In a place where population growth is moving incredibly fast, added pressure on farmers in India in the wake of crushing debt and failed crops calls for a new agricultural approach. Genetic modification and organic farming present promising solutions. Young Explorer Andrew Flachs will investigate the effect of both growing strategies by interviewing farmers in Southern India.
“Not only do these plants taste good, they help the soil”, my guide remarked as he showed me his father’s Bt cotton and rice fields. “We try to encourage all of the wild Fabaceae plants here”. Ah, I thought. This will be a very different kind of interview.
One of the big fears about GMOs is one of biodiversity. People and plants have an incredible history together that has allowed us to fundamentally change the landscape in our own favor. This remarkable history depends on having a wide variety of plant options to choose from and tinker around with.
The point of growing a cash crop like Bt cotton is, well, to get cash. Cultivating lots of different plants in a farm field takes space away from land that could be otherwise used to grow crop plants, even if it means clearing away useful wild plants, foods, and medicines. Even in rural India, the phenomenon of growing swaths of a single crop, monocropping, isn’t a product of genetic modification but of conventional farming.
However, many see Bt cotton as another step in external-input intensive agriculture, marked by chemical inputs, monocropping, and dense planting: higher investments to get higher returns, and lower biodiversity to make room for it all.
Or at least that’s how it works on some farms, with some farmers. Others plant an array of flowers and vegetables in in their fields amidst their cotton, allowing them to benefit from the irrigation and sprays; field edges are often full of useful plants because farmers encourage trees and trim waste plants from these small oases; volunteer vegetables like tomatoes and pulses thrive in these fields despite not being formally planted for years; and everyone takes care when cutting a vepa chettu (Azadirachta indica), as that deprives the village of valuable medicines.
To measure differences in useful agricultural biodiversity between various farms, including GMO, organic, high caste, low caste, etc., our team calls on the tools of ethnobotany. After interviewing farmers and seeing several fields in each village, we develop a list of plants regularly used from the farm.
From this list, we can then talk to other farmers to see how much botanical mileage farmers are getting from their fields. We’re not looking at plants to find the cure for cancer (although I’ll be sure to mention it if we find it) so much as to discover how many botanical benefits acre coming from ‘cotton’ fields.
In addition to surveys and interviews about plant use and the cultural significance of the plants, we also collect plant voucher specimens, so that they can be identified according to their scientific names and referred to in the future. All vouchers will be stored at ATREE, a Bangalore based NGO.
Although I know my way around the garden, I’m an anthropologist not a botanist. The farmers here run circles around my knowledge, and their increasingly educated children are teaching me scores of Latin names. Here, where farmers have spent ten years rushing to and then abandoning different cotton seeds, the environmental knowledge of economic botany may be alive and well.