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Are GM Seeds to Blame for Indian Farmer Suicides?

Since 1995, more than 270,000 farmers have committed suicide in India, amounting to one death every 30 minutes. Described by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice as the largest wave of suicides in recorded history, the calamity is indicative of India’s agrarian crisis, particularly within the cotton producing regions of Vidharbha, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, and Karnataka.

GM Genocide

While many studies cite economic desperation as the prime cause of the suicides, there is wide disagreement on what or who to blame specifically. One of the popular narratives indicts biotech giants such as Monsanto for monopolizing India with expensive and low yielding genetically modified (GM) cottonseed. This view became prevalent in 2008 when Prince Charles addressed a conference in Delhi, lamenting “the truly appalling and tragic rate of farmer suicides in India, stemming…from the failure of many GM crop varieties.” This spurred an article entitled “The GM genocide,” documenting reporter Andrew Malone’s visit to the ‘suicide belt’ in Maharashtra state. “Village after village,” Malone wrote, “families told how they had fallen into debt after being persuaded to buy GM seeds instead of traditional cotton seeds.”

GM seeds began to dominate Indian agriculture after trade agreements were settled between the Indian government and the International Monetary Fund. In exchange for IMF loans in the 80s and 90s, which helped restructure India’s economy, agricultural conglomerates like Monsanto, Cargill and Syngenta were given preferential access to Indian markets. Since then, India’s agricultural market has been flooded with BT cotton or what GM salespeople call ‘magic seeds’ supposedly capable of producing unprecedented yields while reducing the need for pesticides.

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The problem, according to the Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice, is that farmers are not properly informed that BT cottonseeds require a far greater amount of water than natural varieties, and demand irrigation techniques few farmers can afford. While these directions are printed on BT cotton boxes, they are only printed in English, which is not widely read by Indian farmers.

More misleading are the rigged demonstrations by multinational corporations wherein BT cotton thrives on large, well irrigated farms. The high yield is seen by dealers and small groups of farmers, who then vouch for the crops to customers and neighbors, wrongly thinking such results can be easily produced elsewhere. According to the Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice, “The problem is compounded by the fact that agricultural training extension services, which may provide farmers with better information about BT cottonseeds, are a very small source of agricultural technology information.”

Even with this information, however, small farmers might have no choice but to sow unreliable GM seeds. As a result of government ties to agribusiness, BT cottonseeds are in many areas the only purchasing option, since non-GM varieties have been banned at government seed banks. Consequently, Indian farmers must sow a crop that is almost guaranteed to fail on their small, dry plots of land.

In addition to crop failure is farmers’ high economic investment in GM seeds. Since BT cotton can cost 10 times the amount of natural seeds, farmers are forced to obtain high interest loans from banks and/or moneylenders. Farmers must also buy new seeds each year, since GM varieties contain a special “terminator technology,” which precludes crops from producing viable new seeds. As the story goes, forced to buy inordinately priced and unsuccessful seeds each year, farmers sink more into debt and many take their own lives.

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Questioning the Narrative

In recent months, this story of corporate greed and manipulation has been labeled too simplistic to account for polling information. Writing for Canada’s National Post, Rubab Abid notes that a recent study by the Center for Global Health Research indicates farmer suicides are part of a larger problem quite unrelated to GM crops: “While the spotlight is on farmers, forgotten is a suicide crisis among Indians where the suicide rate is twice as high for the general population and even higher for young females.” The study examined the proportion of suicide deaths from 2001 to 2003 in 1.1 million homes and in 6,671 randomly chosen areas across India. The data was then applied to UN estimates for total Indian deaths in 2010.

Claiming that the connection between GM crops and farmer suicides is simply false, Abid notes that the rise of farmer suicides in 1995 was seven years before Monsanto introduced BT cotton to India in 2002. Correspondingly, one of the authors of the study, Prabhat Jha, urges a shift in focus from farmers to the major victims: “The main story of suicide in India is not of farmers, it is of young people, between the ages of 15 to 29, who are taking their lives. So the dominant headline I think really is, why are so many young Indians killing themselves?”

Suspicious Data

While Jha’s question is certainly incisive, pointing to family conflicts, broken love affairs, and other social pressures as causes of suicide, it is not altogether clear that the traditional narrative of indebted farmers should be forgotten rather than revised.

For instance, Abid’s claim that the farmer suicide rate has recently “been downward or flat” is compromised by allegations that the Indian government has been tampering with data to save face. P. Sainath writes in The Hindu that official numbers for Maharashtra farm suicides rose by 200 in 2011 “despite heavy massaging of data at the State level for years now, even re-defining of the term ‘farmer’ itself.” To qualify as a “farmer” for state data, the individual must have a title to the land. This excludes women, tenant farmers, family members of farmers that have committed suicide, and members of tribal communities.

A special case of suspicious data arose in the 2011 figure for Chhattisgarh. In 2010, the amount of suicides documented was 1,126. In 2011, the figure dropped to zero. While this may indicate the statistics simply missed the deadline, it may also mean, according to Sainath, “the State is in fact a late entrant to the numbers massage parlour.”

GM Genocide in Context

While it is reductive to lay the blame for farmer suicides solely on GM crops, it is irresponsible to ignore the larger economic pattern, which links the Indian government to western agribusiness in the promotion of free trade at the expense of small farm interests.

According to environmentalist Vandana Shiva, the plight of Indian farmers originated in the 1990s as a result of new policies adopted by the Indian government at the behest of the World Trade Organization, which sought to open Indian markets to the world.

Predicated on the removal of the State from the economic sphere, these policies abolished agricultural subsidies. At the same time, the Indian market was opened to multinational corporations, who retained domestic subsidies and were thus able to set artificially low prices, with which Indian farmers could not compete. “Four hundred billion dollars in subsidies combined with the forced removal of import restriction is a ready-made recipe for farmer suicide,” writes Shiva in the Huffington Post.

It is within this larger economic context that the appearance of GM seeds caused further disturbances. Stricken by low market prices for cotton, many farmers turned to the “magic seeds” as a desperate attempt to compete on the global market. When GM crops failed, the farmers only faced a deeper economic grave.

This refined narrative seems to indicate that while new data on Indian suicides must not be ignored, neither should the plight of many of India’s farmers. Although there has been no definitive evidence against the agricultural value of BT cotton, the extent of GM crop failure and farmer indebtedness suggests more studies are needed to evaluate the integration of GM seeds into the Indian market as well as the productivity of GM seeds themselves.

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