GM Cotton is not killing Indian farmers, nor is it saving them

Farmers examine cotton for insects.
Farmers examine cotton for insects.
Farmers in India examine cotton for insects.
S. Jayaraj

The suicides of farmers in India are once again making headlines. Hailstorms and rain have damaged crops for millions of farmers in India, adding to the hardship caused by erratic weather patterns.

Debt concerns have driven nearly 60 farmers to commit suicide in the past month, say advocacy groups. As usually happens, the reports of suicides are followed by claims that the culprit is a genetically modified form of cotton called BT cotton. The finger of blame is often pointed at the agriculture giant Monsanto, creator of the Bt cotton seed.

“Monsanto’s seed monopolies, the destruction of alternatives, the collection of superprofits in the form of royalties, and the increasing vulnerability of monocultures has created a context for debt, suicides and agrarian distress which is driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in India,” writes Indian activist and Vandana Shiva. “This systemic control has been intensified with Bt cotton. That is why most suicides are in the cotton belt.”

Problem is that the argument made by Shiva and others does not stand up to the available evidence.

Developed to fend off pests, Bt cotton produces a natural insecticide that kills off the bugs and insects that eat the cotton. The genetically modified plants thus require less pesticides to keep the plants healthy. It was officially introduced in India in 2002 and is now the leading strain of cotton seed in the country.

It’s success has been met with sharp criticism. Monsanto’s strong policies that patent and protect its technologies are said to be harsh and harmful to farmers. The company has been accused of using its financial power to strong arm sellers and farmers alike. It is in many ways deserving of the public scrutiny.

There have also surfaced reports that Bt cotton was not living up to what its maker claimed. The story goes: farmers who are wracked by debt caused by the expensive seeds and poor yields are driven to suicide as the only way to protect their families and avoid debt. Reports claimed that suicides were suddenly taking place at rates much higher than before.

With suicide rates supposedly rising and Bt cotton blamed for creating debt, the conclusion that the two were linked was made in news stories and by activists.

While suicides may have been increasing during the period shortly after the introduction of Bt cotton, the upward trend went as far back as 1996. Further, the male farmer suicide rate has declined since 2005. Female suicide rates have continued to fall the entire time. The research was published in the British journal The Lancet in 2012.

By comparing suicide rates of farmers and non-farmers in the top cotton-growing states of India, the team found that non-farmers were killing themselves at higher rates than farmers in six of the states. The average of the states showed close numbers for suicides between the men who farmed and the men who didn’t.

“The high suicide rates in south India might therefore be partly attributable to a combination of prevalent suicidal thinking or planning and social acceptance of suicide as a method to deal with difficulties, combined with ready access to highly lethal pesticides,” conclude the researchers.

The problem of suicide in India has garnered little public health attention. The Lancet study authors believe it is more deserving, arguing that laws regarding alcohol and tobacco are in reaction to health problems caused by the abuse of the products. Another study published in the Journal of Development Studies also found little connection between Bt cotton and farmer suicides.

Though it does state that the cotton may have indirectly impacted the indebtedness of farmers who then took their own lives. The problem is less the cotton itself, than environmental factors. All of which points to the fact that debt and the stresses of poverty are what is contributing to farmer suicides. While poverty persists, the inability of families to deal with problems like poor rains and hail will push them to the brink.

Bt Cotton has not caused the suicide of farmers in India. Despite leading to improved productivity, the cotton has also not helped create the financial security for farmers, as was claimed. With that out of the way, we can return our focus on understanding just how people leave poverty for good and what can be done (or not) about that.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.