian cotton farmers had become classic victims of the pesticide treadmill, suffering heavy predation by some of the pests that Bt cotton was intended to combat. India was also home to one of the world’s largest and most energetic NGO sectors; these organizations have aggressively challenged Bt cotton on a variety of grounds, even as it has been widely adopted by Indian farmers.

The following images are from my own participation in biological research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, long-term fieldwork in rural Warangal District in a cotton growing area of Andhra Pradesh, and intermittent fieldwork in St. Louis.

A version of this photo essay was published in the January 2012 edition of Anthropology News. Glenn Stone is professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University. Biotechnology laboratory work was sponsored by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0078396, Scholar's Award for Methodological Training in Cultural Anthropology. India research was sponsored by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0314404 and by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.


For full-size images, see below.

Figure 1 TRANSGENIC CROPS RESEARCH AT ILTAB, 2000.  Sponsored by an NSF “Scholar's Award for Methodological Training,” I spent a semester at ILTAB participating in a study evaluating a promoter for use in cassava.  (Promoters are DNA regulatory sequences that determine where, and under what conditions, genes express.)  The blue cells show where the promoter is causing the GUS reporter gene to express in specific areas of this tobacco stem. Tobacco was being used as a model plant because the ultimate target, cassava, is a very difficult plant to manipulate by genetic modification. Unlike most current commercial GM crops, GM cassava may offer unique advantages to smallholders in the global south (Stone 2002; Stone 2005).  (Fall 2000)

Figure 2 PACHA PURUGU IN WARANGAL.  By the late 1990s south Indian cotton farms were overrun with Lepidopteran (caterpillar) pests. The most destructive was the “American Bollworm” -- known in Telugu as pacha purugu or “green caterpillar.” Since Bt cotton was toxic to these pests, it was heralded as a solution to a pressing agricultural problem. But whether bollworm predation was best seen as a problem in need of a technological intervention, or as a symptom of systemic problems created by other technological interventions, is an interesting anthropological question. Pest-prone hybrid cotton had spread quickly in the 1990s along with heavy reliance on pesticides, which quickly lost effectiveness on pacha purugu, contributed to agricultural deskilling, and plunged farmers into debt  (Stone 2007; Stone 2011). (Summer 2002)


Figure 3 ST. LOUIS TO ANDHRA PRADESH.  Bt cotton -- genetically modified with Chilton’s Agrobacterium method, containing a variant of the Bt gene discovered by Barnes, patented by Monsanto, and sold by an Indian seed company partly owned by Monsanto -- was approved in 2002 for sale in India.  This followed four years of intense controversy, including marches to protest the use of the so-called “Terminator Technology” that was actually not being used anywhere in the world. (Summer 2002)


Figure 4 EARLY BT COTTON ADOPTERS.  Farmers in rural Warangal display the village’s first box of Bt cotton seed, purchased for 1600 rupees (approx. $40).   This amount was four times the cost of a box of convention cotton seed, and 32 times the cost of a day of farm labor. (Summer 2002)




Figure 5 CULTIVATION BIAS.  A Warangal woman farmer who was an early adopter of Bt cotton hand-waters her recently-planted seeds. Normally hand watering is unheard of, and this was the first time I had ever seen it. But like most early adopters, she lavished extraordinary attention on the field with the expensive Bt cotton seed. Such fields were then reported by economists as evidence that Bt cotton had an inherent “yield advantage” (Smale, et al. 2010; Smale, et al. 2006; Stone 2011). (Summer 2002)


Figure 6 INDUSTRY CAMPAIGNS.  Advertisements, pamphlets and industry spokesmen informed farmers that Bt seeds would make them prosperous and happy.  This image is from the pamphlet provided to buyers in the first year of release (Mahyco Monsanto 2002). Adoption was slow for several years, then very rapid, leading Monsanto to claim Bt cotton in India to be the fastest-adopted agricultural technology in history. Yet the pesticides that had had such ruinous effects on agricultural practice had been adopted just as quickly.  In fact, had it not been for the rapid adoption of pesticides and the subsequent energence of pesticide resistance, it is doubtful that Bt cotton would have been adopted so quickly.  (Summer 2002)


Figure 7 NGO CAMPAIGNS.  Paralleling the corporate promotions and blinkered analyses of agronomic success were NGO media projects designed to depict Bt cotton as a disaster.  With the cameras rolling for an anti-GM documentary, farmers in Warangal were encouraged to describe how Bt cotton had failed in its first season. The one farmer who reported a good harvest of Bt cotton was shouted down. Later NGO films and articles blamed cotton farmer suicides on Bt cotton, although cotton farmer suicides actually peaked before Bt cotton was released (Gruère, et al. 2008).  (Winter 2002)


Figure 8  RESISTANCE AND COUNTER-TERRORISM IN ST. LOUIS.  In 2003 St. Louis hosted the agribusiness-friendly World Agricultural Forum, prompting activists and scholars to plan a “Biodevastation” counter-conference across town.  Advised by the FBI Counterrorism office, which had been egged on by Monsanto (FBI 2003), city police arrested and detained would-be conference participants on charges later admitted to be baseless. Here Prof. Ignacio Chapela (UC-Berkeley), John Peck (Family Farm Defenders) and Jesse Reynolds (Students for Responsible Research) give presentations on industry-academy relations at the counter-conference.  The empty chair was for speaker Sarah Bantz of Missouri Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, who had been arrested and jailed for allegedly driving with an unfastened seatbelt and for carrying Vitamin C pills.  The police had also arrested and detained members of an anti-GM group for bicycling without a license (a non-existent law in a city that does not issue bicycle licenses).  Police also forced their way into a house where conferees were staying, claimed a box of roofing nails to be a weapon, slashed bicycle tires, removed artwork, submitted a woman to a strip search, urinated on the inhabitants’ clothing, and made arrests for inhabiting a condemned building (which had just been condemned by an inspector who came with the police) (Rothschild 2004).  The St. Louis Police fought an ACLU lawsuit for 6 years before issuing an apology and paying monetary damages (Ratcliffe 2009).


Figure 9 PENU BANKA.  In Warangal, Bt cotton's initial success in reducing bollworm predation was quickly followed by surges in non-target insects like the aphids (penu banka) covering this cotton leaf. A similar pattern has been reported in China, where in some cases non-target pests have eroded the early benefits from Bt cotton (Stone 2010; Wang, et al. 2006). Within  a few years, the first reports of Bt resistance in bollworms had also appeared in India (Tabashnik and Carrière 2010).  (Summer 2008)


Figure 10 TRANSGENIC CROPS AT ILTAB, 2011.  ILTAB director Claude Fauquet talks with a group of Washington University students.  Work on genetic modification of cassava has progressed significantly in the last 10 years, both in nutritional enhancement (Sayre, et al. 2011) and in virus resistance (McNeil 2010).  Yet GM cassava still remains many years from release.  Despite extraordinary funding from the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies, ILTAB struggles to fund its research.  Cassava will never be a big money maker. (Spring 2011)