Book Review: Andrew Flachs’ Cultivating Knowledge



Few questions have been more contentious to scholars, activists and broader publics concerned with agrarian issues than the rise of biotechnology—genetically modified (GM) seeds in particular. Among the striking cases of GM ‘wars’ of global fame we find GM cotton in India—known as Bt cotton. Promising to improve yields while lowering pesticide usage, Bt cotton was framed as a ‘solution’ to the country’s widespread agrarian distress. Alongside this, a less publicised solution was the introduction of organic cotton. To understand the GM debate, sustained attention must be paid to how farmers actually integrate these crop varieties in their lives. To do so, the anthropologist Andrew Flachs’ book Cultivating Knowledge suggests we focus intensely at the fundamental of farming: the seed.

The book takes us to the ‘heartlands’ of the cotton controversy in India, in the districts of Telangana in South India where farmers’ suicides have been widely reported since the 1990s—a region that has become iconic to the country’s ‘agrarian crisis’. Combining anthropology and political ecology, the book seeks to explore how new agricultural technologies change farmer knowledge. Placing technologies within constitutive political economic contexts, Flachs frames his field study within the neoliberal reforms transforming rural India over the last few decades. Coupling such changes with interest in the locally held aspirations for well-being, Flachs integrates the political ecology of agrarian change with anthropological attention to subjectivity.

In Chapter 2, Flachs takes farmer seed choices as a lens into examining broader questions of political economy and ecology. To understand how both groups of farmers have come to understand their seeds, Flachs emphasizes the commodification of agricultural knowledge, which has left cotton farmers experiencing their seeds as ‘branded commodities outside of their expertise’ (p. 42). Chapter 3 proceeds to the empirical context of cotton agriculture, before zooming in on the case region of Telangana. Flachs recounts the widespread view of Telangana as a region of agrarian distress, crisis and farmer suicides and also notes the concomitant lack of collective political action. Framing the lack of collective political action in the face of such crisis, he draws on A. R. Vasavi’s (2012) notion of ‘shadow space’ and the internalization of individual responsibility; anxiety, distress and misery are thereby located within the broad neoliberal reforms of agrarian India. Flachs describes the ways GM cotton and organic cotton have been portrayed and promoted as two very different ‘solutions’ to the agrarian crisis. These approaches, however, ‘do not solve these problems because they target pest attacks, not politics’ (p. 81).

Chapter 4 explores seed choices in GM cotton, and finds how the commodification of knowledge off the farm, and the profusion of private seed types and seed choices, have ceased to be shaped by the everyday doing and learning on the farm. The chapter provides rich empirical evidence about how Telangana GM cotton farmers have come to ‘perform’ the act of making seed choices in the market rather than as knowledgeable practitioners of agriculture. Flachs proves that ‘no seeds yield demonstrably more than others do’ (p. 84). Consequently, farmers turn into anxious consumers hoping for high returns but also risking to lose. Chapter 5 assesses organic cotton, where different to GM cotton, earning takes other forms ‘because the institutions that support organic cotton agriculture are fundamentally different’ (p. 116). However, not unlike the GM seed market, the organic sector also offers farmers rules made by others and with few choices in seeds. In spite of the lower yields of organic cotton, Flachs argues that organic cotton offers institutional safety nets that provide stability to farmers and removes them from the risk of the GM yield gambles.

Chapter 6 furthers the aspect of performativity –- the ‘herding’ and ‘fads’ of GM seed choices and the learning by doing of organic farmers – and explores ‘three kinds of performance: the performance of everyday farmwork, the performance of transformation, and the performance of death through public suicides’ (p. 144). Shaped by stages available and audiences present, Telangana farmers through these performances negotiate the meaning of life and death under the pressure of neoliberal anxiety. On the last performance of death by suicides, Flachs holds them as intimately related to neoliberal distress, anxiety, individualization of responsibility and unresolved aspirations: ‘If suicides are a public death, then they are a failure of government policies to address unmitigated economic crisis and structural violence in rural areas’ (p. 164).

The final chapter offers deliberations on what ‘redefining success in Telangana cotton agriculture’ would entail (p. 171). The chapter summarizes the book’s key points about the need to stop focusing on yields and instead foregrounding ‘stability’ (p. 176) for agricultural development to improve rural well-being. This also means leaving the fetishization of agricultural technologies, instead focusing on how farmers make technologies meaningful, in ways that were unintended by the proponents of the technologies (p. 179).  Flachs writes that ‘The main point the I am making in this book is that the spread of GM and organic technologies around the world has changed how farmers learn, and that this change allows for different ways of living well as a farmer’ (p. 189). In conclusion, Flachs reflects on the ways that organic shows potential for ‘rural communities’ and thus provides a possible way for consumers in different parts of the world to engage in a politics of ‘pragmatic solidarity’ through their consumer choices, albeit only as a partial and limited pathway to change.

This last point—the invocation of ‘rural communities’—links to what can be conceived of as one of the book’s few weaknesses. This exemplifies a tendency in the book to take ‘rural communities’ and their institutions as relatively benign potential bearers of positive change. And a reluctance to draw insights from literature that details the antagonistic nature of local communities in rural India and their roles in sustaining accumulation patterns that deeply favour dominant class interests. It is somewhat disappointing that Flachs ends his book with little or no mention of the need for coordinated and sustained labouring class political organizing and struggle as the necessary pathway for justice in rural India. This relates to a broader issue of the book in its lack of engagement with agrarian political economy scholarship with its emphasis on the role of class, capital accumulation and antagonistic relations within rural India. These concerns notwithstanding, Cultivating Knowledge is a book of rare insight that will become a key reference point for scholars of rural issues, biotechnology and agricultural development in India and elsewhere.

[This is an abridged version, edited by Siddharth Chakravarty. Read the full review here.]

Jostein Jakobsen is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo.

Flachs book