Eclectic Rant: Monsanto and India Farmer Suicides

By Ralph E. Stone
Monday December 06, 2010 - 03:12:00 PM

For generations the farmers of India have sown their seeds, putting aside enough seeds for next year's crop. The women are usually responsible for safeguarding these seeds. Then along came Monsanto. 

Monsanto has patent rights over the bacillus thuringiensis cotton gene (or Bt Cotton), which is used as insecticides, and more recently to genetically modified crops. In November 2009, however, Monsanto scientists found that the pink bollworm had become resistant to Bt cotton in parts of Gujarat, and in four other regions in India, Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot. In other words, Bt cotton is no longer effective at killing this pest.  

In 1998, the World Bank's structural adjustment policies forced India to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto in turn has sublicensed its Bt cotton gene to other companies. Monsanto collects huge amounts of money as a royalty from these companies. Monsanto changed the cotton economy of India overnight. While Monsanto pushes the costs of cultivation up, subsidies to agribusiness drive down the price Indian farmers get for their produce. Saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds which needed fertilizers and pesticides and could not be saved because they were hybrid seeds and saving is prevented by Monsanto's patents.  

The promise of increased crop yields has not materialized. For example, the farmers’ yearly costs for genetically modified seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, electricity, water and labor continue to rise, while the price of cotton has been declining coupled with decreased productivity and quality. Scant rainfall last year exacerbated the crisis, giving rise to drought-like conditions, not favorable for the genetically modified seeds, which require twice the amount of water compared to traditional seeds. The absence of irrigation facilities has made matters worse. 

Poor peasants have to buy seed for every planting season. Seed, which was once free, now became a commodity which farmers were forced to buy every year, leading to increased poverty and indebtedness to moneylenders. As debts became unpayable, farmers were forced to sell kidneys or even commit suicide.  

Since 1997, more than 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide and the numbers continue to rise. According to a recent study by the National Crime Records Bureau, 46 Indian farmers kill themselves every day -- or roughly one suicide every 30 minutes – an alarming statistic in a country where agriculture is an economic mainstay. And this probably underestimates the number of suicides as women farmers are not normally accepted as farmers (by custom, land is almost never in their names). They do the bulk of work in agriculture - but are just "farmers’ wives." This classification enables the government to exclude countless women farmer suicides. They will be recorded as suicide deaths - but not as "farmer suicides." Of course, farmer suicide has other causes, but most experts agree that indebtedness is one of the main factors. Farmers unable to repay loans and facing spiraling interest often see suicide as the only solution. 

This India suicide economy does not have to be inevitable. Navdanya has started a "Seeds of Hope" <> campaign to stop farmers’ suicides. (Navdanya is a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 16 states in India.) The transition from seeds of suicide to seeds of hope includes: 

* a shift from Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) and non-renewable seeds to organic, open pollinated seed varieties which farmers can save and share;  

* a shift from chemical farming to organic farming; and  

* a shift from unfair trade based on false prices to fair trade based on real and just prices.  

The farmers who have made this shift are earning 10 times more than the farmers growing Monsanto's Bt-cotton. 

Vandana Shiva, Seeds of Change <> nicely summed up the problem as follows: 

"When a peasant plants a seed, he says a simple prayer, ‘Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year.' Farmers have such pride in saying, 'This is the tenth generation seeds that I am planting' or 'this is the fifth generation that I am planting.' But Monsanto has changed this prayer with one of its own, 'Let the seed be terminated so that I can make profits every year.' Monsanto's terminator technology’s aim is to prevent seed from germinating."