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Anyone who follows the genetically modified organism (GMO) debate has probably heard the claim that GMO crops, and specifically the inability to save seed and other associated production costs, have lead Indian farmers deep into debt, and a large number of farmer suicides in India.

The claim is explained in detail here:

The crisis of suicides shows how the survival of small farmers is incompatible with the seed monopolies of global corporations.

I have heard the claim referenced and explained many times.

Today I saw it disputed, but in an opinion piece with few facts.

Is there sufficient evidence that patented, bio-engineered crops, and their associated farming costs, have raised debt among Indian farmers, and subsequently lead to farmer suicides?


EDIT

There are many specific claims made by the article. The key claims, which I think ought to be addressed are:

  1. Using the new seeds has increased production cost, thus increasing debt.

    Cotton seed used to cost Rs 7/kg. Bt-cotton seeds were sold at Rs 17,000/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 then they were using prior to introduction of Bt-cotton.

  2. The new seeds, specifically Monsanto Bt Cotton, routinely does not perform as promised, thus reducing profits, often resulting in negative profits, and ultimately, greater poverty.

    Monsanto ... claims of yields of 1500/kg/year when farmers harvest 300-400 kg/year on an average.

    Instead of incomes of 10,000 rupees an acre, farmers ran into losses of 6,400 rupees an acre.

  3. These factors increase farmer suicide.

    High costs and unreliable output make for a debt trap, and a suicide economy.

  • I think that is too many claims. As Sancho's (current version of an) answer shows, you can answer this question without addressing all those points. I suggest separate questions if you want those points looked at. – Oddthinking Sep 26 '13 at 20:37
5

There is no increase in suicides

The article assumes there is such a thing as a "suicide economy", and that suicides have increased since the introduction of GM seeds. This was reviewed by The Guardian in 2008 , Indian farmer suicides not GM related, says study:

[S]uicides among farmers have been decreasing since the introduction of GM cotton by Monsanto in 2002.

And from the summary of the the original publication (full text here) Bt Cotton and farmer suicides in India:

We first show that there is no evidence in available data of a “resurgence” of farmer suicides in India in the last five years.

  • "This may be...", not "This is...". You've given no evidence for 3. (that farmers aren't at all "forced" to buy GMO seeds), nor for 4. (that it's a non-sequitur), nor given an alternate explanation (if it's not because of the seeds, then what /is/ the cause of the alleged increase in farmers' debts and/or suicides). All you've done is stated that this may be a logical fallacy, and complained that the article doesn't cite references. Perhaps I understand being skeptical of the claim; but, isn't it too easy to reply to any question, "This may be false and the article doesn't prove its case"? – ChrisW Sep 26 '13 at 17:24
  • @ChrisW It is a non-sequitur because the form of the argument is: A. B. C. Therefore D.. – user5582 Sep 26 '13 at 17:27
  • "Do you want me to link to a source showing that traditional seeds are available for purchase?" - Well, that might help: any data which provides some insight into the reality of the situation, instead of trying to dismiss it from a theoretical/rhetorical point of view. – ChrisW Sep 26 '13 at 17:35
  • "so does the article" The article says other things too: for example it blames crop failures, "as diverse seeds adapted to diverse to eco-systems are replaced by the rushed introduction of uniform and often untested seeds into the market" and "when farm-saved corn seed was displaced by Monsanto's hybrid corn, the entire crop failed". – ChrisW Sep 26 '13 at 17:38
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    IMO the article argues that suicide is caused by poverty; that poverty is caused (partly) by crop failure and increased production costs (the other cause being a fall in the price at which they can sell their crops); and that crop failure and increased production costs are caused by using the new seeds. – ChrisW Sep 26 '13 at 18:02
2

3. These factors increase farmer suicide

That may be some truth to that; but it's not entirely fair to blame it on "GMO" crops, because:

  • The evidence is that Bt cotton generally (i.e. on average) performs better than non-Bt cotton
  • When and where Bt cotton crops failed, that was not the fault of the Bt trait (it was more caused by inexperience with using it, per this answer)
  • Statistics don't show a strong correlation between suicides and the Bt cotton: as follows.

The article referenced in the OP says,

The region in India with the highest level of farmers suicides is the Vidharbha region in Maharashtra -- 4000 suicides per year, 10 per day. This is also the region with the highest acreage of Monsanto's GMO Bt cotton. Monsanto's GM 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.

The Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India article (the same as already referenced in other answers) says, about the Maharashtra state,

enter image description here

For Maharashtra, the combination of suicide and adoption rates leads to similar conclusions (Figure 12). Maharashtra tends to be a good proxy for what happens at the aggregate national level, notably because of its important cotton sector. Figure 12 clearly shows that the growth in farm suicides in this state started much before Bt cotton and actually slowed down in the years after the introduction of Bt cotton. Even the relative peaks in suicides observed in 2004 and then in 2006 lie under the projected trend line from 1997–2002. Overall, at this level of analysis, all other things being equal, it is clear that the overall adoption of this technology was not a driver of suicide growth; in fact it may even have helped slow the process.

The data shows that suicides have been increasing, and continued to increase (slightly) after the introduction of Bt cotton; but, that the rate of increase has slowed.

Vandana Shiva, who is the author of the article cited in the OP, ends the article with a recommendation:

The suicide economy is not an inevitability. Navdanya has started a Seeds of Hope campaign to stop farmers suicides. The transition from seeds of suicide to seeds of hope includes :

· a shift from GMO and non renewable seeds to organic, open pollinated seed varieties which farmers can save and share.

· a shift from chemical farming to organic farming.

· a shift from unfair trade based on false prices to fair trade based on real and just prices.

The farmers who have made this shift are earning 10 times more than the farmers growing Monsanto's Bt-cotton.

In Navdanya : An Overview it says,

Navdanya has trained about 500,000 farmers, conserved 3,000 varieties of rice.

Navdanya's seed bank in the farm at Dehradun preserves 500 land races of paddy, 150 land races of wheat, 11 land races of barley, 5 varieties of barnyard millet, 10 varieties of oats, 6 varieties of finger millet, 3 varieties of foxtail millet and 7 varieties of mustard.

Biodiversity Conservation

Till date Navdanya's conservation farm has protected 12 genera of cereals and millets, 16 genera of legumes and plants, 50 genera of vegetables, 7 genera of oil yielding plants, 13 genera of spices and condiments, 20 genera of aromatic plants, 54 genera of fruit and flower yielding plants and 250 genera of ornamental, timber and medicinal plants.

And on its home page it says,

Navdanya has helped set up 111 community seed banks across the country, trained over 5,00,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades, and helped setup the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in the country.

So, apparently Navdanya advocates that farmers should grow various foods. If "they should grow food instead of Bt cotton" is true, the main point would be that it should be instead of cotton not instead of GMO.

I understand there are arguments for food sovereignty and fair trade, perhaps even for organic agriculture.

However, her writing a polemic against (specifically) GMO instead of against (more broadly):

  • Monocultures
  • Practices which require (borrowed) money or large capital investments (e.g. for irrigation) as their input
  • Crops which have variable/risky rates of return (e.g. water-dependent cotton in areas which rely on rain instead of having artificial irrigation)

... may be doing her argument a disservice: because, the mere fact that it's GMO doesn't seem to be the villain in this story. For example the question posed in the OP, and Sancho's answer to it, fixate on the question of "GMO crops". But the article is actually talking about a different time-line, for example:

  • 200,000 farmers have ended their lives since 1997.

  • 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.

  • 1593 farmers committed suicide in Chattisgarh in 2007. Before 2000 no farmers suicides are reported in the state.

Bt cotton wasn't started to be introduced until 2002.

Some of what she said is supported by the article, for example my highlights in the following fragment:

Monocultures and uniformity increase the risk of crop failure, as diverse seeds adapted to diverse to eco-systems are replaced by the rushed introduction of uniform and often untested seeds into the market. When Monsanto first introduced Bt Cotton in 2002, the farmers lost 1 billion rupees due to crop failure.

However, those are temporary problems. At best, the truth of what she's saying against GMO in general (i.e., not temporary problems) may lie in some of her other allegations (which I haven't disproven): for example that GMO cotton can only be grown as a monoculture and precludes diversity -- not simply "diversity of cotton varieties" (there are many varieties of cotton with the Bt trait), but "diversity of crops" including non-cotton food-stuffs.

The cited claim, though, may be true:

High costs and unreliable output make for a debt trap, and a suicide economy.

Although Bt cotton improves the average profit of cotton farming, it may not be suitable for farmers who must borrow money to afford it, and who can't afford/survive occasional years of losses.

Some of her other allegations may also be true: for example, complaining about cotton subsidies in the USA ... but again, that's not specifically to do with GMO.

3

2. The new seeds, specifically Monsanto Bt Cotton, routinely does not perform as promised

According to Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India - Reviewing the Evidence (referenced in Sancho's answer):

Second, we find that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. However, the context in which Bt cotton was introduced has generated disappointing results in some particular districts and seasons.

The following implies that high-efficiency cotton production may be difficult for small or poor farmers:

Table 5 shows the evolution of yield levels in India over time; according to these official data, the productivity growth in cotton has been rather slow in India for the last 50 years, and the yield level remained far below the global average in 2003.

This significant yield gap is due to various factors, including a lack of irrigation facilities, pest problems, and factors characterized by small-scale and resource-poor farming systems. In India, most of the cotton is cultivated under rain-fed condition (Sundaram et al. 1999). Thus the variability in yields is largely dependent on the monsoon. Another major factor is infestations of pests, especially the American bollworm, which attack cotton plants at various stages of their life cycle.

It also states that spending on pesticides is a "large expenditure":

This implies that farmers have to incur large expenditures on pesticides every year. Figure 6, which give the pesticide consumption by different crops, shows that cotton consumes about 45 percent of pesticides used in Indian agriculture (Choudhary and Laroia 2001).

It gives several reasons why performance of Bt cotton was disappointing in some regions.

Counterfeit seeds

The first issue is the widespread distribution and use of spurious seeds. Inclusive of the technology fee, in the absence of regulations, Bt cotton (hybrid) seeds were initially sold at a price equal to five times that of the local hybrid varieties. Bt cottonseeds initially cost about 1,650 rupees (Rs) for a 450-gram packet, compared with Rs 300 for a 450-gram packet for the local hybrid variety DCH32 (Acharya 2006). This prompted a booming market for spurious seeds, which were sold at much lower prices. However, these seeds were mostly a mix of Bt and non-Bt cotton as well as seeds of unapproved varieties. Mostly sold by local traders, the seeds were targeted to farmers trying to save on seed costs. The germination rate of these seeds was inconsistent and often resulted in crop loss and disappointment for many farmers.

Lack of formal training and lack of local experience

The lack of agriculture extension and dissemination of knowledge about these new varieties from the government has left farmers solely dependent on the companies for information regarding these varieties (SEMC 2007). The spreading adoption of Bt cotton has been driven mainly by demonstrations from farmers who have had success cultivating it (Ministry of Environment and Forests 2003a). Very few agriculture extension services were provided and were located in distant places (Rao and Suri 2006). The seed and fertilizer company agents have been the sole interface between the technology and the farmers 16 (Shridhar 2006). Faced with choosing among the numerous brands of Bt cottonseeds released between 2004 and 2005, farmers were practically gambling on the seed they used (Stone 2007).

Sub-optimal use of pesticides

Third, the high use of pesticides even with Bt cotton seems to have played a role (SEMC 2007). Cotton has been the crop most dependent on pesticides in India. It is cultivated in only 5 percent of the area but receives 45 percent of the pesticides used in India, pesticides account for 42–50 percent of the total cost of cultivation (Shetty 2004). The higher price paid for Bt cottonseeds is justified by the reduction in pesticide use since the plants themselves guard against bollworms. But this does not mean a total elimination of pesticide sprays. To have maximum yield results from Bt cotton, pesticide sprays should be optimized and targeted to the secondary pests that used to be covered by the wide-spectrum pesticides used before Bt cotton. However, farmers, lacking knowledge about the requirements for Bt cotton, followed their own spraying schedules. In a survey of farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat, Shetty (2004) found that farmers in Guntur and Warrangal districts sprayed cotton 20 to 30 times, when the optimum required was only 15 times. This indiscriminate spraying led to development of resistance in the bollworm and hence pest infestation returned, lowering the yield from Bt cotton in these regions. The survey also revealed that farmers changed pesticide types and doses to combat the development of resistance among bollworms (Shetty 2004). However, the situation has improved according to a more recent report (ASSOCHAMIMRB 2007), showing that Bt cotton farmers have largely reduced pesticide consumption, compared with conventional hybrids

Insufficient variety

The loss observed in some studies is largely due to the lack of adequate Bt varieties (particularly for rainfed conditions under drought),

Unreasonable expectations

the lower quality of cotton with some of these varieties, the high price of seeds compensating for the reduction in pesticide costs, and the improper use of the technology associated with the limited knowledge of the technology among cotton growers (for example, use of the wrong variety, improper pesticide use, and the perception of Bt as a “silver bullet”)

However it says that the Genetic Modification itself is beneficial; and the problems (as listed above) are in the way in which their use is implemented:

In other words, the technology, represented by the Bt trait, should not be blamed, instead, the conditions in which it was introduced, sold, and used explain some of the observed losses in specific regions of India.4 At the same time, taken together, these later studies show that despite all these constraints, on average, a large majority of Indian farmers gained significantly by adopting Bt cotton varieties in most locations and seasons.

They warn that there are various problems with their studies or conclusions:

Lastly, the controversy has been fueled by the lack of consistent public information on the performance of Bt cotton (SEMC 2007). Many studies have been published by various institutes and cited one after the other by the media or selectively by opponents or proponents to Bt cotton. However, there has been no visible public effort toward a comprehensive and synthetic assessment of the effects of Bt cotton in the field.

and:

Because adoption is a nonrandomized process, Bt cotton adopters may be more productive farmers than nonadopters, and neglecting this fact could result in overestimating the actual net effect of Bt cotton compared with non-Bt cotton.

IMO their conclusion is that Bt is of net average benefit, but that there have been some problems in some areas, due to inexperience etc.

"Bt" is (if I understand the article correctly) not a single type of seed: rather it's a genetic modification applied to many varieties of seeds. So part of the problem (and part of the solution) is choosing the right Bt seed for the diverse environments:

Another factor, which has helped the sale of spurious seeds, is the confusion related to the large release of approved Bt cotton varieties by the government of India in recent years. In the summer of 2007, there were 135 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids approved by the GEAC. This figure is up from 62 approved varieties in 2006 and 20 in 2005. The new varieties are available for sale in one or more of the six originally approved states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, along with three new states of Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan (as shown in Appendix Table A.1).

  • This appears to be addressing an earlier version of Sancho's answer, but not the question, as there is no mention of suicide. – Oddthinking Sep 26 '13 at 20:35
  • I wanted to address only claim #2 of the current version of the question. I was more interested in discovering some of the the underlying facts than in dismissing the question with a facile answer. – ChrisW Sep 26 '13 at 20:43
  • so because people defraud farmers by selling counterfeit seeds (iow, selling other less productive strains as being the GMO seeds) the GMO seeds don't work. Interesting twist, and of course false. – jwenting Oct 3 '13 at 3:18
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1. Using the new seeds has increased production cost, thus increasing debt

That seems to be true. Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India says,

Table 9 and Figure 10 show the average effects of Bt cotton, weighted and unweighted, based on the number of plots for these two groups of studies. We find that the differences across average estimates do not differ that much. According to these empirical studies, on average, Bt cotton reduces the number of pesticide sprays by 32–40 percent, reduces pesticide costs by 30–52 percent, increases the total costs of production by about 15 percent, has no clear effect on seedcotton prices, increases yields by 34–42 percent, and raises net returns by 52–71 percent.

Note that "seedcotton" is the yet-to-be-processed crop of the cotton harvest, not "cotton seed" (ref).

So the statistics show a net benefit, on average. However (I speculate) the increased cost may increase the risk, for small farmers who can't afford occasional failures. It also provides fuel for the argument that the seeds themselves are expensive.

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