In disputes around Bt cotton, a “triumph narrative” is alleged to have emerged from researchers – mainly economists – catering to vested interests of the biotech industry, its funding and allied journals promoting biotechnology. Attaching an interest to researchers is a strategy for undermining conclusions without accepting any burden of proof. Convergence around these important problematics appeared in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) via Glenn Stone’s “Constructing Facts: Bt Cotton Narratives in India” (Stone 2012).
What does Stone discover? He claims that the “triumph narrative” of Bt cotton in India “flows mainly from economists and the biotech industry (and its academic allies)” in “industry-journal authentication systems” (peer-reviewed journals) which “serve the interests of their constituent parties.” The mechanism is a “cosy alliance between GM manufacturers and ostensibly independent researchers.”
Stone makes strong claims, even by the standards of conspiracy theories. What is the evidence? How do we know that researchers in dozens of studies showing positive effects of insect resistance in Bt cotton are part of some “cosy alliance” and only “ostensibly” independent? What exactly makes peer-reviewed journals normatively predisposed to “pro-GM facts”? Are journals, like researchers, only ostensibly independent?
This is an especially awkward case for Stone to sustain. One of the journals that publish “pro-GM facts” is World Development – cited twice in his reference list. But Stone (2011) himself publishes in World Development. Should we discount his good empirical work in Warangal district because it is published in the “industry-journal authentication system”? Do authors published in World Development really get cheques from Monsanto? The breadth of journals indicted for having published “pro-GM facts” strains credulity – from the EPW in India to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US.
Despite the inevitable variation in field studies, there is a very strong centre of gravity around the success of Bt cotton agro-economically – lower cost of production per unit and thus higher net returns to the farmer. Stone’s initial objective was to destabilise the broad consensus in peer-reviewed literature that he characterises as a “triumph narrative”. Yet his mechanisms are unproven and implausible – the conspiracy is too grand, the actors too diverse. He himself contradicts this initial claim with a conclusion consonant with the peer-reviewed literature he attacks. Once we have these facts straight, it is clear that Bt cotton represents neither suicide seeds nor silver bullets, but a remarkably valuable technology. Stone’s article does not destabilise the broad consensus on its usefulness to farmers. Nor are doubts about the facts on Bt cotton sufficiently compelling or grounded to undermine further research and development in agricultural biotechnology, despite their political deployment for just this purpose.
Read the full, original article: Reconstructing facts in Bt cotton: Why scepticism fails