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How Owning Genetic Materials Drives Farmers Into Bankruptcy and Suicide

A fascinating interview with Vandana Shiva by Lohan discusses how companies like Monsanto, through their ownership of agricultural seeds, drove Indian farmers into bankruptcy and caused mass suicides. In a decade, about 200,000 farmers have commited suicide in India.  Why?

“In 1998, the World Bank’s structural-adjustment policies forced India to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta,” Shiva wrote. “The global corporations changed the input economy overnight. Farm-saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds, which need fertilizers and pesticides and cannot be saved. …

When Monsanto’s Bt cotton was introduced, the seed costs jumped from 7 rupees per kilo to 17,000 rupees per kilo. Our survey shows a thirteenfold increase in pesticide use in cotton in Vidharbha. Meantime, the $4 billion subsidy given to U.S. agribusiness for cotton has led to dumping and depression of international prices.

Squeezed between high costs and negative incomes, farmers commit suicide when their land is being appropriated by the money lenders who are the agents of the agrichemical and seed corporations. The suicides are thus a direct result of industrial globalized agriculture and corporate monopoly on seeds.

Rising prices for inputs, lower prices for the crops.  Simple enough, really.

The first suicide that we studied took place in Warrangal in Andhra Pradesh in 1997. This region is a rain-fed dry region and used to grow dry land crops such as millets, pigeon pea etc. In 1997, the seed corporations converted the region from biodiverse agriculture to monocultures of cotton hybrid. The farmers were not told they would need irrigation. They were not told that they would need fertilizers and pesticides. They were not told they could not save the seeds. The cotton seeds were sold as “White Gold,” with a false promise that farmers would become millionaires. Instead, the farmers landed in severe unpayable debt. This is how the suicides began.

Likewise these crops require a lot more water and that has led to a severe drawdown of aquifers.

VS: India is a land of varied climates, from rainforests to deserts. Seventy percent of Indian farming is rain-fed (dependent on rain not irrigation). Introducing inappropriate crops and cropping patterns has aggravated the water crisis and precipitated more frequent crop failure. Ecological agriculture needs 10 times less water than chemical farming. Green Revolution varieties, hybrids and GM crops are all bred for irrigation. On the one hand, this puts pressure on farmers in low-rainfall zones to drill tube wells, which fail — on the other hand, it leads to more frequent crop failure.

To summarize: first world subsidies on agriculture lead to first world prices that are artificially low, which leads to dumping, which reduces the price of the crops.  Something Shiva doesn’t mention is that each time a third world country moves to cash crops, that too depresses the prices as there just aren’t that many cash crops.  Having to buy seeds every year, having to buy pesticides and fertilizers and having to irrigate all increase the cost of farming significantly, and also cause drawdown of aquifers.  Once those aquifers are gone (and they are being drawn down faster than the water is being replaced) the areas in question won’t be able to grow any meaningful crops at all.

Patenting life forms is inherently problematic.  At the current time the law is that if a genetically modified seed drifts onto your land, and interbreeds with your crops, the company that owned the seed now owns all of your seeds, which you must destroy if it insists.  So once GMO seeds are introduced into an area, it becomes difficult to impossible for farmers not to use them.

The destruction of biodiversity in crops, which started with the Green Revolution, has alikewise moved into turbo-seed which have to be bought every year, which are genetically engineered, don’t change.  Monoculture crops are very vulnerable to disease and pests, but worse than that as older species are lost, we lose their genetic heritage, which could have much of value.  They may have medicinal uses we don’t know about, may have genetic features that make them resistant to specific pests or disease, or better for certain environmental conditions, and so on.  Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

In any case, the world needs less monoculture agriculture and more ecological agriculture.  Not just because it is more sustainable and the world is on track to create massive dust bowls in the US, China and India due to overuse of water, but because grain based diets are inherently less healthy than more varied vegetable diets.  A huge amount of the current pandemic of degenerative diseases in the 1st world, which is at its worst in the US, can be laid at the feet of the the Standard American Diet (SAD), which consists of far too much sugar, starch, grains and corn based foods denatured of natural nutrients.  This diet has contributed heavily to an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.  Likewise, what was once known as “adult onset diabetes” is now common in childhood, and obesity.

The real cause of the first world’s crisis in health care costs is that people are just sicker than they used to be, not just when they get old, but at every stage of their life.  And that is largely a reflection of how we now eat, combined with lack of regular exercise.  As nations famed for their good health adopt a more American diet (like the French) the incidence of obesity and chronic degenerative disease immediately rises.

It is thus in the first world’s interests to stop with the heavy subsidization of grain and corn, to allow third world nations to protect their farm economies from foreign competition and to move, themselves, to an agriculture which produces more highly nutrient dense vegetables and less grains and corn.  This will pay back, in the long run, with lower healthcare costs and a healthier, more producitve population.

And as a side benefit, there will be a lot less farmer suicides.


The Thought Crimes President


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  1. Lex

    A side note that you might find interesting (unfortunately i lost the links):

    Several universities – large and well known for their horticulture/agriculture programs – did yield studies on several GM crops and found that yields were actually lower than conventional crops. (One of the studies did note that magnesium supplements helped raise GM soya yields.) Monsanto at first cried foul and then countered with the argument that the design had never been about raising yields anyhow.

    Funny, that’s not what the advertising says. But it is true. Raising yields would negatively affect the company’s vertically integrated business. More crop from less acreage means fewer seed purchases, fewer herbicide purchases, fewer fertilizer purchases, etc. Monsanto, et. al. are not in the business of feeding the world; they’re out to make a profit.

    I’ll spare you my dissertation length comment on our development model as it relates to agriculture. But i will point out that these same companies spend a lot of time and money combing through the national seed bank and patenting what they find…a despicable act because they have no intellectual activity invested to claim it as property.

  2. When several dozen human beings are slaughtered by terrorists in Mumbai, the American – and Western press – spend weeks treating that subject. But, when hundreds of thousands are driven to suicidial despair, the American media virtually ignores even the most superficial coverage!

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