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 initialnews 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.

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"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.

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.

The government should also impose a moratorium on GMO seeds such as Bt cotton until full independent assessment of its performance in small farmers' fields has been completed. The government should also promote organic farming, since from the perspective of farmers this is the only way to get out of the debt and suicide trap.

At the international level, the world community needs to defend seed as a common good and build a strong movement against seed patents and seed monopolies. People can also contribute to Navdanya's Seeds of Hope Campaign.

To learn more, you can also read Shiva's most recent article on the subject.

Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.