Biotechnology and the socio-biological production of vulnerability. Genetically engineered cotton in Telangana, IndiaKumulative Dissertation
Datum der mündl. Prüfung:2022-07-08
Betreuer:Dr. Markus Keck
Gutachter:Dr. Markus Keck
Gutachter:Prof. Dr. Heiko Faust
EnglischThe use of genetically engineered (GE) crops in agriculture has been the subject of fierce controversy worldwide for decades and remains so until today. The potentials and risks of the technology are still contested and the ongoing scholarly and public debate polarizes proponents and opponents around the world. As the fifth-largest producer of GE crops, India has become particularly involved in this controversy, not only due to its shocking waves of farmer suicides, but also as critical evidence-generating site to examine the impacts of GE crops on smallholder agriculture in the Global South. In India, the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton is wide-spread. In the controversy surrounding Bt cotton implementation in India, on the one side, advocates of the technology stress its proclaimed agro-economic advantages, primarily involving pesticide reductions and increases in yield potentials, with ostensible effects on rural poverty reduction, particularly in countries of the Global South. Adversaries, on the other side, voice allegations associated with incalculable socio-ecological risks, including evolving pest resistances, suspected threats to agrobiodiversity, seed and food security, or farmer suicides. The lately decelerated debate on GE agriculture has recently been reignited by the re-emergence of high infestation levels of pink bollworm (PBW), the target pest of this agricultural biotechnology, in Bt cotton fields in central and southern Indian states in the cotton season of 2015 and after. As the re-occurrence of the insect has caused unexpected collapses in yields, the controversy has now regained momentum in the country and beyond. However, resulting socio-economic implications of the implementation of the Bt technology in general, as well as the specific consequences caused by recent developments regarding the target pest’s re-occurrence for cotton-farming households, have hitherto remained unaddressed in the scientific debate. Particularly the subaltern perspectives of economically marginalized actors like smallholders tend to be neglected in average values of agro-economic figures and are thus often unrepresented and remain unconsidered by relevant policy-making stakeholders. Situated in the realm of agri-food geographies, this thesis aims to reveal these hitherto marginalized perspectives of subaltern actors that have so far been unaddressed in the scientific debate and have thus remained excluded from political decision-making processes. As such, this thesis aspires to empirically address questions on rural socioeconomy and aims to expand our knowledge on risk and vulnerability-related implications arising from the implementation of agricultural biotechnologies for Indian smallholders and the related recent developments of target pest re-occurrences. This study uses the case of Bt cotton adoption in rural Telangana in India to provide updated insights on these questions. Against the background of the objective to include marginalized perspectives of subaltern actors, this research approaches the scientific controversy on Bt cotton from a pluralized conceptualization of geographical perspectives, taking into account considerations from the fields of development geography, political economy, and economic sociology. This diversified approach not least aims to outline the complex global-local interconnections of the research object. Methodologically, I follow an exploratory research design in which I employ qualitative and quantitative research methods. This results in four complementary parts of this study: In part 1, I investigate the livelihoods of Bt cotton farming households and their responses to the re-occurrence of the target insect using qualitative guided interviews. In part 2, I expand my focus to the structural implications of the farmers’ altered vulnerability context by connecting the results of a representative survey conducted in Telangana to political economic considerations and Gramscian approaches to hegemony. In part 3, I follow the mobilities of Bt cotton-related policies in their administrative assemblage by means of a document analysis and link my findings to the results of a multivariate cluster analysis of the Telangana cotton peasantry. In part 4, I draw on expert interviews of actors involved in biotechnology innovation and outline their imagined futures by retracing their empirically accessible narratives and imaginaries involved in their future trajectories of agricultural GE innovations. Based on the findings of this research, I conclude that the vulnerability context of cotton farming households has changed with the adoption of Bt technology. My results confirm that the PBW has indeed returned to large parts of cotton cultivation areas in Telangana. While cotton has always been considered a volatile crop due to dependencies on precipitation in non-irrigated areas, it has now become even more oscillating in terms of yield and effective income generation. For the early years of the technology implementation, farmers still reported benefits of the adoption of Bt cotton, but with the recent malfunctioning of the Bt crop and the associated re-occurrences of the target pest, unexpected collapses in yields are now ascertained. Whereas economically better-off farming households can balance such oscillations by reverting to strategies of agricultural diversification, farmers on the resource-poorer end of the economic spectrum remain trapped in loops of agricultural intensification, and are incrementally pushed into debt. Finally, they enter a cycle of dispossession, successively releasing capital and thus providing opportunities of appropriation for other actors. As a result, prevalent hegemonic structures in the neoliberal Indian Bt cotton nexus are reproduced. The economically heterogenous character of the Bt cotton peasantry also comes to the fore in regard to the compliance with Bt cotton-related refuge policies. As I show by means of a cluster analysis, especially resource-poorer farmers are pressured toward short-term profit maximization, and hence refrain from implementing cost-intensive refuge policies. Indian state authorities have hitherto failed to consider this entrepreneurial farmer logic and have further contributed to the failure of refuge crop policies, as the administrative process of policy adaption involved serious mistranslations. In order to embed these socio-economic outcomes of agricultural biotechnology implementation on site into their discursive entanglements, this study further sheds light on the imagined futures of actors involved in the innovation of agricultural biotechnologies. As this study makes clear, the relevant actors strictly uphold a rigid imaginary of a technological fix through agricultural biotechnology while related narratives are merely adjusted. Being co-dependently intertwined with policy-making actors, the imagined futures of relevant stakeholders in turn tangibly affect agricultural biotechnology implementing smallholders.
Keywords: India; Bt cotton; Bacillus thuringiensis; pink bollworm; vulnerability; biotechnology