KSJ Tracker March 11, 2013

Demolishing the myth that Monsanto's engineered crops drove 270,000 Indian farmers to suicide.


Last Friday, the leftist television news program Democracy Now ended its Women's Day broadcast with an interview with Vandana Shiva, identified as an Indian feminist, activist, and thinker and the "author of many books." She talked about the effects on women of what she called "the world's violent economic order," which included, among other things, the sale of genetically engineered cotton seeds to Indian farmers. The transcript includes this comment: 

In India...the collection of royalties from seed has led to Monsanto controlling 95 percent of the cottonseed supply, 95 percent through a monopoly, not through the choice of the farmers, as it’s often made out to be. Farmers are getting indebted because the price of seed jumped 8,000 percent, and there’s no option...

Two hundred and seventy thousand Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. That’s more than a quarter-million. It’s a genocide.

The idea is that indebtedness to Monsanto is driving farmers to suicide--a scandal if true, and one with a claim to be called genocide.

But it isn't true.

Keith Kloor, author of the Collide-a-Scape blog at Discover magazine, notes that of all the myths surrounding genetically modified food, this is the one "that exploits human tragedy and for that reason, I found it so offensive." It was put forward by Prince Charles in 2008 and blown up in the UK by the Daily Mail, Kloor writes, and has "since become part of the GMO discourse, largely unchallenged in the media." And Vandana Shiva, he says, "repeats it every chance she gets."

Kloor points to a story in Canada's National Post that dismantles the Monsanto-killer myth in just a few words:

The issue of farmer suicides first gained media attention in 1995 as the southern state of Maharashtra began reporting a significant rise in farmers killing themselves.

Other states across the country began noticing an increase in farmer suicides as well. But it wasn’t until seven years later — in 2002 — that the U.S.-based agribusiness Monsanto began selling genetically modified cotton seeds, known as Bt cotton, to Indian farmers. 

That's tough to argue with. 

Shiva is not the only one spreading the suicide story. It was also the subject of a 2011 documentary--Bitter Seeds--by Micha Peled, Kloor writes. 

Kloor points to several things, in addition to the National Post story, that question the Monsanto-suicide link. A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute concludes that genetically modified cotton "is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides. In contrast, many other factors have likely played a prominent role." Even in regions where the cotton might have led to heavy farmer indebtedness, the problem "was mainly the result of the context or environment in which it was planted," the authors conclude. (The institute is an international group supported by the World Bank  and supported by more than a dozen nations, including the U.S., the UK, Japan, and India.)

Kloor also links to this talk by Cornell's Ronald J. Herring, a professor of government, who says genetically engineered crops "have lessened, not increased, agrarian distress."

Kloor does an excellent job of collecting the links and demolishing this myth. And we owe him for that.

I have only one comment. I am fully convinced that the link between genetically engineered crops and suicides in India is a myth. But I do think that food companies and scientists have been too quick to shrug off the concerns of people worried about genetically engineered food. This is, indeed, a significant development in agriculture, and researchers owe it to us to study the crops, study how they are used, and to make sure that the transition to these foods occurs without major disruption.

In my view, they have not done this. Too often, what we hear from advocates of genetically engineered foods is that this is the same kind of thing that farmers have been doing for thousands of years--breeding crops to alter and improve them, a kind of genetic manipulation.

But it is not the same thing. Genetic engineering allows far broader kinds of genetic manipulation than farmers could ever have achieved by breeding. One might say that the claim that genetic engineering is identical to crop breeding is itself a myth that should be demolished.

-Paul Raeburn


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