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Wenner-Gren Funded Research in the News

May 7, 2007

Dr. Glenn Stone is a professor of sociocultural anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University, St. Louis. His research focuses on environmental anthropology and political ecology: studying the social and political aspects of agricultural systems, population increase, and agricultural biotechnology

His recent work has focused on questions of genetically modified agricultural crops in different sites. The arrival of crop genetic modification (GM) into the developing world in recent years has brought fierce controversy, especially on the question of how GM crops would affect local farmers. As a long-term student of the complexities of indigenous agricultural systems [including two Wenner-Gren funded projects on social aspects of indigenous agriculture in Africa], Glenn Stone noted with alarm how certain both the biotech corporations and the green activists were about the new technology's effects -- and oversimplified both positions were. He identified a particularly interesting situation in India, where genetically modified insecticidal "Bt cotton" was being considered for release, and with Wenner-Gren funding in 2000 he began a multi year study of cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, in the key cotton-growing area of Warangal. In 2002 the new cotton was approved for sale, and 3 years later when it took over most farmers' fields, biotech corporations announced that it had been validated by careful farmer experimentation.

However, Stone's multi-year data on decision-making by cotton farmers revealed a different story, which has important implications both for farmer welfare and for theoretical understandings of innovation adoption. Warangal farmers were not conducting careful experiments on cotton. In fact the reliance on hybrid cotton seeds, which had to be repurchased each year from an anarchic seed market characterized by rampant mislabelling and dizzying rate of change, had left farmer unable to build and update indigenous agricultural knowledge. Even before the arrival of Bt cotton, cotton farming decisions were generally made by emulating neighbors who were in turn emulating their neighbors. The result was what is termed "agricultural deskilling" and it is evidenced in a remarkable pattern of ephemeral, highly localized, cotton seed fads that had virtually no agroecological basis. Bt cotton was the latest fad; it was adopted in 2005 mostly by farmers who had never planted it before. (Agronomically, it has been neither the failure claimed by anti-globalization activists nor the resounding success claimed by the biotec