Ecological Modernization and the “Gene Revolution”:
The Case Study of Bt Cotton in India*** Ashok Kumbamu
In recent years ecological modernization has emerged as one of the dominant perspectives in the field of environmental social sciences.1 A central premise of Ecological Modernization Perspective2 (EMP) is that while the environmental problems of this century have been caused by modernization and rapid change in the forces of production, these problems can be overcome by technical and procedural innovations.3 Thus, according to EMP, technology is part of the solution, not the problem.
Critics disagree. Some argue that “capitalist technology is in reality a force of oppression, exploitation, and destruction.”4 Others consider EMP a perspective of “(Northern) Eurocentricity,” since its metatheoretical and normative assumptions were formulated on studies conducted in West European political and economic contexts, specifically in the Netherlands and Germany.5 In response to such criticisms, proponents of EMP have encouraged scholars around the globe to examine its relevance for the industrial sectors of newly industrializing countries (e.g. Malaysia and Indonesia), countries in “transition” (e.g. Lithuania, Hungary, and China), and the so-called developing countries (e.g. Vietnam, Kenya, and Thailand).6 The agrarian sector and its environments in the global South remain less studied.7
This paper examines the relevance of EMP in assessing the agrarian economic and ecological crisis in the global South in general, and India in particular. It uses the introduction of genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton into India as a case study and considers whether environmental reforms are possible in existing Indian structural and institutional circumstances. The case of Bt cotton offers empirical insight into the relevance of EMP for developing countries, particularly since the proponents of GM crops—the “Gene Revolution”—strongly believe that the advancements of technology in agriculture can solve the economic and environmental problems of developing countries by boosting productivity and reducing dependency on pesticides and insecticides. For example, when Monsanto, the second largest seed company in the world, introduced Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton into India in 2002, it portrayed the new seed as a cure-all for the many challenges farmers face. Bt cotton, Monsanto promised, would cut fertilizer, pesticide and crop management expenses, reduce the environmental problems associated with heavy pesticide use, increase yields, provide high returns, and thus reduce farmer suicide.8 However, the introduction of Bt cotton into India, especially in the Warangal district of the Andhra Pradesh, reveals a different story.
GM crops provide an important lens through which to assess EMP for two reasons: First, the introduction of GM crops are presented as a solution (if not the only solution) to the economic and environmental problems created by the conventional crops of the Green Revolution—itself a notion of development or progress through technological advancement, which is at the heart of modernization theory from the 1960s through the 1980s. Second, debates about GM crops raise many ethical and political questions about the environmental problems associated with the adoption of new technologies.9 Core Premises of Ecological Modernization Ecological Modernization originated in the late 1980s and is considered part of the “third wave” of environmentalism in Western Europe and North America.10 EMP has evolved from three consecutive phases of development. The first phase, which lasted until the late 1980s, placed more emphasis on technological innovations to drive environmental reforms. In its second phase, from the late 1980s into the mid-1990s, EMP shifted its focus from a technological determinist perspective and, acknowledging its limitations, concentrated more on synergy between the market and the state, the role of human agency, institutions, and culture in environmental reforms. In the third phase, from the mid 1990s up through the present, EMP shifted again and extended its purview to contemporary forms of industrial production and consumption, applied itself to non-European nations, and increased its focus on changing global dynamics.11 Metatheoretical Foundations
The Ecological Modernization Perspective is said to have modernized modernization theory.12 One of its leading theorists, Arthur Mol, argues that “the basic, most fundamental, idea of the ecological modernization theory has been formulated as the ‘emancipation,’ ‘differentiation’ or growing independence of an ecological sphere and rationality with respect to the economic sphere and rationality, in particular.”13 Whereas modernization theory emphasizes economic rationality and neglects ecological rationality, EMP says that the conflict between economy and ecology can be mitigated within the framework of the capitalist mode of production.14 To bring harmony between economy and ecology, Joseph Huber, the founding father of ecological modernization,15 suggests two complementary processes: “ecologization of economy” and “economization of ecology.”
The “ecologization of economy” refers to the physical and organizational changes in production and consumption processes. The “economization of ecology” refers to the economic valuation of environment and nature, which are recognized to be the third force of production (apart from labor and capital).”16 Thus, EMP proponents mention that a synthesis between the spheres of economy and ecology can be achieved through innovations and advancements in technology, which could in turn enhance economic growth and resolve environmental problems. Some proponents of EMP call this “scientification of ecology” and consider it the heart of the perspective.17 For them, in the present day Western industrial mode of production and consumption, ecological rationality can no longer be encompassed in economic rationality. Ecological rationality is emerging as an autonomous and independent sphere from the economic sphere, intertwined rather than mutually exclusive.18 Proponents of EMP consider:
Capitalism neither as an essential precondition for, nor as the key obstruction to, stringent or radical environmental reform. They rather focus on redirecting and transforming ‘free market capitalism’ in such a way that it less and less obstructs, and increasingly contributes to, [the] preservation of society’s sustenance bases in a fundamental/structural way.19
According to Mol and Sonnenfeld, the central aim of EMP has been to “analyze how contemporary industrialized societies deal with environmental crises.”20 To achieve this aim, EMP, breaks from “demodernization” and “counter-productivity theory” and instead relies on “the proposition that the environmental crisis can and should be overcome by a further modernization of the existing institutions of modern society.”21 EMP policy prescriptions to “safeguard the societies’ sustenance bases” place much emphasis on environmental reforms, which EPM advocates believe, not only bring improvements in the physical environment but also in social and institutional environments.22
Mol categorizes these social transformations into five clusters. First, modern science and technology are not viewed as the problem, because they have the potential to solve environmental troubles associated with traditional and conventional technologies.23 Second, the process of privatization and the participation of market forces in policy formulations should be seen as conducive rather than obstructive to ecological management. Mol applies capitalist dogma to environmental management and argues that the privatization of public sector resources and services increases the process of environmental reforms, because the market is a more efficient and effective mechanism in resolving environmental problems than the centralized state.24
Third, to achieve ecological modernity, the nation-state must under go “political modernization,” which changes relations between the state, the market and civil society, which in turn affect governance and policy-making.25 Political modernization is seen as the transformation of the structure and function of the nation-state from exclusive, centralized, and bureaucratic to one that is participatory, decentralized, and flexible.26 Within this model, the state provides institutional support and regulatory mechanisms for the effective functioning of the market, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and consumer organizations.27 In order to facilitate reforms on a global scale, EMP advocates the increasing involvement of supranational institutions such as the World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and United Nations organizations,28 which further diminish the autonomy of the nation-state. Moreover, the advocates of EMP firmly believe that opting for “a radical alternative outside the (globalizing) institutions of modernity may well mean throwing the baby out with the bath water.”29 Therefore, ecological management initiatives must be adhered to the process of neoliberal globalization.
Fourth, social movement actors are asked to increase their involvement in environmental policy decisions, but change their ideology and praxis from an anti-systemic stance to a reformist position that harmonizes economy and ecology. This involves a metamorphosis of “critical outsiders” (supposedly “radicals”) into “critical insiders” (supposedly “reformists”).
Finally, proponents of EMP seek a change in modernist ideology, which treats economy and ecology as a binary opposition, to a “new” ideology that emphasizes economic growth and environmental sustainability as compatible and essential for environmental reform.30 Empirical Assumptions In many empirical studies of EMP, case studies were used to trace the historical development of technological innovations, state policies, and regulatory institutions vis-à-vis environmental reforms in specific industries. Most were conducted in northern and northwestern Europe. Based on their structural and institutional circumstances, some analysts conclude that EMP is “applicable primarily for advanced industrial countries, due to prerequisites for green industrial restructuring, e.g. the existence of a welfare state, advanced technological development …a state regulated market economy …and…widespread environmental consciousness.”31 For them, EMP has less relevance to developing countries because it is “a Northern (Western)- oriented discourse rooted in a particular stage of economic development where high material living standards have been achieved among the majority of people.”32
Other proponents of EMP have aggressively argued that this perspective has relevance to the newly industrializing countries, countries in transition, and developing countries.33 For them, EMP is not a simple process of transferring ideas from the West to the rest of the world, as was evident in the modernization project. Rather, as Mol argues, “major adaptations would have to be made before these environmental reform ideas, institutional designs and strategies are transferred successfully.”34
Much of this language of ecological modernization can be found in the current debate over genetic engineering. Some argue that contemporary strategies promoting agricultural biotechnology in the developing world represent the best chance for human survival. The successful transfer of ecological modernization prescriptions and technologies will, they argue, supersede the ecological, social and political problems of the Green Revolution in the modernization era of the 1960s.35 Technological revolutions in agriculture in the 20th century can be categorized into three phases. The first Green Revolution began with the development of hybrid crops using plant breeding techniques that helped increase food production in the developed countries between the 1930s and 1950s. The second Green Revolution disseminated the same technology to the Third World between the 1960s and 1970s. The third Green Revolution—also called the Gene Revolution—advanced the application of genetic engineering techniques in crop development from the 1990s onwards.36 The Green Revolution as a Growth Engine?
In the early 1960s, the Green Revolution package37 combining miracle seeds, controlled irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and related farm management skills was introduced into post-colonial societies with the objective of averting the Malthusian specter of famine.38 Dr. William Gaud, then Director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), first used the term “Green Revolution” in a speech entitled “The Green Revolution: Accomplishments and Apprehensions” delivered at the meeting of the Society for International Development in 1968.39 He used the expression “to stress that the changes occurring in the wheat and rice fields of Asia was revolutionary, not just evolutionary, progress.”40
According to Lester Brown, a one-time adamant proponent of the Green Revolution, the term “revolution” was thoroughly “abused” even though there was “no other term [that] adequately describes the effects of the new seeds on the poor countries where they are being used.”41 Political critics argue that using the term “Green Revolution” to describe the new technology package was deliberate in order to oppose the politics of “Red Revolution” in the Third World in the late 1960s.42 In other words, the “Green Revolution” emphasized that rural development could be achieved by intensifying agricultural production using modern technology without resorting to any radical political reforms such as a land redistribution program.43 Indeed, the discourse of “Green Revolution” suggests that “technical change is an alternative to political change.”44
For Green Revolution proponents, the new technology became for poor countries, “what the steam engine was to the Industrial Revolution in Europe.”45 They claim that changes in the farm sector resulting from Green Revolution technology spilled over into other sectors of society and human life, increasing not only farm incomes but also off-farm and non-farm employment opportunities for the landless rural households, which raised the purchasing power of rural people.46 Matin Qaim estimated that through the “income multiplier effect,” one dollar of direct benefit in agriculture generated by the Green Revolution resulted in an additional dollar of benefits in other sectors.47 Both Green Revolution advocates and critics agree that while “the ‘success’ has eliminated many of the traditional securities for the rural poor and has particularly damaged those at the very bottom of the social structure, … it has provided enough economic safety-valves to absorb much of the peasantry.”48
However, Green Revolution detractors point out that the resulting intensification of the commercialization of agriculture that accompanied the introduction of the new agricultural technology had serious problems. The package character of the technology means that it does not work well with subsistence, non-market farming, because it requires large amounts of money and, in some cases, substantial production and marketing facilities.49 Therefore, while Green Revolution technology was, theoretically, “scale-neutral,” it was not “resource neutral.”50
Governments that adopted the Green Revolution package often first introduced the new technology in regions where irrigation was relatively well developed, land quality was suitable for new crops, and large commercial farms were dominant. For example, when the new wheat and rice varieties were first introduced in India, the Indian government concentrated more on the irrigated zones of the Indus basin in Punjab and Haryana to demonstrate the success of the new varieties to the farmers in rest of the country.51 This selective focus led to unequal increases in the production of food grains across the country as resource-rich regions that introduced the new growing system experienced rapid growth compared to other areas.52 Griffin notes, for example, that from the 1952/53 growing season through 1964/65, agricultural output in the Punjab grew 4.56 percent a year compared to 2.27 percent in Kerala, 1.94 percent in West Bengal and 1.17 percent in Assam. “The Green Revolution in India clearly has accentuated [the] on-going trend towards regional inequality; it has not reversed [it].”53
Environmentalists and green activists further argue that the Green Revolution eroded rich biodiversity in the global South and promoted the “monoculturization” of agriculture,54 which destroyed ecosystems and resulted in unsustainable agricultural practices.55 Yet despite these negative consequences, biotechnology advocates now insist that these problems can be solved or reduced by embracing the Gene Revolution,56 which has also been referred to as the “Doubly Green Revolution”57 and the “Evergreen Revolution.”58 The Ever Green Revolution?
In conventional plant breeding (including in Green Revolution technology), genes could only be transferred within the same or closely related species. It was not possible, for example, to take a pest-resistance gene from a tomato and put it into wheat. In GM seeds, genes for traits thought to be advantageous from any living organism can be sliced into any crop variety.59 Using genetic engineering, genes from an organism can be mapped, isolated and transferred to: (1) another organism of the same species (e.g. a pest-resistant gene from one tomato variety can be transferred into another tomato variety), (2) an organism of a different species (e.g. a gene from a tomato can be transferred into rice), or (3) an organism belonging to a different kingdom (e.g. a gene from a firefly can be transferred into a tobacco plant; an existing example is that GM cold-tolerant soybean contains a gene from a saltwater fish).60
In Green Revolution technology, the components of the “package” are physically divisible as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. In Gene Revolution technology, “the whole technology is packaged into the seed.”61 With this technological innovation, seeds have been engineered as “genetic pesticides” and “genetic insecticides.”62 Genes from micro-organisms, such as the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that have been inserted into a seed act as a pesticide by releasing highly toxic crystals through the leaves and stems of the plant that kill a broad class of insects. Bt, which was isolated from soil in 1911, has been available to farmers as an organic pesticide since 1930.63 It is a particularly important pest management tool for organic farmers, who have been using dried mixtures of fermented live Bt formulations for generations, and increasingly since the 1980s. Because Bt sprays are biodegradable and are much less concentrated than when the toxin is expressed in every cell of the plant, they are considered to be safe for humans and non-target organisms.64
GM, or transgenic, Bt crops have been commercially cultivated since 1996.65 The biotech companies emphasize convenience to pitch their product to farmers: “Bt transgenic technology in cotton helps in overcoming certain limitations of Bt sprays such as the need for repeated applications, sensitivity to solar radiations, wash off due to rain, etc.”66 They further argue that not only do GM plants’ internal insecticides and pesticides decrease the dependency on chemical sprays, which must be purchased separately, but they also increase yields. Therefore, they say these seeds are cost-effective.67
Critics, however, point out that the introduction of a “genetic pesticide” might lead to a shift from “one-chemical-one-pest” resistance, as is now common with chemical pesticides, to a “one-gene-one-pest” resistance mechanism.68 Since Bt crops continuously release toxins throughout the crop season, they virtually guarantee that the insect population will evolve resistance mechanisms in all stages of its development because of long-term exposure to the toxin throughout the season.69 Early studies show that Bt resistance has already developed in eight species of insects: the diamond black moth, Indian meal moth, tobacco budworm, Colorado potato beetle, and two species of mosquitoes.70 There is suggestive data that the continuous release of toxins throughout the season may also affect the soil, since the deposits of Bt toxins exuded through the plant’s roots last for a very long time and may damage both the soil and the micro-organisms that live in the soil.71 There is also some evidence that Bt crops may threaten the survival of other beneficial species such as butterflies, birds, bees, and beetles, which play a vital role in pollination and also control pests through the prey-predator balance.72 However, a comprehensive ecological study of the impact of Bt crops has not yet been conducted, so there are many unknown factors about its ultimate impact.
Another major issue in the GM debate concerns genetically engineered seed sterilization. Hybrid seed, which was the key to the Green Revolution, does not produce sterile seeds. Although the genetic unpredictability of second generation hybrid seed means that it does not perform as well as parent seed, it can be planted the following season. However, as Jean-Pierre Berlan and Richard Lewontin have noted, the second (F2) generation of hybrid seed, “if not biologically sterile, is economically unusable as seed, producing anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent less than the first hybrid. For all practical purposes, such a loss of yield amounts to biological sterility.”73 The agricultural biotech industry—stopped so far by public outcry—has wanted to produce sterile seeds, which cannot be planted the next season. Critics have dubbed such seeds “Terminator Technology.”74 The Terminator technology terminates the capacity of the seed as a means of production (seed) while only retaining its utility as product (grain). Thus it prevents farmers from collecting and saving seeds from their crop harvest for planting the following season. In turn, it forces farmers to buy seeds on the market, which is highly monopolized by fewer and fewer multinational agribusiness corporations, such as Monsanto.
Terminator technology is aimed at the commodification of seeds and tightening the grip of these corporations over Third World agriculture and millions of farmers across the globe.75 Not only the fiercest critics of the technology but also the architect, M. S. Swaminathan—the so-called Father of the Indian Green Revolution—cautions against widespread use of Terminator technology in transgenic crops: “…as crops incorporating the ‘terminator technology’ [would] most likely be genetically homogenous, genetic homogeneity in crops could become more widespread, enhancing genetic vulnerability to pests and diseases.”76 Such changes in seed technology need to be understood within the broader changes in agricultural institutions in India.