Arts & Events

Bitter Seeds: Monsanto's Legacy—Debt and Mass Suicides

By Gar Smith
Saturday October 06, 2012 - 09:09:00 AM

Several years ago, I sat in a San Francisco screening room with other local film critics to watch China Blue, the second documentary in Micha X. Peled's ambitious Globalization Trilogy. China Blue shared the stories of several young men and women who had moved from rural villages to urban factories where they labored long hours producing blue jeans for US consumers. The film was by turns astonishing, amusing, and heartbreaking. At one point, I had to stumble from my seat and flee to the lobby to get a grip on my emotions. 

Given the impact of China Blue, I was somewhat on edge as I prepared to view the final production in Bay Area filmmaker Peled's trilogy. Bitter Seeds, after all, promised an unstinting look at the mass suicides of Indian farmers. 

The first surprise was the presentation. Bitter Seeds does not look like a documentary. It is exquisitely cinematic — shot like a movie, with an omnipresent lens that follows the protagonists through scenes that proceed as if envisioned on a storyboard. (When someone boards a bus, for example, we see them inside the bus, we see the bus from the outside as it rolls down a road, and we watch as they climb off the bus when it finally pulls over and parks.) It isn't until the first 20 minutes have passed that the first talking head interview pops up. 

Multinational Marketing: Making a Killing 

Early on, the film blackboards some essential announcements: "Half the world's population are farmers" and, in India, a quarter-million of these farmers have committed suicide in the past 16 years — one suicide every 80 minutes. 

The film sweeps us into the life of the residents of Telumg Takli, a small village in Vidarbha. 

Enter the advance guards of globalization—bounding through the village in a loudspeaker-equipped van promoting Ankur Akka Bt, the latest variety of genetically modified cottonseeds. Sure, the salesmen admit, this new US-patented seed is more expensive but they promise farmers the new seeds will earn 4000 more rupees. 

"Do you have land?," one of the seed-pushers asks a village woman, "Tell your husband to plant Bt seeds." They hand out leaflets to the illiterate farmers with photos and testimonials from other "farmers." There are even phone numbers to call —at a cost the local farmers cannot afford. 

The Vanishing World of Traditional Seeds 

For generations cotton was grown from traditional seeds, saved and shared from one harvest to the next. This changed in the 1970s when hybrids were introduced as part of the so-called Green Revolution. The new foreign seeds promised bigger harvests but at a price — they required costly chemical fertilizers and insecticides. After a few decades, harvests began to falter as the natural fertility of the chemically altered soils began to collapse. Suicides began in 1997. In 2002, Monsanto announced a revolutionary new product — genetically modified Bt cotton. The seeds were sold and sown but the suicides continued. 

Today the only seeds farmers can buy are genetically modified Bt cottonseeds (using Monsanto technology). Because these patented seeds are hybrids — designed only for a single year's use — farmers are forced to buy new seeds each year. As a result, more than 90% of India's cotton farmers now pay royalties to Monsanto. 

A local seed dealer explains that he is required to push GE seeds because it means "higher profits" for Monsanto. In Mumbai, a Monsanto executive glibly boasts Bt seeds will double productivity while Monsanto's TV ads show farmers trading in their bicycles for motorcycles (and dreaming of owning automobiles) due to their success with Monsanto's Frankenseeds. 

One Farmer's Story 

Ram Krishna Kopulwar is a struggling 40-year-old cotton farmer with three acres of hard-scrabble land. His poverty is compounded by the fact that his two daughters are nearing the age for marriage. In Telumg Takli, unmarried daughters are a cause of social shame but Ram Krishna's previous cotton crop failed, leaving him without funds for a dowry and in debt to the local bank. 

Inside Raj Krishna's modest home, his children return from school and an older daughter teaches his wife, Sunanda, how to write her name. But it's a dangerous world if you only know how to sign your name and do not know how to read a contract. In India, many farmers sign away their souls with the inked imprint of a thumb on documents they cannot read. 

A banner over downtown Pandharkawda reads: "Welcome to Green City," but there is nothing green about the dusty, unpaved streets, lined with colorful billboards advertising the benefits of Monsanto's Bt seeds. 

Kopulwar has traveled to Pandharkawda to ask the State Bank of India for a loan to buy seeds for his next planting. But because he already has an unpaid loan of 20,000 rupees ($450) for last year's failed crop, the bank refuses to grant another. This is not uncommon: 80% of Vidarbha's farmers are unable to secure bank loans. 

When the bank says no, the only recourse is the moneylender. "Have mercy," Kopulwar pleads. The moneylender's only question: "What collateral can you offer? A house? Your wife's jewelry?" 

In exchange for a fistful of rupees, Raj Krishna signs over his three acres of land. The interest on the loan will be seven percent— per month—or 84% a year. 

A Young Girl's Search for Truth 

Manjusha Amberwar, 18-year-old village girl, wants to become a journalist in hopes of exposing the problem of farmer suicides. (Manjusha's father, a respected village leader, committed suicide because of his farming debts.) Manjusha begins interviewing the families of local farmers who toke their lives by drinking pesticides. 

She asks one of the village elders about alternatives. "In my time there were no suicides," he tells her. "Even the poor could survive by working hard." "There are no other seeds available now," he laments. Traditional seeds have disappeared. "We farmers are illiterates. We follow false advertising like a dog follows bread." 

Peled trains his camera on local seed managers and a Monsanto spokesperson as they all deny any connection between their over-priced products, their market monopoly, farmers' debt and the suicides. 

Dr. Vandana Shiva, an environmentalist and traditional seed activist with the Navdanya Trust, shows up to point out that, since Monsanto's arrival, the Indian Cotton Institute has stopped releasing traditional, non-GMO seeds. "Why is it that the public supply is stopped?" Shiva asks. The answer is obvious: these new seeds need chemical fertilizers, pesticides, which means more profits for the multinationals. 

Raj Krishna's Crisis 

Manjusha discovers most of the phone numbers on Monsanto's Ankur Akka Bt leaflets are nonexistent or disconnected. The one person who replies is so positive about the seeds, Manjusha suspects he is a seed company employee. (Perhaps this is why he demands to know her name and where she lives.) 

Raj Krishna's seeds are planted and the crop looks promising. The rains fall abundantly, suggesting a bountiful harvest. But then disaster strikes—in the form of an infestation that threatens the crop and everything the hard-pressed farmer has worked for—his land, his home, his family's future. 

Will he become the next suicide in India's unfolding tragedy? 

I have no idea. The DVD I was given to review was damaged. I was unable to watch the last 20 minutes. 

So look for me at one of the screenings at the Roxie Theater. Bitter Seeds is playing for a week and — in a fine example of solidarity — has invited a half-dozen local environmental groups (including Food First and Pesticide Action Network) to table at the screenings. 

This film, by one of the Bay Area's most committed social filmmakers is highly recommended. But don't take just my word for it. Here are three short reviews by a trio of familiar Bay Area activists: 

"Films like this can change the world." — Alice Waters. 

"Beautifully told, deeply disturbing." — Michael Pollan. 

"Better than a Batman movie… with real villains making up their own lines." — Peter Sellars.