Every 30 Minutes an Indian Farmer Commits Suicide, but Biotech is not to Blame

June 2, 2011 by William Pentland Source: blogs.forbes.com

PickingCotton (65K)
GETTY IMAGES 6 MONTHS AGO
This photo taken on October 23, 2010 shows a worker picking cotton during the harvest season in Hami, in northwest China's Xinjiang region. Cotton prices have pushed up in recent months, so that consumers certainly will face higher prices for clothes, Felix Ebner of the German Textile and Fashion Federation told AFP on November 11, 2010. The high prices are impacted by a drop in production in Pakistan following devastating floods and a severe monsoon season in India.


Over the past 15 years, a scourge of suicides has claimed the lives of an estimated 250,000 farmers in India. And the death count is still climbing, according to a new report by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at New York University.

“On average, one farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes in India,” said Smita Narula, director of the CHRGJ and co-author of the report, “Every Thirty Minutes: Farmer Suicides, Human Rights, and the Agrarian Crisis in India.”

The report, which focuses primarily on small cotton farmers in India, identifies several likely sources and potential solutions to the suicide epidemic in India. In my view, it gets both of these at least partially wrong.

Generally speaking, the report suggests multinational agri-business, market reforms and a ludicrously inadequate policy response to the crisis on the part of the Indian government are among the culprits contributing to the tragedy.

While structural market reforms and ineffective government policy clearly has contributed to the suicide epidemic, the claim that multinational companies bear at least part of the blame for these tragedies not only flies in the face of the evidence but is also likely to have perverse consequences.

The analysis suggests that foreign multinational corporations promoting genetically modified cottonseed in India are impinging on the rights of small farmers in India.

[T]he opening of Indian agriculture to the global market and the increasing role of multinational agribusiness giants in cotton production have increased costs, while reducing yields and profits for many farmers, to the point of great financial and emotional distress.

The report singles out Monsanto, a biotechnology and life sciences company based in St. Louis, Mo., as an example of multinational misconduct. [Disclosure: my mother once worked for Monsanto].

Bt cotton seeds are genetically modified to produce an insecticide that kills Bollworm, a common cotton pest in India. In 2002, the government of India allowed Monsanto to start selling Bt cotton to farmers in India. In the years since, Bt cotton has pervaded cotton farming in India.

As CHRGJ sees it, the problem is this:

Farmers take out loans to purchase the [Bt cotton] seeds, but when the crop fails due to lack of access to water, they often fall into debt. Many kill themselves by consuming the very pesticide they went into debt to purchase.

Bt cotton bears at least partially blame for these tragedies, according to CHRGJ, because it is more water intensive than other cotton seeds. The report cites studies showing that “Bt cotton performs better under irrigated conditions.”

In 2006, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India evaluated the performance of Bt cotton in India based on a survey of Bt cotton farmers and agricultural data. The final study concluded that the yields obtained with irrigation are typically higher than those without irrigation, but that:

in all cases, the yields of Bt cotton are higher than the yields of Non-Bt cotton . . . The results indicate a sizeable impact of Bt cotton on the yield and value of output under both irrigated and unirrigated conditions.

This finding is corroborated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Long-term Agricultural Projections for last year, which described the impact Bt cotton has had on cotton yields in India:

Improved cotton yields in India, largely due to the adoption of hybrid cotton containing the Bt gene, have raised India’s production and exports in recent years. Yield growth is projected to continue as the area planted to hybrid cotton expands and cultivation practices improve. The increase in cotton output is expected to enable India to increase domestic textile production and exports. Its export volume has already surpassed those of Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, and it is expected to maintain this rank throughout the forecast period.

Water-Required (15K)

In any event, it should not come as a huge surprise to most cotton farmers that access to water is essential to crop performance. Cotton is an especially thirsty plant. It can take more than 25,000 liters of water to produce a single kilogram of cotton. To put this in perspective, it takes only 500 liters of water to produce a kilogram of potatoes.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s cotton harvest comes from irrigated land, according to the World Wildlife Foundation‘s report “The Impact of Cotton on Freshwater Resources and Ecosystems.” Other than Brazil and Mali, cultivating cotton in non-irrigated fields is a gamble.

Ironically, the same multinationals the report vilifies as merchants of death are also the most likely to restore hope and prosperity to small farmers in India – and other arid regions of the world. Despite what many may believe, most companies – agribusiness included – prefer to keep their customers alive and prosperous.

In the process of building a case against Big Ag for human-rights violations in India, the report recklessly overlooks the possibility that these same companies may deliver the problems they’ve allegedly created in the near-term future.

For example, Monsanto, recently developed the first biotech drought solution – a drought-tolerant genetic trait for agricultural crops. The technology will enhance crop yields when water is limited.

The trait is one of the first technologies developed as part of a research collaboration between Monsanto and BASF, a chemicals giant based in Germany. The collaboration is pioneering a suite of “stress traits” that will improve crop yields under water stress and other tough environmental conditions.

Unlike reversing market reforms or ratcheting up regulatory oversight of multinational corporations, promoting more aggressive innovation in the field of sustainable agriculture is politically feasible and far less likely to have adverse – albeit unintended – consequences.

In a recent report called “The Future of Food and Farming,” the U.K. government emphasized that supporting aggressive innovation in the field of sustainable agriculture is the only way to ensure the world has the technical wherewithal to “simultaneously raise yields, increase the efficiency with which inputs are used and reduce the negative environmental effects of food production.”

 

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