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Indian farmer suicides a case of misplaced GM blame

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  • The tragedy of Indian farmer suicides can be attributed to a complex host of factors, and consigning blame for the suicides to Monsanto and corporate agriculture is guaranteed to get headlines and cheap applause, but such claims do not stand up to proper scrutiny.

Farmer suicide is an incredible tragedy in India. Numbers are hazy and disputed, but since 1995, facing crippling debt, thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide; many of them by drinking pesticide.

For the most part, media outlets have placed the blame on the “suicide economy” of GM crops, corporate agriculture and Monsanto. The accepted storyline, in a distilled form: Thousands of Indian cotton farmers, subject to outrageous GM seed prices for Bt cotton, have been swallowed by debt and can’t find any means of escape other than suicide.

The GM suicide refrain has been repeated enough times and by enough outlets to make it seem true. But just a cursory look at some often ignored facts calls the narrative into question.

As Rubab Abid wrote recently in the National Post: “The issue of farmer suicides first gained media attention in 1995 as the southern state of Maharashtra began reporting a significant rise in farmers killing themselves … But it wasn’t until seven years later — in 2002 — that the U.S.-based agribusiness Monsanto began selling genetically modified cotton seeds, known as Bt cotton, to Indian farmers.”

A seven-year discrepancy and thousands of suicides within that window (committed by non-GM farmers), should bring the GM-blame narrative crashing down. Instead, blame is shifted to corporate agriculture: Small farmers consumed by the machinery of “Big Ag.”

But again, the true picture is far from clear as described in the Post: “The number of farmer deaths in India is much less than the general population. According to the report, the rate of suicide deaths among agricultural workers is around seven deaths per 100,000 people, whereas the overall suicide rate in India is close to 15 deaths per 100,000. And while the number of farm suicides rose sharply between 1995 and 2002, the trend of late has been downward or flat.”

Five years ago, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released a study that upended the GM blame game. "It is not only inaccurate, but simply wrong to blame the use of Bt cotton as the primary cause of farmer suicides in India. Despite the recent media hype around farmer suicides fuelled by civil society organisations and reaching the highest political spheres in India and elsewhere, there is no evidence in available data of a 'resurgence' of farmer suicide in India in the last five years.”

However, despite the IFPRI study and the weight of stubborn facts to the contrary, the GM suicide narrative has grown stronger, popularized by self-appointed experts such as Prince Charles who gave the issue global attention in 2008 when he directly attributed Indian farmer deaths to “the failure of many GM crop varieties.”

With rantings that only a royal could get away with, Charles has long been an outspoken opponent of GM crops: "And if they think it's somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another then again count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time." (Yes, this is the same Prince Charles that recommended carrot juice and coffee bean enemas as a cancer remedy.)

The tragedy of Indian farmer suicides can be attributed to a complex host of factors, and consigning blame for the suicides to Monsanto and corporate agriculture is guaranteed to get headlines and cheap applause, but such claims do not stand up to proper scrutiny.

Discuss this Blog Entry 7

R Andrew Ohge (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2013

How often you read your posts over at TATT, is unknown to me, but I wanted to make sure you did see this response. I read the article in stunned disbelief. It is evident someone doesn't understand the regard the Hindi Culture has for promises and contracts. These folks, unlike their Western counterparts would never sue the Company that failed them-it's against all they believe. THEY accepted responsibility, as this would be the requirements of Karma.

Over 17,000 Indian Farmers signed up for Monsanto Bt Cotton. Up until then for literally THOUSANDS of years, they had grown "Heirloom Quality", that while not as plentiful in harvested product as the Biotech promised to be, had created one that had won them fame and allowed them to pass that Legacy on, often in the same family for those thousands of years.

Within a few short years, what they had held through generations, including those years subjugated by the Great Khans and the British Empire, was lost. The costs for "contracting" the Bt Cotton were higher than what they could earn, and so they LOST those Legacies forever.

So, now, Monsanto doesn't want to share any of the responsibility? Nice try. Monsanto didn't MAKE these Farmers sign those contracts, but the promises made were not fulfilled-a little detail that plays much bigger in Hindi Culture than in American "Vulture Culture".

So, perhaps the "blame" has to be shared, but Biotech's role is not, can not and will not be absolved!

ChemieBabe (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2013

I have two words for you, reading comprehension. The suicides began to increase seven years before GMO crops were planted in India. Read that part and the part that says they are now "flat or in decline".

I just love it when people are blinded by emotion!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 20, 2013

ChemieBabe, did you READ the post you just criticized? It was discussing lost legacies. Do you know what that means and how that is different from the suicide issue?

Croploss (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2013

The costs to growers for licensing Bt or other GM cotton traits is less than the cost of applying the pesticides to control the pests in non GM varieties. To suggest that GM licensing is a significant factor bankrupting farmers is simply without merit.

Tilak (not verified)
on Feb 5, 2013

Real problem is greedy dealers who sell fake cotton seeds in the name of BT. Plants will grow and will not produce any cotton or plants are not pest resistant. Hope Monsanto had good control over distributers/dealers.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 29, 2013

@chemiebabe..In 1995 , Monsanto introduced its Bt technology in India through a joint venture with the Indian company Mahyco.

In 1997-98, Monsanto started open field trials of its propriety GMO Bt cotton illegally, and had announced it would be selling the seeds commercially the following year.

India has had rules for regulating GMOs since 1989 under the Environment Protection Act. Under these rules, it is mandatory to get approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee under the Ministry of Environment for GMO trials.

When we found out that Monsanto had not applied for approval, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology sued Monsanto in the Supreme Court of India. As a result, Monsanto could not start commercial sales of its Bt cotton seeds until 2002. But it had started to change Indian agriculture before that.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 29, 2013

In 1995 , Monsanto introduced its Bt technology in India through a joint venture with the Indian company Mahyco.

In 1997-98, Monsanto started open field trials of its propriety GMO Bt cotton illegally, and had announced it would be selling the seeds commercially the following year.

India has had rules for regulating GMOs since 1989 under the Environment Protection Act. Under these rules, it is mandatory to get approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee under the Ministry of Environment for GMO trials.

When we found out that Monsanto had not applied for approval, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology sued Monsanto in the Supreme Court of India. As a result, Monsanto could not start commercial sales of its Bt cotton seeds until 2002. But it had started to change Indian agriculture before that.

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