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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.

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TL: You said that 200,000 farmers have ended their lives since 1997 -- where does that statistic come from? Are there numbers to compare suicide rates for farmers pre-Green Revolution with the numbers we are seeing today?

VS: The statistics on farmers suicides are kept by the National Crime Bureau. Since there were no large-scale suicides prior to 1997, the statistics was not maintained before that. The combination of the spread of nonrenewable seeds and globalized trade has triggered the epidemic of suicides.

TL: What role does water and water management play in the problems Indian farmers are facing?

VS: India is a land of varied climates, from rainforests to deserts. Seventy percent of Indian farming is rain-fed (dependent on rain not irrigation). Introducing inappropriate crops and cropping patterns has aggravated the water crisis and precipitated more frequent crop failure. Ecological agriculture needs 10 times less water than chemical farming. Green Revolution varieties, hybrids and GM crops are all bred for irrigation. On the one hand, this puts pressure on farmers in low-rainfall zones to drill tube wells, which fail -- on the other hand, it leads to more frequent crop failure.

TL: How has the Green Revolution changed things for farmers? Is the most significant change in the ownership of seeds by corporations?

VS: The Green Revolution was the name given to the introduction of chemical/industrial farming in India in 1965-66 under the pressure of the U.S. government and World Bank. The Green Revolution was based on seeds bred for responding to chemical inputs. Companies made money from sale of agrichemicals, the seeds were in the public domain.

Genetic engineering is often called the second Green Revolution. Now, the seeds are owned by corporations through intellectual property rights. This leads to a very drastic change in how farming is done and who controls decisions in agriculture.

TL: How have companies like Monsanto, Cargill and others created what you call a "suicide economy" for farmers?

VS: Monsanto's contribution to the suicide economy is by extracting super profits from farmers in the form of royalties and by intentionally transforming seeds from a renewable resource that farmers can save to a nonrenewable resource that they must buy in the market every year. Monsanto had a big role in shaping the TRIPs agreement [on intellectual property] of WTO.

Cargill's contribution to the suicide economy is as the biggest controller of agricultural trade. Cargill was responsible for the Agreement on Agriculture, which has promoted dumping and denying farmers of the Third World their right to fair prices.

TL: Is there a particular area of the country that has been hardest hit? Which are the worst off and what are they growing? Are other areas more successful and if so, why?

VS: The worst-hit suicide areas of the country are Vidharbha, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka. These are also the cotton-growing areas, and these are the areas where Monsanto has established a monopoly on seed supply through Bt cotton. Areas where farmers have their own seed, where they are growing diversity of food crops and are practicing organic farming are areas free of debt and farmers suicides.

Navdanya has started a seeds-of-hope program in the suicide belt of Vidharbha. Creating seed banks, training farmers in organic agriculture and helping farmers with fair trade has helped farmers increase their incomes tenfold compared to farmers growing Bt cotton.

TL: What should the government of India be doing, and what can the world community do?

VS: The government of India should be playing a major role in public seed supply. Before Monsanto's entry, 80 percent of the seed used to come from farmers' own fields, and 20 percent came from government seed farms. Under privatization, government seed breeding has been wiped out. Seed is a public and common good, and hence seeds should stay in the hands of farming communities and public-sector institutions.