Of the many horror stories we hear about GMOs, few are as heart-rending as the one about how nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves over failed cotton crops. What's also horrible is that the story is a complete fabrication.
Typical of the tales told by anti-GMO activists, the chief villain here is Monsanto— the agricultural biotech corporation that, more than ten years ago, partnered with Indian seed companies to insert Bt genes into cotton. (Bt is short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium that is toxic to many crop pests, such as bollworms.) Since then, there have been widespread claims that the genetically modified seeds have produced lower crop yields. The misguided farmers who bought the seeds found themselves overwhelmed by debt and began to take their own lives.
Origins of the Myth
But, from the very start, the GMO-farmer-suicide story has been rife with contradictions, says Keith Kloor—a former fellow at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism, who has contributed articles to Nature and Science. In a recent article appearing in the journal Issues in Science & Technology, he writes that:
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.
According to Kloor, patient zero for spreading this meme is Vandana Shiva, a prominent Indian environmentalist who, for the past decade, has been campaigning against Monsanto's "seeds of suicide" by writing op-eds, delivering lectures and doing media interviews. "Shiva's words are treated with earnest respect in liberal and environmental circles, where she is held in great esteem," writes Kloor. "If she insists that Monsanto and its GMO seeds have driven hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers to suicide—and she has said this frequently—then there must be something to it." In 2008, while attending an event sponsored by Shiva in India, Prince Charles—yes, frickin' Prince Charles—delivered a widely reported speech, wherein he decried "science without morality" and declared, "I blame GM crops for farmers' suicides."
The story has continued to gain momentum—to the point where it is a mainstay of blogs, opinion pieces and even films. A critically acclaimed 2011 documentary, Bitter Seeds, informs us that, because of GMO crops, "Every 30 minutes a farmer in India kills himself." A Frontline/World segment that aired on PBS exposed the "epidemic" of "suicide by pesticide." Project Censored included GMO-farmer-suicide among its list of the "Top 25 Most Censored Stories of 2012-2013"—an exercise in unintentional irony, given how much attention it receives.
The Real Causes of Debt-Related Suicides in India
There have also been several articles and studies over the years that have sought to debunk the connection between GMO crops and farmer suicides. One study of particular note will soon be published in the Journal of Developing Areas.
The article, written by Anoop Sadanandan, a political economist at Syracuse University, isn't questioning the numbers of suicides. Sadanandan confirms that more than 250,000 debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide during the last two decades. But he says that the real seeds of despair are financial policies that were implemented by the Indian government in the early 1990s.
Tellingly, Sadanandan's research revealed that most of the suicides have taken place in five of India's 28 states — not all of which even grow cotton. Indeed, Sadanandan couldn't find any meaningful correlation between cotton crops and the states with high suicide rates:
While a large number of cotton cultivators committed suicide in [states such as] Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the farmers who committed suicide in states such as Kerala were not cotton farmers. Further, cotton was cultivated in some 10 other states that did not witness high incidence of farmer suicides.
So if GMO cotton isn't to blame for the suicides, what is? This raises the question of why mounting debt and credit crunches affected farmers only in certain parts of the country.
The answer lies with banking reforms. India is one of several developing countries in the past few decades that has ceded greater autonomy to banks and allowed the entry of foreign banks. Ideally, these policies help drive economic growth since the private financial sector is deemed a better judge than the government in determining which loans and investments will yield the greatest returns.
The benefits of these reforms, however, have not been evenly distributed, writes Sadanandan:
In particular, the entry of foreign and new generation private banks has made banking in India competitive and led to fewer loans to agriculture and farmers. With increased competition, banks saw lending to the farm sector as unprofitable and unreliable. This drop in institutional lending forced farmers to borrow from private moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates and increased farm indebtedness. When faced with heavier debt burden that they could not repay, many farmers in India took their lives. This, I argue, happened more in some states—particularly, in states where banking became more competitive with the increased presence of foreign and private banks.
Sadanandan is not opposed to reforms in the banking sector. The purpose of his study is to demonstrate that such reforms can yield unintended consequences and that governments should be prepared to intervene when necessary.
In fact, he identifies two policies that could have reduced the number of suicides. The wider distribution of credit cards would have allowed more farmers to secure loans at concessionary interest rates and defer their repayments when crops were unprofitable. And, the government should be accelerating irrigation projects. (Currently, only 35% of agricultural land in India is irrigated.) Sadanandan found that banks were willing to lend more to people in areas where farms had reliable access to water.
How many people will take note of Sadanandan's study? Not a lot, I suspect. An evil corporation dumping genetic monstrosities on impoverished farmers makes for a much sexier narrative than the nuances of financial reforms in the banking sector.
And therein lies the real tragedy of farmer suicides in India. Anti-GMO activists, by hijacking this story to cultivate sympathy for their own agenda, are distracting us from the solutions that could actually work.
Read Anoop Sadanandan's forthcoming article, Political Economy of Suicide, at his website.