Seeds of Discontent


Seeds are a critical input for long-term sustained growth of agriculture. In India, more than four-fifths of farmers rely on farm-saved seeds leading to a low seed replacement rate.

Missouri, USA-based Monsanto Company is a Fortune 500 multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation and the world’s leading producer of herbicide glyphosate. The industrial giant is also the second largest producer of genetically engineered (GE) seed; selling half of all such seeds used in the US. It also pioneered the production of saccharin and aspartame and high-precision LEDs, but it was its manufacture of the pesticide DDT and the infamous Vietnam war defoliant Agent Orange that earned it bad press worldwide. In India, its genetically engineered cotton hybrid Bt Cotton resists insects and raises cotton output but has also got the company’s name embroiled in raging controversies of farm ruin and desperate suicides.

In a recent article in the authoritative journal, The Economic and Political Weekly, Ronald Herring, professor at Cornell University, USA, and  Chandrasekhara Rao of Hyderabad’s Centre for Economic and Social Studies, have written extensively about Bt Cotton and its role in India’s agriculture. In the article called “On the Failure of Bt Cotton,” the economists have analysed a decade of experience with the genetically modified cotton. They say there are two issues with Bt Cotton: one agronomic, and the other one economic. The early seeds in India had a gene from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis—it made the plant resistant to insects and also gave the seed its first two letters—Bt. Its critics say the water-guzzling variety is much costlier than the unmodified cotton. Proponents say the seeds cost more, but pesticide costs decline. Its opponents say Bt technology lowers rather than raises on-farm yields and its adoption drives farmers into debt because of high seed prices and agronomic failure, often resulting in catastrophe.

Herring and Rao quoted a study sponsored by the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) that buttresses Monsanto’s argument that its flagship hybrid cotton seed raises output. The study analysed 22 field studies, covering nearly 13,000 farming plots, and found that net returns from Bt Cotton farming increased by more than 53 per cent in comparison with non-Bt fields. The reasons: pesticide use went down by one-third, bringing pesticide cost down 46 per cent. As a result, yields increased by nearly by 40 per cent. Undoubtedly, the cost of cultivation went up by 15 per cent, but better yields brought in higher net incomes for farmers, said the article. The authors also said that there are regional differences in the distress reports—the most detailed often come from Andhra Pradesh. “No studies known to us reported failure in Gujarat, where the making of transgenic cotton hybrids became a rural cottage industry—albeit an illegal one,” said the authors. Bt Cotton technology has been available legally since 2002, and illegally since 1999; “if it is failing, would we not see massive dis-adoption—not of specific cultivars, but of Bt technology itself?” Even in Andhra Pradesh, as early as in 2005, there was such a rush for Bt Cotton, armed police had to keep charged crowds of farmers from turning violent during sale events.

However, the district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region figure prominently in the context of farmer suicides, particularly in the book “Seeds of Suicide”. In an article in the online news magazine The Huffington Post, Shiva had written in 2009: “Rapid increase in indebtedness is at the root of farmers taking their lives. 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 costs of production and the falling prices of farm commodities.”

Shiva does not mince her words in fixing responsibility: “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. The global corporations changed the input economy overnight. Farm saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds, which need fertilisers and pesticides and cannot be saved… The district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh used to grow diverse legumes, millets, and oilseeds. Now the imposition of cotton monocultures has led to the loss of the wealth of farmer’s breeding and nature’s evolution.”

In a damning indictment of Monsanto’s meddling with India’s agriculture and farmers’ lives, Shiva said: “The region in India with the highest level of farmers suicides is the Vidharbha region in Maharashtra—4,000 suicides per year, 10 per day. This is also the region with the highest acreage of Monsanto’s Bt Cotton. The seeds create a suicide economy by transforming seed from a renewable resource to a non-renewable input, which must be bought every year at high prices. Cotton seed used to cost 7 a kg. Bt Cotton seeds were sold at 17,000 a kg. Indigenous cotton varieties can be intercropped with food crops. Bt Cotton can only be grown as a monoculture. Indigenous cotton is rain fed. Bt Cotton needs irrigation. Indigenous varieties are pest resistant. Bt Cotton, even though promoted as resistant to the boll worm, has created new pests, and to control these new pests, farmers are using 13 times more pesticides than they were using before. And finally, Monsanto sells its GMO seeds on fraudulent claims of yields of 1.5 tonnes per year when farmers harvest 300-400 kg per year, on an average. High costs and unreliable output make for a debt trap, and a suicide economy.”

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