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Stalking the Wild Tomato: The Ethnobotany of Genetically Modified Crops

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.

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“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.

Bikshapathi shows me a local delicacy, the sweet mash from a newly sprouted coconut.  When I say local, I mean local to his village.
Bikshapathi, who has a Master’s degree in organic chemistry, shows me a local delicacy. The sweet mash from this newly sprouted coconut is ready to be taken from his cotton field edge. When I say local, I mean local to his thanda, or Scheduled Tribe village.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

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.

These bullocks are patiently waiting to continue plowing this cotton field.  Because of the pesticides, irrigation, and fertilizers used in this field, it becomes the perfect environment for weed plants, and is kept clean by intermittent plows and female weeding teams.
These bullocks are patiently waiting to continue plowing this cotton field. Because of the pesticides, irrigation, and fertilizers used in this field, it becomes the perfect environment for weed plants, and is kept clean by intermittent plows and female weeding teams.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

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.

Research assistant Arun Kumar gives an interview from the back of a bullock cart loaded with Urea and 20/20, two common fertilizers.
Research assistant Arun Kumar gives an interview from the back of a bullock cart loaded with Urea and 20/20, two common fertilizers.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

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.

Pesalu, or green Mung bean, is grown as a half snack, half market crop.  The labor teams who harvest and care for the plants also take half of the production as payment.  The edible seeds are often saved for next year's production, but first they are gently separated from the pods and dust by the wind.

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.

What's this doing here?  When the fields are small, it makes sense to use your space as efficiently as possible.  For some farmers this means planting as much cotton as possible but for most this means scattering vegetables amongst the crops.  For a few years after we plant them, they just grow like this, the farmers tell me.  The vegetables have the added agronomic benefits (and potential health consequences) of cotton pesticide sprays, fertilizers, and irrigation.
What’s this doing here? When the fields are small, it makes sense to use your space as efficiently as possible. For some farmers this means planting as much cotton as possible but for most this means scattering vegetables amongst the crops. For a few years after we plant them, they just grow like this, the farmers tell me. The vegetables have the added agronomic benefits (and potential health consequences) of cotton pesticide sprays, fertilizers, and irrigation.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

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.

Herbarium specimens help plant scientists talk to each other, as the array of common names can be confusing, especially across languages as different as English and Telugu.  This is a pressing of Tulasi, a plant in the mint family used to help with mild illnesses and stress.  Tulasi oil is often used in Hindu ceremonies and the plant is one manifestation of the god Lakshmi.
Herbarium specimens help plant scientists talk to each other, as the array of common names can be confusing, especially across languages as different as English and Telugu. This is a pressing of Tulasi, a plant in the mint family used to help with mild illnesses and stress. Tulasi oil is often used in Hindu ceremonies and the plant is one manifestation of the god Lakshmi.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

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.

NEXTGenetically Modified or Organic Farming: Which Will Sustain a Growing Nation?

Comments

  1. sanjiv parikh
    Ahmedabad
    January 20, 4:18 am

    Dear sirs
    If u have gentacally modified anticancer “Tulsi” plants please send me some of the seed to protect life and enviroment
    Each step show in “Ved” is the easiest way to protect life and planet for more instruction we can read Ved and “Dhyan Awastha” because Ved is given by “God Shiv and his shakti clled Godess Shiva ” pronountation should be cleared

  2. Ella Baker
    http://geneticallyengineeredfoodnews.com
    October 4, 2013, 7:14 pm

    Thanks for uploading this blog post.

  3. Arunkumar
    Hanamakonda
    October 4, 2013, 2:04 pm

    Good Job Andrew

  4. Caroline Schirmer,scientist/avid gardener
    Tallahassee,FL
    October 4, 2013, 1:39 pm

    How did the tomatoe plant get to the cotton field? First, thought, the cotton seeds carried a lone stow-away.

    More interesting to me, is the plants genetics and the value of one seed’s ability to produce one fruiting plant. As, an avid grower of tomatoes, I plant , 15 seeds to get 1 palnt.

    Is the plant a cotmatoe?

  5. ROSEMARY RENSHAW
    October 1, 2013, 1:46 pm

    himalayan holy basil

  6. ROSEMARY RENSHAW
    Sweden-Countryside
    October 1, 2013, 1:45 pm

    Thanks for all th very valuable info
    and..thanks for the info about Tulasi(Tulsi) it is avery useful herb .Helps me a great deal with infections.
    Love,RR

  7. Robert
    http://wildlifesurvival.blogspot.com/
    September 29, 2013, 9:29 pm

    Interesting, I’ll have to re-read this again. Come check out my blog for life skills and tips.