I know the title sounds dire, if we don’t take action against the changing ways of agriculture the title is exactly where the world will be headed. How can one explain in today’s world a billion plus of our fellow human-beings going hungry or dying of hunger?
Let’s take a trip to India a year back, in the April/June of 2009, 1500 farmers took their own lives in the Indian State of Chhattisgarh. Since 1997 100,000 plus farmers have taken their own lives in India the World’s Largest Democracy. What does that have to do with Seeds of Deception you wonder? It does, because the root cause of the farmer’s suicides is linked intrinsically to the seeds and what it signifies. Before delving into that let me lay out some basis of the story.
In the beginning like all politicians the Indian Government too turned a blind eye to the farmer suicides until a diligent journalist P Sainath put it on the front page along with statistics. As always is the case when things look good on the surface no one wants to hear the bad news; so was the case in India. With the Tech boom there was prosperity and progress all over the urban landscape and India was headed full speed into the 21st century.
Sainath says about the press and its non-interest in this catastrophe ”In the early years journalism contributed to “the liberation of the human being”. In contrast India’s press today merely performs “stenography” for big business and the governing elite.” I believe it is true globally, with corporations running Newspapers and TV stations and the bottom line being of most importance, “News” has become synonymous with a media outlet which is looking at maximum viewership only and “creating audiences that have no interest in other human beings or the environment around”.
In press reports with the farmer suicides mostly what one heard about was debt driving them to suicide and I was always wondering why? Is there more debt now than in the past? Or was it just not reported?
Green revolution – The Promise of a Better tomorrow
Growing up in the India of the 80’s when Green Revolution was touted as the way out for the millions of her citizens who lived under the poverty line. In School we wrote essays about how things would change with Green Revolution – the panacea for all their woes; the crops would be disease resistant, drought resistance, higher yielding etc… As students we even believed that the world would make so much food that hunger would be a distant memory by 2000! In India even now close to 40% of her 1.2 Billion people live below the poverty line as per global standards i.e. they make do with less than 1.25$ a day. The planning commission of India puts the percentage at around 28%. After decades of the so called “development”, Indian farmers are taking their own lives in more numbers now than poverty took in the past.
My education on the effects of Green Revolution’s aftermath started pretty late in 2002-2003 when I had a chance to listen to world renowned Eco-activist Vandana Shiva. Green Revolution opened India up to Western ways of farming; Machines, Chemical fertilizers and Hybrid seeds which promised better yields and over all better life styles.
A look at farming in India before the advent of BT and GMO
In India traditionally farmers depended on nature for the yields, they did use fertilizers which were natural mostly. They grew diversity of crops depending on season and rotated crops there by keeping the soil fertile i.e. after a crop of paddy when the rain was less they planted crop which required lesser water like peas and these plants once harvested were burned cut etc and mixed back into to soil to fertilize it for the next crop.
Another staple was the seeds farmers saved after a crop was harvested. They would save enough seed for sowing the next year and that was how they kept their farms running. In India almost 80% of the farmers still save their seeds for the next year and it is also exchanged/ shared between neighbors. In 1998 India opened its seed sector to International Agro Business under the World Bank’s new lending policies.
Farming Changes in India and Farmer Suicides abound!
The 1998 signing of the World Bank Lending Policy signing opened up India’s farms to the global giants in the high yield seed, fertilizer & pesticide field i.e. Monsanto™, Cargill™, ADM™ etc… There were challenges to their entry which delayed the entry of their seeds into the open market until 2002. The main aspect of their high yielding seeds was that they were GMOs which meant seed saving would not work. The farmer would have to buy seeds from the company every year! Another surprise with these new seeds was that they required more water and more chemicals to grow.
One of the major culprits in one of the states which saw a spew of suicides was the BT Cotton from Monsanto™. The main losses in cotton production was due to its susceptibility to about 162 species of insect pests and a number of diseases. Among the insects, cotton bollworms are the most serious pests of cotton in India causing annual losses of at least $300 million. It is estimated that insecticides worth $660 million are used annually on all crops in India of which more than half are used on cotton. Cotton is used to produce cotton seed oil and cotton for fabric.
Picture Courtesy French Agriculture Center for International Development- CIRAD
The farmers had native cotton which was susceptible to the pest Cotton Bollworm (Helicoverpa zea) and Monsanto™’s Bt Cotton was projected as the answer to the farmer’s pest problems. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis a soil dwelling bacteria commonly used as an alternative to pesticide. What Monsanto™ did was it genetically integrated Bt into the cotton seeds there by making it cheaper for the farmers. The biotech industry had created an unprecedented hype around it. However the experiences in Bt cotton farming completely contradict this gung ho propaganda.
The farmers were told this seed would make cotton farming really profitable i.e. the plants would be resistant to the pink bollworm for up to 9 months, and the farmers brought in to the hype, borrowed money from money lenders and brought the costly seeds. Once planted, the farmers realized that it needed 13% more pesticides and much more water than the native varieties. The farmers already stretched thin by buying the costly seeds end up deeper and deeper in debt each year as they have to buy the seed every year along with pesticides and sometimes even water. The farmer has to pay the company e.g. Monsanto™ or its subsidiaries for the seed every year, and he also has to pay back the debt.
In a couple of years if nature too decides to not cooperate as it is doing right now with changing weather patterns, the poor farmers are left with no options to feed their families or pay off the debts. When the stress gets to be too much many of the farmers in India chose to drink the same pesticide they brought to make their yield better as the way out, leaving behind debt and grieving families. As per last report farmers who farmed BT cotton made the largest percentage of the 25,000 farmers who took their lives.
The video below is a short film on the same topic by Chad Heeter a journalism student at U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism made in 2005 for PBS about the farmer suicides in the Southern state of Andhrapradesh; where 7 farmers were killing themselves every day.
I am not saying stopping GMO’s will save the farmer’s, there are a lot of other steps that need to be taken along with returning to the traditional agrarian way of life incorporating machines and fertilizers, herbicides etc which are helpful and less harmful to the environment on the whole. The government also has to make sure that food which is produced reaches the people who are starving when their crops are destroyed by natural or manmade calamities.
A real Green Revolution has to begin anew as a grass roots movement again from below to keep the coming generations healthy and our environment safe with biodiversity as its main stay. I will write more about what is being done and can be done in my next post.
In 2009 BT cotton in the state of Gujarat started getting attacked by boll worms again! The boll worms had mutated and became resistant to BT! It was the first time Monsanto™ accepted that BT resistance has been found anywhere in the world.
In 2007 for the first time, India grew more Bt cotton (3.8 million hectares) than China (3.5 million hectares) and moved up the world ranking by two places to number five in the world of biotech crops, overtaking both China and Paraguay!
What are GMO’s?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism i.e. Genetic engineering alters the genetic codes of the DNA in the organism by splicing in other genes from other forms of life; i.e. other plant forms, insects, bacteria and even viruses. This creates mutant organisms and dangerously mutating genes, solely for the commercial demands on different forms of produce. The companies who produce / patent these are also the ones which manufacture the pesticides fertilizers etc which are needed to produce maximum yield.
The way I understand it is kind of like how a doctor friend of mine explained the misuse of antibiotics to me. She said in layman’s terms when we skip one doze of antibiotic some bacteria inside us get away and mutate to become resistant to that particular medicine. This also happens with recurring antibiotic use which ultimately produces a new more virulent, antibiotic resistant strain of the bacteria.
Monsanto™ and companies like it patent these genes and seeds after they genetically alter them and once they get into a market they influence the politicians into changing the seed laws in those countries. The GMO seeds have been around since 1996, and the companies which manufacture these seeds have used their persuasion skills and lobbying to get seed acts ratified in many countries including Iraq(2004) world over. What the seed acts do is it restricts the sale of native seeds and makes it impossible for farmers to exchange seeds or do seed saving.
It also will lead to a time in the future when the world food sources will be controlled by these Bio-tech Giants.
A sampling of the GMO use in the US agricultural produce as of 2007 June:
- Soy (91%)
- Cotton (88%)
- Canola (80-85%)
- Corn (85%)
- Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%)
- Alfalfa, zucchini and yellow squash (a small amount)
- Tobacco (Quest® brand)
Some other GMO sources in our daily food chain.
- Dairy products from cows injected with rbGH.
- Food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including the sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet®) and rennet used to make hard cheeses
- Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed
- Honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen
- Contamination or pollination caused by GM seeds or pollen
What are GMO’s? What is rGBH? How do they affect us and the environment? all this and more in the next post
My Sources for research:
- Newspaper accounts and What I have heard and learned along the way from school to now.
- Vandana Shiva and her Earth Democracy – her talks writings etc…
- Jeffrey M Smith: His writings and research are of utmost importance to anyone who is interested in learning about GMO’s and their impact. The title of my post is also courtesy his website. If there is just one book you will read about GMO’s and their effects please read “Genetic Roulette” By Jeffrey Smith there is an amazon link below.
- Bio Spectrum India – The Mag about how Bio technology is the future.
Will be continued… Be Aware! Live Green !!