The epidemic of cotton farmer suicides is not a recent thing. Between 1995 and 2013, there is believed to have been 60,750 suicides, meaning an average of 10 farmers taking their own lives every day. Between January and April just this year, Maharashtra, India, reported 852 farmer suicides; an average of seven farmer suicides, reported every single day.
There are several reasons why so many cotton farmers are pushed to the point of ending their lives. However, the majority of these causes, including climate change and lack of micronutrients in the soil, have been exacerbated or caused by a far greater problem farmers are faced with: MONSANTO.
What is a Monsanto
Monsanto is an agricultural company that apparently aims to apply innovation and technology to help farmers, with the slogan ‘producing more, conserving more, improving farmers’ lives’.
Instead, Monsanto are out here trapping farmers in a vicious cycle of debt and crop failure, with an estimated 84% of suicides attributed to their failing Bt cotton seeds farmers are coerced into using.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is the name of a bacterium that produces proteins toxic to insects. Monsanto produce cotton seeds where the Bt gene is inserted into the cotton genome. This means the cotton produces Bt, allowing it to protect itself from insects that may damage it, in particular Bollworm.
Seems great right? Poor farmers given access to cotton seeds that are easily protected from damage, meaning less pesticides and more healthy crops?
Nah not really.
The Seeds are E X P E N S I V E
GM seeds are expensive, costing up to 4x more than traditional seeds. In fact, since Monstanto’s entry into India, the price of cotton seeds have increased by almost 80,000%!
A big contributor to the financial strain farmers face are the royalties they are required to pay for the seeds. Indeed, Monsanto have gone to absolutely twisted lengths to ensure they can extract as much money as possible from these impoverished farmers. Here’s how they do it.
So generally, the technology of a product and the product itself are separable, however, this is not the case with Bt cotton. Once the Bt gene is introduced into the seed, it becomes part of the seed. This means they are no longer separable. Seems legit right? Cool, so on this basis, the technology fees that they charge for the ‘technology trait’ of Bt should be incorporated with the price of seed. However, Monsanto have made it so that the ‘technology trait’ of the seed and the seed itself are separate, so they can charge both separately. In doing so, they set both at a high rate, increasing the cost of the seeds.
As Monsanto could not sign individual contracts with farmers to secure royalties, they locked in local seed companies to collect the royalties. They must obey Monsanto’s orders, with actions such as changing prices to accommodate farmers’ needs resulting in the potential risk of having their licensing agreement terminated.
Not only this, but every year farmers must purchase new seeds, as these seeds are hybrid cultivars (yeh idk either), which prevent them from being replanted the following year. This means more money spent on Bt seeds. Usually, farmers were able to keep a part of their produce to reuse as seeds the next year.
How else Is Bt Cotton Making Farmers’ Lives Worse?
In many ways.
Firstly, these seeds require much more water than traditional seeds, meaning the crop of farmers who lack access to proper irrigation or farms that are primarily rain-fed (80% of farmland in Maharashtra) often fail to grow the cotton.
In addition, these seeds also require greater quantities of pesticides and fertiisers. Indeed, though the seeds may protect against insects such as Bollworm, they are vulnerable to many others. In fact, it is believed that GM crops are actually more vulnerable than ordinary seeds to pests. For example, in 2015, whitefly attacked and destroyed nearly two-thirds of the cotton crop in Punjab and Haryana, even after the farmers sprayed pesticides repeatedly. Studies support this also, as scientists have found that the genetic engineering of the seeds disrupts the metabolic processes in plants that contribute to resisting insects. As a result, pests that had never affected non Bt cotton have become major cotton pests, compelling farmers to use more pesticides than before. To make things worse, Bollworm has now developed resistance to Bt cotton, so the pest can now damage crops. This has led to the emergence of superpests and superweeds, which are much harder to get rid of. This means even more pesticides are required. After the failing of Bt cotton, Monsanto created another strain, the more expensive Bt II, however this is also now failing to control the pests.
These pesticides contain chemicals that are lethal to the health of the farmers. In fact, many of the chemicals in these pesticides, which are used by cotton farmers without masks and barefoot, are banned in the West. They also contribute to the already high costs farmers must pay to grow these GM seeds.
As farmers can barely afford these seeds, as well as the chemicals required to tend to them, many turn to loans. However, due to the unpredictability of farming, particularly farming with Bt cotton seeds, this can make it harder for workers to pay these loans back. Moreover, loan sharks are unwilling to give loans unless workers buy GM seeds, as they are thought to produce a greater yield and therefore ensure workers will be able to repay loans. This compels farmers to purchase these seeds. Also, through using licensing agreements, this requires seed companies to only sell Bt cotton seeds. In fact, 95% of India’s cotton seed is now controlled by Monsanto. In 2009 alone, 30 new brands of Bt Cotton were introduced in India, to create ‘an illusion of choice’ for farmers. But there clearly is no choice. Genetically engineered Bt cotton is failing no matter how you brand it.
The link between Monsanto and farmer suicides is clear. For example, the highest acreage of Bt cotton is in Maharashtra, where the highest farmer suicides are, and have increased after Bt cotton was introduced.
Ramesh Ghodam killed himself when he was overcome with fears regarding his debts of about $3000. His crop had failed too. His wife survives by taking casual work on other farms when she can find it. ”There is nothing left in my life. The crops are destroyed on the farm, it is all empty land and I can’t sow new seeds this season. There’s hardly any food at home to cook. I am left alone with my daughter and son.“
Men make up most of the farmer suicides, pushing their wives, who have little or no experience in managing a farm, to take over their husband’s work. Due to discrimination, women struggle to find work in the agricultural sector. Indeed, a 2017 report found that while more than 40% of Indian women work in agriculture, they are not recognized as farmers and do not own land, and also have limited access to government schemes and credit. The Indian government provides about $1,550 to families affected by a farmer suicide, but it is rarely enough. One widow, Dharne, received only 30 percent of this amount herself; the rest has been deposited in a bank for her children and will be paid only when her eldest daughter turns 18. Left alone to manage the farm, raise children, and repay debts, Dharne has her late husband’s land at her disposal, but she lacks the training and financial support to farm productively. She fears another crop failure and does not have the money to invest in the land.
Indian Activists are Leading the Way
Slowly, as a result of the escalating problem, and thanks to the ongoing campaigning of activists, more is being done to support farmers. For example, in 2014, after Bt cotton crop failed across over 56,000 hectares of land in Karnataka, the government blacklisted the seed company Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a 26% stake. The loss was calculated at ₹235 cr. Mahyco offered the farmers a token compensation of ₹10 crore, which the government rejected, and instead gave ₹35 crore to the farmers on its own.
In addition, after crop failures at the beginning of 2016, the government decided to set controls on the cost of Bt cotton seeds, slashing royalty by 74%. This saw shares of Monsanto lose more than 20% of their value. After they threatened to leave India if prices were capped, the minister of State for Agriculture, Sanjiv Balyan, apparently stated that Monsanto was free to go. Good.
Recently the Indian government has been promoting the use of indigenous seeds as an alternative. As a result, in this past year, Monsanto has lost $75 million in royalties from this change.
So yes, more change is being implemented, but the problem has not completely gone away. For example, here’s a recent article regarding the conditions in the Punjab.
There are amazing activists on the ground working relentlessly to call out Monsanto and GM seeds.
One particular woman I want to highlight is the legendary Dr Vandana Shiva. She is an Indian scholar, environmental activist and anti-globalisation author, who has been working since ‘87 to expose Monsanto and the crimes they are committing in India. Most of my knowledge of Bt cotton and the conditions of farmers in India comes from her, and I’d like to thank her for opening my eyes to the tragic continuation of this ongoing exploitation, and her efforts to expose the dangers of genetically modified products.
Rest in peace all the souls we’ve lost through this horrific example of corporate greed, and wishing all the strength in the world to the families who have had to face losing their loved ones, particularly the women, who face the burden of keeping together a family as well as work, and endure the ongoing cycle of debt and crop failure.