(Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
(Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

Farmers switch cotton seeds in bid to chase higher yields, says study

  • Study highlighted the need to reduce anxiety and choice overload associated with farm decisions
  • Lead researcher Andrew Flachs surveyed cotton-growing villages in Telangana, which has seen a high number of farmer suicides

NEW DELHI : Farmers in Telangana are frequently switching to newer brands of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds in a desperate chase for higher yields, a new study has found.

The study conducted from 2012 to 2018, led by social scientists from Purdue University of the US, and published in American Anthropologist, suggests introducing fewer seeds each season to help make better choices.

Lead researcher Andrew Flachs surveyed cotton-growing villages in Telangana, which has seen a high number of farmer suicides.

Researchers spoke to farmers about their experience with GM cottonseeds to understand how they choose their seeds in a growing market. “Most farmers say, ‘I’m doing this to achieve ‘manci digubadi’ (Telugu for ‘good yield’)’. That makes sense if you don’t think about it too much. However, four years in, I had data saying this decision has nothing to do with yield," Flachs says.

Since 2008, farmers in the region who planted one brand of seeds switched to another the next year in the hope of achieving a better yield, the study says. However, when researchers compared yields for six most popular cotton seeds, they found all were in the same range. Yet, farmers continued to switch seeds. “This suggests that farmers don’t have a reliable measure for what constitutes a good yield," states the study.

“Using genetically modified seeds they see in flashy advertisements is their way of using modern technology. It’s something they see people doing in the rich villages. They’re using technology to be as successful as they can so that they can help their families. That’s at the core of these agricultural decisions," argues Flachs.

Policymakers should slow down the influx of new seeds each season, the study says. “There needs to be a way to reduce anxiety and choice-overload associated with agricultural decisions," says Flachs.

More than 1,200 brands of GM seeds have been released in the Telangana market so far. The seasonal deluge of accelerated and consumerist seed marketing has diminished the value of experiential knowledge in favour of the expansion of GM seed sales, says the study.

There is also a need to improve the quality of life for Indian cotton farmers, including better roads or more reliable irrigation, said the researchers. “This (condition of cotton farmers) is a social problem about justice, not just an agricultural problem about crop pests," he says.