The suicide belt: GM cotton in India
EXTRACT: Despite the Monsanto-funded studies, it's clear from the ground level that had India not moved its cotton industry to genetically modified seeds so quickly, and instead confined the technology to the larger, irrigated fields for which it was designed, the agrarian suicide crisis wouldn't exist at the level it does today. Critics of Monsanto in India allege this imprudent agrarian policy is the result of government corruption and the U.S. company's gaming of the system.
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Trevor Aaronson traveled to rural India to investigate the reasons why more than 200,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves in the last decade. Published in Columbia City Paper, The Suicide Belt examined how loans used to buy expensive, genetically modified cotton seeds are trapping subsistence farmers in a cycle of debt that ends in shame and, in the most tragic cases, suicide.
The Suicide Belt
Columbia City Paper, November 10 2009
*Thousands of cotton farmers in India are killing themselves in their fields.
Story by Trevor Aaronson and Photographs by Angshuman Ghosh
[image caption: Gokal Landkar sits beneath the mango tree from which his father hanged himself a week earlier.]
VIDARBHA REGION, India ”” The reminders are still here as Gokal wipes tears from his face. There's the white headscarf with gold trim, next to a pair of cracked and worn sandals. The rope is here, too, snaking along the ground next to a large mango tree, a perfect noose tied at its end.
Five days ago, Gokal's father hanged himself from the mango tree. His name was Motiram Baban Landkar, and Gokal and his two brothers don't know how old he was when he died. In this part of rural India, birthdays go unnoticed and age matters little. The three sons can agree only that their father was about as old as the mango tree, and he took his life on May 31 to escape a debt of about $850.
He is one of nearly 200,000 Indian farmers, many of them cotton growers, to commit suicide since 1997. In fact, suicide among farmers in India has become so prevalent that officials in New Delhi keep a tally. Hanging and consumption of poison are the common methods of death, and most farmer suicides have occurred in India’s cotton belt, which extends from Hyderabad north to Nagpur, at the geographical center of India, and east to the state of Gujarat.
Many in India blame a combination of climate change, globalization and the U.S. corporation Monsanto for pushing to suicide thousands of subsistence farmers.
"Ten years ago," Gokal says, "farming was easy."
Now it's deadly, and with the worst drought conditions India has seen in decades, this year's December cotton harvest could be one of the deadliest.
* * *
Kishor Tiwari works from a small, two-room office in Yavatmal, the largest city in an area of the country that has witnessed more farmer suicides than any other. Tiwari, a fast-talking former engineer, is attempting to document as many of those deaths as he can. As founder of the Vidharbha People's Agitation Committee, Tiwari has made a full-time job of raising awareness of cotton farmers' plight.
On an afternoon in June, with the annual monsoon rains already two weeks late in what scientists believe is a symptom of climate change, Tiwari motions to one of his assistants. "This is the suicide man," he says. The man hands Tiwari a white ledger. Inside, on dog-eared pages, there's a line for every suicide: name, date, place of death.
Tiwari then points to a map next his desk. "We are here," he says, placing his right index finger on the map. He then draws a large circle with the finger. "This is the cotton area," he says. Tiwari looks back, making sure everyone is watching. He draws another large circle away from the first one. “This is the non-cotton area." He pauses, leveraging the silence for effect. "The suicides," he finishes, "are mainly in the cotton-crop area."
Dressed in black pants and a white button-down shirt, Tiwari walks barefoot into the next room. "Come, come," he says. There, he has a floor-to-ceiling chart illustrating the numbers of suicides his organization has confirmed in this area of Vidarbha from 2001 to 2008. The years and numbers are in Sanskrit, and Tiwari begins to read each aloud. "In 2001, 52 suicides," he says, then rattles off the numbers in machine-gun procession, each number representing the suicides of the following year: "104, 148, 447, 445, 1,448, 1,246, 1,267."
Tiwari believes St. Louis, Missouri-based agribusiness giant Monsanto is the primary reason for the suicides, and to understand why he believes this, it's instructive to appreciate first how drastically the cotton-seed business has changed in India.
Cotton seed has historically been among farmers' lowest expenses. During the harvest, cotton growers would cultivate crop seeds and save them for the following season. As a general practice, they also would swap seeds with neighboring farmers, ensuring through natural selection that subsequent generations of cotton seed would be best suited for the region. Although local cotton did not provide the same potential yields as cotton seed from the Americas, it had adapted to India’s unique climate - an intense monsoon season followed by months of drought.
Monsanto helped to abolish this practice. At the turn of the century, the company introduced a genetically modified cotton plant that produces bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a commonly used pesticide against bollworm. When Bt cotton seed first came to market nationwide in 2002 under the trademark Bollgard, a box recommended for one acre of farmland was 1,400 rupees, about $35, a substantial amount for a farmer who in a good year will earn a few hundred dollars to support his family. Although government-regulated prices have been halved to 750 rupees per box ”” a predatory pricing lawsuit filed by the state of Andhra Pradesh forced Monsanto and the federal government to lower the prices ”” the input costs of Bt cotton are still more than the average farmer can afford to spend out of pocket.
What's more, unlike with traditional seeds, farmers aren't able replant seeds harvested from the crop. Doing so not only would violate a farmer's legal agreement with the seed company but would be impractical as well. Because Bt sold in India is only available in hybrid seeds, replanting the next generation of seeds is a genetic crapshoot. Hybrids genetically segregate with every generation, with only one-third of seeds showing the same genetic traits of the parent. While hybrids can offer yield benefits for farmers, they primarily offer Monsanto greater control of intellectual property through this genetic segregation. As a result, farmers must buy new seeds year after year.
Despite the high costs of Bt cotton and the problems associated with the seed, advertising campaigns and government promotion of Monsanto’s technology initially helped persuade Indian farmers to take out loans and buy the genetically modified cotton seed.
On a macro level, Bt cotton has been a success in India. Since its introduction, national cotton production has doubled. But on a micro level, when examined from farm to farm, Monsanto's technology has clearly offered mixed results.
Because the genetically modified Bt trait is only readily available in hybrid seeds, the crop requires more water than traditional Indian seeds. Affluent farmers with irrigated fields can fully exploit the technology and profit from increased yields, and these farmers are success stories for Monsanto.
But still 60 percent of India's 90 million farmers own less than two and a half acres of land, and for them, the situation is vastly different. Subsistence farmers own rain-fed lands whose success depends entirely on the generosity of the monsoon. During this current period of unpredictable rains and increasing drought, these farmers have, like their more affluent counterparts, adopted drought-intolerant Bt cotton, which has resulted in reports throughout the region of crop failure and disappointing yield levels. Although boxes of Bt cotton have a warning label that instructs farmers to use the seed only in irrigated fields, the warning is in English, which few farmers can read.
Now, only a few years after the introduction of genetically modified seeds, Bt cotton has become so universal, and so much more profitable for the seed companies that license Monsanto's technology, it’s the only type of seed available to farmers at stores. Consequently, every year as Indians await the monsoon rains, farmers line up to sign loan paperwork. In less than a decade, cotton seed in India went from a negligible cost to one requiring a bank loan.
"Fifty percent of farmer expenses now come from the cost of the seed," Tiwari, the activist, says.
Whereas previous generations of cotton farmers could recover from crop failure ”” they would face a year of hardship from reduced income but could find means to plant again the following year - India’s subsistence farmers today are playing a game of agrarian roulette. Here’s the familiar pattern: To purchase Bt cotton, the farmer must take out a seed loan from the State Bank of India. If the crop fails due to a poor monsoon - a noteworthy potential given Bt cotton's design for use in irrigated fields - the farmer will not be able to pay back the loan and will be denied a second loan. The farmer then will turn to an unregulated private moneylender who charges usurious rates, sometimes as high as 100 percent. A second crop failure, or even an underperforming crop, can place the farmer in a hole so deep that many turn to suicide.
In fact, the number of farmer suicides in India spiked in 2006, and has remained steady since, following implementation of a government program to pay as much as 10,000 rupees in compensation to families affected by farmer suicide. Suddenly, indebted cotton growers were worth more as corpses than as patriarchs.
Gajanan Bhindarwa cradles cotton seeds containing Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt trait.
That's what happened to Vithal Bhindarwa, whose six-acre cotton farm was near the two-lane highway that runs from Hyderabad to New Delhi. His crop failed in late 2008, and he owed 28,000 rupees to the State Bank of India and even more to a private moneylender. Bhindarwa’s wife and children did not know the debt existed, and one evening in December, the farmer stepped out of his two-room home and swallowed poison he had reserved for rats trolling in the soybean field. "We were told it would produce good results, the Bt cotton, so everybody took a loan," says his son, 23-year-old Gajanan, now head of the family.
Today, according to one of Monsanto’s own studies, 95 percent of farmers in India have expenditures greater than income. These farmers are upside down on loans, but instead of walking away from farms as Americans have walked away from homes, thousands are hanging and poisoning themselves.
* * *
Sekhar Natarajan, Monsanto's head of India operations, lives in Mumbai, about 425 miles west of the farmlands where these suicides are occurring, and oversees a business that generates more than $70 million in annual revenue from sales in the Indian heartland.
Sitting at a desk in his office, Natarajan bristles at the claims his company is somehow responsible for suicides among subsistence farmers.
“I like to start out by saying that, as an Indian, whenever I hear about the suicide of farmers, it pains me, because it’s a human life that we’re talking about,” Natarajan says. “Farmer suicide is a very painful subject, and it’s a subject that is important for India as a country to clearly understand. It’s not one single cause. A farmer commits suicide as a last resort, to keep up his honor and commitment which he’s unable to do.
“I would disagree with the fact that genetically modified seeds are the cause of suicide, because these suicides happen in non-cotton areas also,” he continues. “Cotton farmers are in fact benefiting from technology because we believe risk is reduced. A cotton farmer who does not use technology has a higher risk profile than a cotton farmer who uses technology, assuming the seeds are the same value. That being the case, we think we reduce risk. To that extent, we add positively to this whole debate about how much of a pressure is on farmers. This is a holistic subject, and I really think the statements directly linking us are unfounded in my opinion.”
Monsanto has funded three studies attempting to prove the company isn’t responsible for the suicides. Those studies linked farmer suicides to a variety of social ills, including alcoholism, gambling and the use of credit to finance weddings and dowries. One study, by the International Food Policy Research Institute, concluded farmer suicides had so many possible contributors in addition to Bt cotton that any conclusive links to a single contributor were impossible to form.
* * *
Despite the Monsanto-funded studies, it's clear from the ground level that had India not moved its cotton industry to genetically modified seeds so quickly, and instead confined the technology to the larger, irrigated fields for which it was designed, the agrarian suicide crisis wouldn't exist at the level it does today. Critics of Monsanto in India allege this imprudent agrarian policy is the result of government corruption and the U.S. company's gaming of the system.
"If you can bribe someone in the regulatory agency, you get what you want," says Suman Sahai, a geneticist in New Delhi and activist against seed patents.
"I've seen too many scientists start to speak against their mind and their conscience just for money from Monsanto," says Vandana Shiva, a well-known environmental activist in India.
Sahai and Shiva can't provide evidence to support their claims, and Monsanto officials are quick to brush off such charges, saying their business in India complies with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a U.S. law that prohibits bribery of foreign officials.
Even so, Monsanto has demonstrated tremendous skill at influencing public officials in India. Among the best examples is C.D. Mayee, a New Delhi scientist who was co-chair of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee when Monsanto sought approval for Bt cotton in 2001.
Mayee granted that approval in 2002, and four years later, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, an organization whose major funders include Monsanto, appointed Mayee to its board of directors. Mayee saw no conflict of interest in being paid to promote the same technology he was charged with regulating. “ISAAA is engaged in a noble mission globally and this is the first time an Indian has had the honor of being on its board,” Mayee told The Times of India at the time of his appointment.
Mayee voluntarily stepped down as India’s regulator of genetically modified agriculture in May. However, as a member of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Mayee remains an influential government official in India and still serves on ISAAA's board.
During a June interview in his New Delhi office, when asked if he regrets having approved Bt cotton given that a rural credit crisis and a rise in farmer suicides followed introduction of the technology, Mayee remains emphatic in his support of Monsanto’s technology.
"Let me find you something," he says, rooting through his briefcase. Mayee hands over two papers he recently submitted to academic journals. Both examine how India has benefitted from the genetically modified seed. "Cotton production in India has doubled as a result of Bt technology," he says. "Therefore, how can Bt cotton be responsible for suicides?"
Asked why he believes his opinion should be viewed credible when he sits on the board of an organization funded by Monsanto, Mayee abruptly ends the interview without explanation.
* * *
It was a Sunday morning when Motiram Baban Landkar hanged himself in Vidarbha's Akola District. His three sons had all left the village. Shivlal and Shantaram had gone to the market, and Gokal attended a wedding.
Motiram had tea with his wife in the early daylight hours and said nothing of what he'd planned. He walked five minutes from the village to his farm, crushing the parched earth with every step. He tied the rope, first around a sturdy branch of the mango tree and then around his neck.
About an hour later, a neighboring farmer found him hanging there and called police. They cut down the body and left behind the rope, scarf and sandals.
"Every day we come here, since it happened," says Motiram’s middle son, Gokal.
A few days after the suicide, Gokal and his brothers learned of the debts ”” first from a private moneylender, then from a bank official. They'd known money was tight; they just didn't realize the family owed money. Their father handled all finances for the combined family of 22 people.
"If we went and earned money somewhere, we would hand him the money and he would take care of all the food and vegetables for the family," Gokal says. "We had no right to ask daddy where he got his other money from, so we didn't know about the debts."
Inside their small home in the village, Gokal says he blames the high cost of seed for pushing his father to suicide. Had he not taken out seeds loan, Gokal says, the debt would not have existed.
Sitting next to Gokal are his two brothers, and napping on his lap is his 3-year-old daughter Lakshmi. When asked what’s next for his family now that his father is dead, Gokal buries his face in his hands. Lakshmi looks up from his lap, half-asleep.
“We have to survive,” he says. ”But living without him is impossible.”
When the monsoon rains finally arrive in early July, one month late, farmers in Vidarbha are disappointed. The news gets worse in the following weeks. The government says rain levels are 29 percent below average this year, and halfway through monsoon season, 177 farming districts are declared drought zones.
Indian cotton farmers are expecting a deadly harvest.
Research for this story was supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.