23 November 2014

NEW DELHI - An epidemic of farmers' suicides has spread across four Indian states - Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Punjab - over the last decade. According to official data, more than 160,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1997.

These suicides are most frequent where farmers grow cotton, and appear directly linked to the presence of seed monopolies. For the supply of cotton seeds in India has increasingly slipped out of the hands of farmers and into the hands of global seed producers like Monsanto. These giant corporations have begun to control local seed companies through buyouts, joint ventures, and licensing arrangements, leading to seed monopolies.

When this happens, seed is transformed from being a common good into being the "intellectual property" of companies such as Monsanto, for which the corporation can claim limitless profits through royalty payments. For farmers, this means deeper debt.

Seed is also transformed in this way from being a renewable regenerative resource into a non-renewable resource and commodity. Seed scarcity is directly caused by seed monopolies, which have as their ultimate weapon a "terminator" seed that is engineered for sterility. This means that farmers can't renew their own supply but must return to the monopolist for new seed each planting season. For farmers, this means higher costs; for seed corporations, higher profits.

The creation of seed monopolies is based on the deregulation of seed corporations, including giving them oversight over bio-safety. With the coming of globalization, seed companies were allowed to sell seeds for which the companies had certified their safety. In the case of genetically engineered seed, these companies are again seeking self-regulation for bio-safety.

State regulation does continue to exist where seeds are concerned, but nowadays it is aimed at farmers, who are being pushed into dependency on patented, corporate seed. Such compulsory licensing is a big cause of the global destruction of biodiversity. The creation of seed monopolies, and with them crushing debts to a new species of moneylender - the agents of the seed and chemical companies - has taken a high human toll as well.

The farm suicides first started in the district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. Peasants in Warangal used to grow millets, pulses, and oilseeds. Overnight, Warangal was converted to a cotton-growing district based on non-renewable hybrids that require irrigation and are prone to pest attacks. Small peasants without capital were trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. Some saw only one way out.

This was a period when Monsanto and its Indian partner, Mahyco, were also carrying out illegal field experiments with genetically engineered Bt cotton. All imports and field trials of genetically engineered organisms in India are governed by a provision of the Environment Protection Act called the "Rules for the Manufacture Use, Import, Export, and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms, or Cells." We at the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology used the law to stop Monsanto's commercialization of Bt cotton in 1999, which is why approval was not granted for commercial sales until 2002.

Rising production costs and falling prices for their products is a recipe for indebtedness, and debt is the main cause of farmers' suicides. This is why the suicides are most prevalent in the cotton belt on which the seed industries' claim is rapidly becoming a stranglehold.

At the start, the technology for engineering Bt genes into cotton was aimed primarily at controlling pests. However, new pests have emerged in Bt cotton, leading to higher use of pesticides. In the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra, which has the highest number of suicides, the area under Bt cotton has increased from 0.2 million hectares in 2004 to 2.88 million hectares in 2007. The cost of pesticides for farmers has increased 13-fold in the same period.

A pest control technology that fails to control pests might be good for seed corporations that are also agrichemical corporations. For farmers, it translates into suicide.

Technologies are tools. When the tool fails, it needs to be replaced. Bt cotton technology has failed to control pests or secure farmers lives and livelihoods. It is time to replace GM technology with ecological farming. It is time to stop the killing.

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© 2009 Project Syndicate. Vandana Shiva is an Indian feminist and environmental activist. She is the founder/director of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology.