The figures don’t add up

01 Oct 2008

In 2007, 1,095 farmers committed suicide – one every eight hours – in the Vidharbha region of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Vidharbha has emerged as an epicentre of farmers’ suicides over the last decade. It is also the region I which Monsanto sells most of its genetically-engineered Bt cotton (grown with the insect-resistant bacterium B. thuringiensis). In 2002, the first year Bt was approved for commercial planting, there was no such cotton in Maharashtra. By 2006, land allotted for its cultivation in the state had reached 435,000 acres.
“More Bt=more suicides” is a stark correlation, yet Vidharbha Jan Andolan, a farmers’ advocacy group, has mapped suicides and Bt sales in Vidharbha, district by district, and has come up with the conclusion that districts with the highest Bt cultivation also have the highest suicide rates. Farmers’ suicides area direct result of indebtedness, and even the Indian Government has been forced to recognize the fact by announcing a Rs. 60,000 crore loan waiver.

Human Costs
We speak of “Seeds of Suicide” because, at the centre of this agrarian crisis, is Bt cotton:

i) because its seeds are costly. Conventional cotton seeds cost Rs. 200/kg, Bt cotton seeds cost Rs. 3,600/kg. The Andhra Pradesh government was even forced to take Monsanto to the MRTP Court, India’s antitrust body, because of its charging exorbitant prices. Since farmers cannot afford to pay for the seeds, they accept credit from seed agents and are subsequently trapped in debt. Not that the problem is unique to India. Nearly a decade ago, during a trip to the US, I asked farmers growing Monsanto’s Round Up Resistant Corn why they bought it. The farmers replied that they had no option. “The corporations hold a noose round our necks. We have to buy whatever they sell.”

ii) because Bt cotton seeds are non-renewable. Farmers have to buy them every year, thus increasing their costs.

iii) because, while Bt cotton is sold as a pest-resistant seed, it is in fact only resistant to the American bollworm – or at least as long as it takes the bollworm to develop resistance to it. Bt cotton is, instead, vulnerable to many other pests such as aphids and jassids, meaning that farmers have to continue to spray pesticides, thus increasing cultivation costs.

iv) because Bt genes have been introduced into hybrids and hybrids need irrigation. In rainfed regions, farmers must either borrow more money for tube wells or face crop failure in the event of erratic rainfall.

The biotechnology industry is fabricating data to present Bt. cotton as a miracle. The hybrid seeds are advertised and promoted in the most unethical ways. Companies can sell what they want on what terms they want, with no one to keep a check. Among other things, globalization has removed any regulation on the seed sector. Yes, globalization is the deregulation of commerce. Behind the hype are the biotech industry group International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAA) and its chairman Clive James. But the publicity is clearly failing to keep up its promises. Vidharbha’s farmers are not becoming millionaires by growing Bt cotton.
The claim of industry-sponsored studies like those carried out by organizations such as IMRB International and Assocham that Bt cotton has increased productivity and farmers’ incomes is false. The industry has claimed four times more reduction in pesticide use, 12 times more yield and 100 times more profit than our field studies suggest.
We have found that Bt cotton farmers were incurring average losses of up to Rs. 6400/acre. A report released by Youth for Voluntary Action in association with Greenpeace India and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture shows that farmers who used non-Bt cotton in the 2005 kharif season had net incomes almost 62% higher than those who opted for Bt cotton. This was because, despite a marginally higher yield, the cost of cultivation for Bt cotton was also over 33 % higher.

Spend and Yield
Farmers who cultivate Bt cotton do so in the hope that it will reduce their spending on pesticide sprays and substantially improve their yields. But they ultimately spend 15% of the total cost of cultivation on the seed, whereas non-Bt farmers spend only 5%. Non Bt cotton farmers, moreover, show an average yield of 276 kg/ha against the Bt cotton farmers’ 180 kg/ha. So, despite spending 3.5 times more on pesticide-resistant seed, a Bt farmer achieves only a 4% reduction in pesticide costs, and ends up with a 35% loss on final yield.
It is simply not true that Bt cotton has spelt benefits for Indian farmers, and the suicides in Bt cotton areas are the strongest proof of the fact.
The first myth about GM crops is that they will reduce hunger, but neither GM cotton nor GM maize go to feed people. GM maize, once used as cattle fodder in factory farms, is now being increasingly diverted to the production of biofuels.

Illegal Embraces
A second myth is that increased cotton production and exports in India are linked to Bt cotton productivity. Clive James has stated that, “The rapid strides that India has made in cotton production since the country embraced Bt Cotton and the fact that it has overtaken the U.S speak volumes about the technology.” But India did not “embrace” Bt Cotton: Bt. Cotton was thrust upon Indian farmers—in the first instance illegally.
The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology initially challenged the import and field trials of Bt cotton insofar as they violated the “Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells 1989”, framed under the Environment Protection Act 1986. whereby imports and field trials require approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Yet Monsanto and Mahyco had no such approval. Subsequently, the first three varieties of Bt cotton approved in 2002 in southern states were rejected for planting in 2005 due to high levels of crop failure.

Lives in Pieces
The increase in cotton acreage is a result of the Indian government’s turning its back on food grains and promoting cash crops. Between 1991 and 2001, more than eight million acres of food growing land was diverted to export crops. Since 2001 the loss of food growing land has further increased. When quantitative restrictions were removed in 2001, cotton imports shot up as cheap subsidized cotton from the US was dumped on Indian markets. They have since dropped as a result of Brazil’s initiating a case against U.S on cotton subsidies. In the meantime, the $4 billion subsidy that went to 20,000 farmers in the US had destroyed the lives and incomes of millions of farmers in Africa and India.
Today India is exporting large quantities of cotton, partly as a result of the trade liberalization regime that has led to destruction of its cotton textile industry. It is now exporting cotton to China and importing textiles and clothing from China.
In short, cotton production is growing as is the area of land allotted to Bt cotton cultivation. This is all a result of policies that are working against food sovereignty, and the fact that corporate monopolies have destroyed the seed supply of farmers.

Asha Ke Beej
That is why we, members of the Navdanya rural development movment, have started the “Asha ke Beej” (Seeds of Hope) campaign, to offer farmers alternatives to Bt cotton in the “suicide belt” of Vidharbha. Besides providing guidance and help to the farmers for the revival of agriculture, we distribute indigenous seed varieties among them and encourage them to move to organic and sustainable agriculture.
Navdanya has now distributed seeds to more than 10,000 farmers and widows of suicide victims. Our commitment to the Vidharbha region is to create fair trade for its organic produce, including cotton, and to help its farmers elude the vicious circle of the debt trap in agriculture, which is leading to farmers’ suicides.
So far the enthusiasm has been amazing. Our ultimate
aim is to create GMO-free, patent-free, debt-free and suicide-free villages, to bring back the seeds of food crops and non-Bt cotton, promoting low-cost, high-output ecological farming. Organic cotton and food sovereignty are India’s future. Not Bt cotton.

Vandana Shiva
India, scientist and economist, founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, which led to the creation of Navdanya, a non-governmental organization that promotes biodiversity conservation, especially the process of seed saving

This article is published on the Slow Food Almanac. Cick here to read the whole issue.

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