The University of Arizona

How do "imagined farmers" negotiate actual risks? Biosafety trade-offs in Bt cotton production in Andhra Pradesh, India

Julia Freeman


India's encounter with genetically engineered Bt cotton has been a contested one, and one that has rarely conformed to expectations. I argue that two primary vantage points on the question of agricultural biotechnology – those advocating the "biosafe use" of Bt cotton or those who insist it involves "inherent problems" - frequently anticipate an "imagined farmer" in incomplete and sometimes plainly incorrect ways. Thus, there is more to the Bt cotton debate than has been considered to date. Drawing from qualitative interviews with cotton farmers in two regions of Andhra Pradesh, I call attention to the unintended effects of widespread Bt cotton cultivation and debates missing from this controversy. Misconstrual of the "imagined farmer" has edged out civil society's acknowledgement of farmers' negotiation of the (immediate and physical) risks of pesticide use as contrasted with those (more abstracted and unknown) of genetically engineered seed. Bt cotton's advocates, on the other hand, seldom address the unintended effects of its widespread use, including potentially reduced labor opportunities for the most marginal rural laborers. In conclusion, I urge a more expansive assessment of the trade-offs between risks and benefits that farmers make regarding Bt cotton, alongside a closer look at the nuances of their decision-making. Framing agribiotech risk as a matter of manageable (or inherently problematic) "biosafety" does not resonate with farmers using a broader concept of health and environmental safety threatened by heavy pesticide usage.

Keywords: Bt cotton, political ecology, genetic engineering risk, pesticides, India

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