GM cotton: suicide seeds?

A friendly correspondent posted this Daily Mail article on my Facebook profile, under the sarcastic title ‘Another massive success for GM crops!’. At first sight, it looks pretty damning – the Mail’s correspondent writes about the despair of two children whose father has committed suicide, and how this is due to debts accrued by farmers forced to plant genetically-modified cotton.

A farmer and child in India’s ‘suicide belt’: (c) Daily Mail

There were still marks in the dust where he had writhed in agony. Other villagers looked on – they knew from experience that any intervention was pointless – as he lay doubled up on the ground, crying out in pain and vomiting.

Moaning, he crawled on to a bench outside his simple home 100 miles from Nagpur in central India. An hour later, he stopped making any noise. Then he stopped breathing. At 5pm on Sunday, the life of Shankara Mandaukar came to an end.

As neighbours gathered to pray outside the family home, Nirmala Mandaukar, 50, told how she rushed back from the fields to find her husband dead. ‘He was a loving and caring man,’ she said, weeping quietly.

Shocking stuff. And there is no doubt about the blame:

Beguiled by the promise of future riches, he borrowed money in order to buy the GM seeds. But when the harvests failed, he was left with spiralling debts – and no income.

So Shankara became one of an estimated 125,000 farmers to take their own life as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops.

The crisis, branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners, was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed that the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and the time had come to end its unstoppable march.

Case closed? Not quite. I decided to do a bit of research find out the statistics on farmer suicides in India to try to establish if the connection is really as strong as the Daily Mail and Prince Charles assert, echoing the words of Indian campaigners like Vandana Shiva, who wrote recently:

The region in India with the highest level of farmers suicides is the Vidharbha region in Maharashtra — 4000 suicides per year, 10 per day. This is also the region with the highest acreage of Monsanto’s GMO Bt cotton. Monsanto’s GM seeds create a suicide economy by transforming seed from a renewable resource to a non-renewable input which must be bought every year at high prices.

Green campaigners around the world have echoed these sentiments, asserting that farmers are better served with traditional varieties planted organically. But the more rigorous research I found suggested that the opposite is true – and that GM cotton has brought immense benefits to Indian farmers.

According to a paper (pdf) by Guillaume Gruère, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt and Debdatta Sengupta of the prestigious International Food Policy Research Institute, the facts tell a very different story. They conclude instead that:

…there is no evidence in available data of a “resurgence” of farmer suicides in India in the last five years [and] Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India.

So let’s look at some statistics from the paper. This graph in particular jumped out at me.

Farmer suicides and GM cotton

Look at the lines. The trend on farmer suicides is stable, and even drops a little after the widespread adoption of genetically-engineered Bt cotton in 2002. So whilst some farmers are still tragically committing suicide, there is no evidence of a correlation between the two trends.

Anti-GM activists have asserted that the use of Bt cotton – which is genetically engineered with a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensisto suppress cotton bollworms and other pests – actually leads to an increase in the use of insecticides. The reverse seems to be true in India, as one would expect: GM cotton, because it expresses its own pesticide within its tissues, does not need to be sprayed so often. Farmers benefit twice over – they have to spend less on pesticides, and they are less exposed to toxins in the field.

The IFPRI paper confirms both that pesticide use has dropped, and that yields have risen thanks to Bt cotton. This has led to substantial income gains for farmers, and benefits overall to rural societies. The assertion by green activists that farmers in India and elsewhere have been ‘forced’ or conned into adopting GM technologies is not borne out by real-world experience. Farmers plant Monsanto’s new seeds – which certainly cost more than the traditional varieties – because they return higher yields.

There is no doubt that the phenomenon of farmer suicides in India is a real phenomenon that is both persistent and tragic. But so is any suicide, of course, and suicide rates vary between countries for many different social reasons, which are not completely understood. It is certainly not the case that there is an ‘epidemic’ of farmer suicides in India, as the following graph shows:


This shows that the level of overall suicides is increasing (partly along with population growth) but that the propotion of farmer suicides is roughly level. To go back to the Daily Mail article that began this post, it seems to me morally questionable for anti-GM activists to manipulate the emotional trauma suffered by bereaved families in the service of their  ideological campaigns.

Most of the anti-GM talking points I have come across are little better than urban myths, united by an overarching conspiracy theory about corporate domination of the food chain. The case study of Bt cotton in India is one of the more persistent myths, but it is a myth nonetheless.

© Mark Lynas
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