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Corporate Agriculture Is to Blame for the Hundreds of Thousands of Farmer Suicides in India

Vandana Shiva says industrial agriculture has left Indian farmers indebted and destitute, and explains how to stem the tide of suicides.

Last month, the world got a glimpse of an epidemic that has hit India in the last decade when news reports alerted readers to the suicides of 1,500 farmers in the Indian state of Chattisgarh.

But this has been only a fraction of the suicides committed by farmers since 1997, says Vandana Shiva, Ph.D., a physicist, environmentalist, feminist, science policy advocate and director of Navdanya and the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.

While initial news reports blamed the recent suicides on falling water levels, Shiva explains that the suicide epidemic in India is a lot more complicated and far-reaching.

"Rapid increase in indebtedness is at the root of farmers' taking their lives," she wrote recently. "Debt is a reflection of a negative economy. Two factors have transformed agriculture from a positive economy into a negative economy for peasants: the rising of costs of production and the falling prices of farm commodities. Both these factors are rooted in the policies of trade liberalization and corporate globalization."

At the heart of this is a circle of indebtedness that has resulted from the so-called Green Revolution, which exported industrial agricultural practices to places like India and in doing so, made seeds, a once-renewable resource for farmers, into something that had be bought from corporations.

"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. ... The shift from saved seed to corporate monopoly of the seed supply also represents a shift from biodiversity to monoculture in agriculture."

In an interview with AlterNet, Shiva explained how Monsanto’s Bt cotton has exemplified what can go wrong with industrial agriculture; what happens to farming communities when traditional farming methods are replaced by corporate sponsored mono-cropping; and how to stem the tide of farmer suicides.

Tara Lohan: Farmer suicides in India recently made the news when stories broke last month about 1,500 farmers taking their own lives, what do you attribute these deaths to?

Vandana Shiva: Over the last decade, 200,000 farmers have committed suicide. The 1,500 figure is for the state of Chattisgarh. In Vidharbha, 4,000 are committing suicide annually. This is the region where 4 million acres of cotton have been grown with Monsanto's Bt cotton. The suicides are a direct result of a debt trap created by ever-increasing costs of seeds and chemicals and constantly falling prices of agricultural produce.

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.

TL: Suicides of Indian farmers unfortunately is not news -- how long has this been a problem, how serious is the problem, what are the underlying causes?

VS: 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.