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.


  1. Timothy (likes zebras)

    I might have changed my mind on GM. I always thought it had potential, but was worried about “corporate domination of the food chain”. It’s nice to see that, at least in one case, this worry has been misplaced.

    1. Zak

      It does have potential. Just, it should not be done by corporate industry. It should not seek to change, but to add, and should be run by an independent, non-profit making organisation, and only the farmers should gain. Also, the modified plant should be prevented from breeding with any plant other than plants of the same modified species.

  2. Sam Mason

    Your article makes a mistake I think in relying exclusively on the IFPRI’s stats rather than looking at informed reports rooted in the ground realities in cotton farmer suicide areas. Here’s an analysis that points up the severe limitations of IFPRI’s stats and here’s an excellent piece of investigative journalism from the big cotton growing belt of Vidarbha that shows the difference between IFPRI’s picture on a macro level and the reality on a micro level, when examined farm to farm:

    The findings of that article are consistent with the accounts of others, for example those of P Sainath – the renowned reporter on Indian development issues: that the hyping of expensive Bt cotton seed to poor indebted farmers working rain fed (i.e. non-irrigated) land has often been a disaster.

    Your article also makes a mistake in accepting at face value the claims of reduced pesticide use with Bt cotton, given the reports of severe secondary pest problems with Bt cotton that have emerged in both China and India –, and with even Monsanto acknowledging that resistance to Bt is starting to develop in India. The short-term and long-term pictures turn out to be very different. The work of the anthropologist Glenn Stone also shows the dangers for poor Indian cotton farmers of simplistic assumptions about technological interventions like Bt cotton

  3. Devinder Sharma

    Yes, I agree with the previous comment. You are bound to make a mistake if you rely on IFPRI analysis. IFPRI is an agribusiness lobbying firm masquerading as a research institute.

    IFPRI paper says, according to the author, that Bt cotton has brought down the use of chemical pesticides. This is completely untrue. The Central Cotton Research Institute (CICR) estimates that in 2006 pesticides worth Rs 6400 million were sprayed on cotton. In 2008, it had increased to over Rs 800o million.

    Secondly, do GM crops increase yield, my answer is a big No. I would draw your attention to one of my previous write-ups on this controversial claim.

    Then the legitimate question that follows is that if it does not increase yield than how come the area under Bt cotton has multiplied in India? This is because the seed industry (with help from the government) has ensured that no non-GM cotton seed is available in the market. Non-GM seed has simply disappeared from the market. Since farmers mainly use hybrid cotton (and Bt cotton too is a trait inserted in hybrid cotton varieties) in India, farmers have to buy fresh seed every year. But with no non-GM seed available in the market, they end up buying only bt cotton.

    I know a number of instances where seed companies have through their agents (employed on temporary basis) gone into the villages buying back non-Bt seed from the farmers.

    And finally, the author may also find it useful to read my response to the flawed analysis that Science journal had published several years back on the potential of Bt cotton.

    Devinder Sharma

  4. Paul Kingsnorth

    Sam – ‘informed reports rooted in the ground realities’ are certainly needed here. Ideological propaganda from both sides, as the pros and antis push their worldviews down the throats of farmers, obscures for the rest of us what might be actually going on. It also points up the danger of relying on numbers over and above human stories, so thanks for this shaft of light.

  5. Bella Brown

    I read this IFPRI paper and came to a very different conclusion from the one Mark Lynas reaches. The paper states bluntly that the data is just not available that would enable conclusions about the numbers of Bt cotton farmers who have committed suicide: “None of the reported data sources on farmer suicide provide information about the concerned farmers’ characteristics… In the absence of such data, we can only provide a second-best assessment of the evidence.”

    The IFPRI paper goes on to say there are not even numbers on how many of the Indian farmers who committed suicide grew cotton, let alone Bt cotton, or on how many farmers committed suicide after their crops failed. The IFPRI authors say their findings do not allow them to “reject the potential role of Bt cotton varieties in the observed discrete increase in farmer suicides in certain states and years”.

    However–the lack of proper data doesn’t stop the authors making a valiant attempt to endorse Bt cotton. In the process, they are forced to do quite a bit of ‘creative accounting’–for example, blaming drought rather than Bt cotton for farmer suicides, when it is well known that Bt cotton often performs poorly in drought conditions.

    This IFPRI paper is hardly a resounding endorsement for the success of Bt cotton. I reached the end of it thinking Prince Charles might have been right.

  6. valerie

    we live in a very deceptive world. each side trying to convince the people they are telling the truth. non of which is really truth. at every turn you find that it all comes down to greed on one side and humanity on the other. so in finding your truth it really boils down to what side you are on.

    here’s what i think. when you patent a seed you own that seed and that means you as a farmer are not allowed to save that seed for the next year’s crop. so if that patent seed (and this is a big IF) brings increased yields then you would think you, as a farmer, will make a bigger profit. now if you must use poison to grow that seed, that’s an added cost. if you must purchase next year’s seed, than that’s an added cost. so my conclusion on this matter is who is profitting from the patent seed? in my eyes it is NOT the farmer. in my heart it is NOT the farmer.

    back to bt cotton, IF the yields are so high then why are cotton prices increasing. shouldn’t high yields cause the prices to go down? something is really wrong here. it is time to find out if greed should really rule our world or should humanity become the norm.

  7. Hilary Sutcliffe

    Mark I was persuaded by your article, but reading comments am less persuaded! Do you have a view following the comments?

    I am surprised that so little quality research seems to have gone into such a controversial area.

  8. Mark Lynas (Post author)

    There’s actually more research out there than you think. Take this upcoming paper in the journal Ecological Economics.

    From the abstract:

    “Bt cotton has reduced pesticide applications by 50%, with the largest reductions of 70% occurring in the most toxic types of chemicals. Results of fixed-effects Poisson models confirm that Bt has notably reduced the incidence of acute pesticide poisoning among cotton growers. These effects have become more pronounced with increasing technology adoption rates. Bt cotton now helps to avoid several million cases of pesticide poisoning in India every year, which also entails sizeable health cost savings.”

  9. Jeroen Crappé

    A recent very interesting study on the “failure of bt cotton” is a very interesting article on this subject. It does go into those papers that suggest bt cotton is indeed a failure and explains why these report this failure while most data points to a positive impact of bt cotton on Indias agriculture…

  10. digimaton

    What do you expect? Lynas is a turncoat.

    Why not tell us about Bolguard II and Monsanto’s bio-piracy initiatives in India?

    Maybe one of these days you’ll wake up to the fact that profit always takes precedence over lives – then again, how much are they paying you?

  11. Steve Easterbrook

    That graph looks very dodgy – the kind that climate deniers produce. They’ve cherry picked the first six data points for suicides, and then extrapolated a trend line from them to try and show that the remaining points lie below it. But that’s a completely spurious trend. A much better interpretation of the graph is that the trend has been flat throughout the period for which they have data. And if, as they admit in the paper, that the data just hasn’t been collected consistently, then drawing any kind of graph at all is misleading.

  12. Padraig Hogan

    The mass suicide of farmers in India has always been only a small point in the fight against GMOs. I personally don’t and never did consider it to be good evidence of the dangers and failures of GMOs…. GMOs are causing irreversible damage to the ecosystem and irreversibly wiping out natural foods. If they worked better and the farmers were happy then that would just make the situation much worse.

    The mass suicide of farmers in India, while startling, is not the crux of the matter and certainly not one of the best arguments against GMOs.

    1. Scott

      It has nothing to do with GMO’s. It has to do with “Green Revolution”. If anything GMO’s actually helps the failing conventional method. GMO’s are only a temporary fix, but they will at least give farmers a little time to convert to something sustainable.

  13. G

    I’m undecided on GM, but trusting what just one organisation, the IFPRI says on the number of suicides seems foolish. Are there other organisation collating/analysing data on this which corroborate?


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