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Seed monopolies lead to harvest of suicides

by Vandana Shiva

DELHI — An epidemic of farmers’ suicides has spread across four Indian states — Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Punjab — over the last decade. According to official data, more than 160,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1997.

These suicides are most frequent where farmers grow cotton, and appear directly linked to the presence of seed monopolies. The supply of cotton seeds in India has increasingly slipped out of the hands of farmers and into the hands of global seed producers like Monsanto. These giant corporations have begun to control local seed companies through buyouts, joint ventures, and licensing arrangements, leading to seed monopolies.

When this happens, seeds are transformed from being a common good into the “intellectual property” of companies such as Monsanto, for which corporations can claim limitless profits through royalty payments. For farmers, this means deeper debts.

Seeds are also transformed from being a renewable regenerative resource into a nonrenewable resource and commodity. Seed scarcity is directly caused by seed monopolies, which have as an ultimate weapon the “terminator” seed, one that is engineered for sterility. This means that farmers can’t renew their own supply but must return to the supplier for new seeds every planting season. For farmers, this means higher costs; for seed corporations, higher profits.

The creation of seed monopolies is grounded on the deregulation of seed corporations, which included giving them oversight over biosafety. Seed companies were allowed to sell seeds that their companies had certified as safe. In the case of genetically engineered seeds, these companies are again seeking self-regulation for biosafety.

As far as seeds are concerned, state regulation no longer exists. Regulation is now aimed at farmers who are being pushed into dependency on patented, corporate seeds. Such compulsory licensing of patents on seeds is a major cause of the global destruction of biodiversity. The creation of seed monopolies, crushing debts as well as a new species of moneylender in the form of agents of seed and chemical companies, is responsible for the high human toll.

The farm suicides first started in the district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. Peasants in Warangal used to grow millet, pulses and oilseeds. Overnight, Warangal was converted into a cotton-growing district based on nonrenewable hybrids that required irrigation and are prone to pest attacks. Small peasants without capital were trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. Some saw only one way out.

This was during a period when Monsanto and its Indian partner, Mahyco, were also carrying out illegal field experiments with genetically engineered Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt) cotton. All imports and field trials of genetically engineered organisms in India are governed by a provision of the Environment Protection Act called the “Rules for the Manufacture Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms, or Cells.”

We at the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology used the law to stop Monsanto’s commercialization of Bt cotton in 1999, which is why approval was not granted for genetically modified (GM) crops commercial sales until 2002.

Rising production costs and falling prices for products is a recipe for indebtedness. Debt, the main cause of farmers’ suicides, in the cotton belt on which the seed industries’ claim is rapidly becoming a stranglehold, is high.

Originally, the technology for engineering Bt genes into cotton was aimed primarily at pest control. However, new Bt-resistant pests have emerged, leading to a higher use of pesticides. In the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra, which has the highest number of suicides, the area growing Bt cotton has increased from 0.2 million hectares in 2004 to 2.88 million hectares in 2007. The cost of pesticides for farmers has increased 13-fold in the same period.

A pest-control technology that fails to control pests might be good for seed corporations that also sell agrochemicals. But for farmers, it translates into debt and suicide.

Technology is a tool. When the tool fails, it needs to be replaced. Bt cotton technology has failed to control pests or secure farmers’ livelihoods.

It is time to replace GM technology with ecological farming. It is time to stop the deaths.

Vandana Shiva is an Indian feminist and environmental activist. She is the founder/director of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)