“Every 30 minutes an Indian farmer commits suicide as a result of Monsanto’s GM crops. In the last decade more than 250,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves because of Monsanto’s costly seeds and pesticides.”
Keith Kloor wrote a carefully-researched exposé of this zombie-myth. I say zombie-myth because it appears to be unkillable by evidence-based logic. The myth was manufactured from thin air by anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva, beginning with her 2009 op-ed in the Huffington Post.
I knew the suicide story was an activist fabrication. What I did not know was how successful Shiva has been at establishing the myth as received wisdom. Believers include Prince Charles, Bill Moyers and Stanford’s “Population Bomb” Paul Erlich, and of course Greenpeace, which favors issues that aid their fund-raising.
It is the perfect story for uncritical media: emotional and truly tragic. If India is to reduce these tragedies they need to work on the real causes – not Shiva’s fiction. As you might expect, the explanation for the suicides is complex:
a 2012 paper in The Lancet that surveyed India’s suicide mortality rate noted: “Studies from south India have shown that the most common contributors to suicide are a combination of social problems, such as interpersonal and family problems and financial difficulties, and pre-existing mental illness.”
Researchers such as Cornell’s Ronald Herring are finding at least one factor that helps account for the increases in suicides from the early 1990’s. That is the unanticipated consequence of banking reforms which led to increasing penetration by “foreign and new generation private banks … [that has] led to fewer loans to agriculture and farmers. With increased competition, banks saw lending to the farm sector as unprofitable and unreliable”. In other words, where institutional credit became unavailable to small-holder farmers, the void was filled by money-lenders. This helps explain why suicides have been concentrated in five of India’s 28 states:
Banking practices vary across India … states with the highest incidence of farmer suicides were those that offered the least institutional credit to farmers. This forced small farmers into the hands of private lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates (as high as 45%). In those states where farmers had better access to institutional credit and farm insurance, there were markedly fewer suicides. Indian banks also offer credit to farmers with irrigated land, as this makes farming more viable. “Irrigation does drive bank lending,” Sadanadan said at the panel. “In states where there is greater irrigation, they [banks] lend money to the farmer.”
Central to Shiva’s myth is the claim that farmer suicides are caused by the complete failure of “Monsanto’s seeds”. But Shiva is never bothered by evidence that contradicts her preferred narrative:
Bt cotton has been all the rage in India since it was officially approved in 2002. The technology has been adopted by over 90% of Indian cotton farmers. Multiple studies point to significant reduction in pesticide spraying and subsequent cost savings for cotton farmers. (Similar findings attest to the same in China, where Bt cotton accounts for 80% of its crop.) India’s agricultural minister said in 2012 that the country “has harvested an average of 5.1 million tons of cotton per year, which is well above the highest production of 3 million tons before the introduction of Bt cotton. ” India is the world’s second-biggest cotton producer, behind China. Apparently, Indian farmers have come to overwhelmingly embrace genetically modified cotton.
Yet there is an enduring belief that Bt cotton has failed in India, with tragic consequences. This failure, the story goes, has resulted in burdensome debt and caused more than a quarter-million Indian farmers to take their own lives. Ronald Herring, a political scientist at Cornell University, has studied the seeming paradox and written on it extensively. As he observed in one paper, “It is hard to imagine farmers spreading a technology that is literally killing them”.
…when India approved Bt cotton (thus far the only GMO crop permitted in the country), it quickly became a surrogate cause in the larger ideological battle. In this battle, the Bt cotton-Indian farmer suicide narrative that Shiva helped to craft proved to be powerfully seductive and immune to contradiction or correction. Not only does there seem to be no evidence that farmers using Bt cotton seed are more likely to commit suicide than others, but farmers that do use the seeds appear on the whole to be benefiting from them. A 2008 meta-review of data between 2002 and 2006 “suggests that Bt cotton has been quite successful in most states and years in India, contributing to an impressive leap in average cotton yields, as well as a decrease in pesticide use and in farmer revenue. ” The authors of this paper, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, say that their analysis “is sufficiently well documented to discredit the possibility of a naïve direct causal or reciprocal relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides. ”
These conclusions have since been corroborated by additional studies that found that Indian farmers using Bt crops spend less money on pesticides and earn more money from higher yields. In fact, a 2013 study in PLOS ONE found that in India “the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. ”
In 2013, after attending Shiva’s talk at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I asked her about the mounting evidence that contradicted her “suicide seed” claims. She dismissed them breezily and said, “Those are the Monsanto studies. ” But neither Monsanto nor the biotechnology industry funded any of the aforementioned studies. Never mind; that same week, she went on a news program in the United States and said: “Two hundred and seventy thousand Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. That’s more than a quarter million. It’s a genocide. ”
Keith Kloor’s article puts a bright spotlight on what Shiva is doing. It is obvious that Vandana Shiva will only stop this sham when it becomes unprofitable. So please help make it unprofitable for her to continue — direct your friends to the true history behind this destructive myth.