Jessie Luna published “Peasant essentialism in GMO debates: Bt cotton in Burkina Faso” in Journal of Agrarian Change on August 7, 2020.

Amidst polarized global debates about genetically modified (GM) crops, much attention has focused on Burkina Faso, where farmers grew Bt cotton from 2008 to 2015 in the first widespread commercial adoption of GM crops by smallholder African farmers. This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork and 125 interviews to analyse the debate accompanying this adoption, contending that both sides employed stock agrarian imaginaries that essentialized rural people. These competing imaginaries—romantic versus modern—reproduced polarized global narratives about GM crops and peasants, while misrepresenting or overlooking the inequalities and constraints shaping rural communities and the specifics of Bt cotton production. Both sides sought to claim the legitimacy and authenticity that comes from representing ‘the peasants’, yet ironically flattened the complexity of rural experiences. This paper demonstrates how each side’s adherence to agrarian imaginaries served to produce erroneous knowledge claims. This adherence resulted in part from local resource constraints and dependence on external actors, which produced pressure to conform to polarized global GMO scripts. The paper concludes that GMO debate participants and observers must eschew essentializing imaginaries if they seek to produce more accurate knowledge about farmers’ varied experiences with GM crops.