Farmer Suicides in India: Seeds are Big Business

Rumors are rife that the farmer suicide pandemic hitting India is directly related to Monsanto, Cargill, and Syngenta–multinational agri-business (over 17,000 suicides in 2003 alone…and the rate is apparently increasing.) What is happening here?

In 1998, the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies forced India to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Cargill, Monsanto, and Syngenta. The global corporations changed the input economy overnight. Farm saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds which needed fertilizers and pesticides and could not be saved.
As seed saving is prevented by patents as well as by the engineering of seeds with non-renewable traits, seed has to be bought for every planting season by poor peasants. A free resource available on farms became a commodity which farmers were forced to buy every year. This increases poverty and leads to indebtedness.

Which leads to suicide. Once hooked, forever caught. One irony is that some genetically modified seeds require more water than the homegrown varieties. In drought prone areas of India, such seeds became a disaster.

Take BT cotton (a GM product), for example: Cotton resistant to boltworm. It did work. Unfortunately, the new plants were then susceptible to attacks from other insects…so much so that farmers

are now having to spray their crops up to 20 times a growing season to control them, according to the study of 481 Chinese farmers in five major cotton-producing provinces.

There are reports of rashes and itching from BT cotton, to say nothing of the effect of all that pesticide on the local populace.

GE agri-products are now banned in the EU, but they still are finding their way into places like Pakistan…the road show has moved on. At the center of the problem lies the misleading studies of the efficacy of the seeds. A PR blitz, coupled with connections in high places, results in a successful shell game…until the locals either get wise or commit suicide after having been driven into poverty.

Of special concern are the terminator seeds, i.e., seeds that produce sterile plants, requiring the farmer to return to the multinational for more seeds. Terminator seeds should be outlawed. Not only do we threaten healthy biodiversity but also we simply condone an ever-greater transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and powerful.

While I am certainly a devotee of science, I am leery of commercialized agri-science, where the seller does and then presents the studies. It took Mother Nature a long time to make food palatable for us. Tampering with Nature’s recipe should not be done lightly. And certainly the WTO should be cautious about being caterers to our new and questionable diet.