Ten to twelve thousand years ago, fertile ground led to the rise of our first civilizations as mankind began the slow shift from full dependence on hunting and gathering food to planting and growing crops. Seed was saved and sowed from year to year. Wild plants become domesticated. We learned to irrigate fields, to maximize production, to feed nations.
In time, we learned to use selective breeding. Selective breeding produced desired traits such as taste, size, drought resistance, and yields. Experience brought us wisdom. We learned the benefits of crop rotation. Knowing rich soil grew healthy, disease resistant crops, we found natural ways to replenish the land.
But famine has always plagued mankind. Famine is caused by many factors—war; over-population; climate shifts including drought, over abundant rainfall, temperature shifts, decreased sunlight; and so on. Though many would argue we have enough food to feed the world, famines continue. A quick look at the history of famine, and the famine conditions that exist today, explains much about the search for solutions.
Beginning in the 1940s, the agricultural technology of industrialized nations – utilizing fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation techniques, and high yield cultivars (new varieties of
grains developed through selective breeding) – was brought to developing nations. Dubbed the “Green Revolution”, these projects created remarkable increases in yields but they also changed the face of traditional farming.
Indian Farmer Suicides
Search anywhere on the net, and you will find story after story blaming Monsanto for alarming suicide rates among poor rural farmers—200,000 or more farmers in India since 1997. The stories claim poor farmers incur debt to purchase Monsanto seeds at 1000 times the conventional price, believing Monsanto’s exorbitant claims that GMO seeds will require little to no pesticide and yield abundant crops, bounties never before seen. These stories also claim GMO seeds require twice the amount of water as conventional seeds. Sold in areas of persistent drought, the crops fail. Farmers, with land now indebted to pay for their inputs of seed, fertilizer, and pesticide, are committing suicide by the thousands, many of them by drinking Monsanto insecticide before they lie down in their fields to die an agonizing death.
Brad Mitchell, Monsanto’s Director of Public Affairs, denies the claim that their seeds are priced at 1000 times the cost of conventional seeds, but admits their cost is higher. “Monsanto’s seeds are based on value,” he says, directing us to information on the company website that explains higher yields and lower inputs justify a higher price tag on GMO seeds. Mitchell also denies the claim that Bt cotton seeds require more water.
Monsanto’s website states, “Bt cotton has been given an unfair reputation when the true culprit is a smorgasbord of repairable socio-economic problems in India. A variety of third-party studies have proven that personal debt is the historical reason behind an Indian farmer’s decision to commit suicide, notbiotech seed. Think about it this way: if Bt cotton were the root cause of suicidal tendencies, then why is it that Indian farmers represent the fastest-growing users of biotech crops in the world? Between 2005 and 2006, India’s adoption of Bt cotton nearly tripled to 9.5 million acres! Today, Bt cotton is currently used in nine states in India on 14.4 million or 63 percent of India’s total cotton acres. So, if the studies don’t disprove the myths relating Bt cotton to Indian farmer suicide, then perhaps the sales figures will.” 1
Brad Mitchell encouraged us to read an independent study by The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Bt Cotton
and Farmer Suicides in India, Reviewing The Evidence.
The study reaches the conclusion that on a national level there is no “resurgence” of farmer suicide and no correlation to Bt cotton and farmer suicide rates. Overall, national cotton production “appears” to have a positive correlation to Bt cotton; pesticide use is down.
The study reports farmer suicides at the rate of 14,000 to 18,000 per year representing 14-16 percent of India’s total suicides, since 1997. It concludes, “Based on the observed national trend from 1997 to 2006, one can clearly reject the assertion that the growth in suicides has accelerated in the last five years or so. The number of farmer suicides is significant and tends to be growing over time, but so is the total number of suicides in the general population…” They also state, “Yes, farmer suicide is an important and tragic phenomenon, but it still only represents three-quarters of the total number of suicides due to pesticide ingestion in India and less than a fifth of total suicides in India. Moreover, even if there has been an increasing trend in total suicides, the reported share of farmer suicides has in fact been decreasing. Of course, all these conclusions are based on available estimates, which may be underestimated, but without better data, onecannot deny that claim.”
The study also reveals that national trends and regional trends on suicide differ as do reports of success with Bt cotton. At the time of the International Food Policy Research Institute report, Bt cotton was cultivated in more than 10 states across India. Bt seed sold at prices up to 400% higher than conventional seed (down from its original price of 500 times the price of conventional seed), and it promised higher yields with fewer inputs (less need to spray with pesticide). “…Bt cotton is a costly technology compared with non-Bt cotton because of the highly priced seeds. At the same time, some farmers seem to have spent significant amounts on other inputs (fertilizers and so forth) with the planting of Bt cotton, based on the belief that this new technology would result in an extraordinary level of yields in all conditions (even with drought) or on the false perception that high pesticide use was still required. Other farmers seem to have purchased high-cost spurious seeds, thinking the seeds were Bt seeds, but they were duped. Lastly, and more generally, a number of farmers bought Bt seeds without considering the type of Bt variety they were purchasing; therefore they blamed the Bt technology itself, when actually the variety they purchased was inadequate for their conditions.” 2
India’s first Bt cotton was illegally planted. The seed company held responsible, Navbharat, claimed they collected seed from a number of fields to produce a new hybrid seed, not knowing the seed carried Bt genes. Whether Navbharat told the truth and Monsanto’s seeds were already sown across the countryside or the company was lying and knowingly sold Bt cotton seeds to farmers, the fact remains that Monsanto’s Bt cotton entered India illegally, bypassing safety testing protocols and endangering non-GMO crops with contamination. At roughly the same time, a Monsanto subsidiary in Indonesia bribed an Indonesian official to repeal or modify a law that prevented the introduction of Bt cotton without a legally required environmental impact study.
Indian cotton farmers have “adopted the methods at higher rates than anywhere else on the planet with any other technology ever introduced into agriculture,” says Brad Mitchell.
Monsanto is certainly perpetuating the second wave of the “Green Revolution” model which began in the last century, a movement that encourages farmers to adopt non-sustainable agriculture and results in a dependence on companies such as Monsanto for seed and other inputs. More >and more small Indian farmers have moved into non-sustainable cash crop farming, planting one crop instead of many, and relying on that one cash crop to make a profit that will pay for all the family’s needs. As a result, small rural farms in India are on the decline, an all too familiar scenario.
Monsanto, now the largest seed company in the world, has bought out many seed companies across the nation. Critics are crying foul, with fears that Monsanto is gaining a monopoly on the world’s seed supply. Brad Mitchell says, “At present, if we dominate—if you want to use the word dominate – we dominate through innovative not through unfair business practices. People buy our product because they like it, and because they find value in it, not because they have to. I ask every farmer I meet, ‘Do you have choices?’ and he’ll say. ‘Hell yes.’ So that’s out there. I’ve been looking for statistics on this, but my understanding, and I can’t cite it, but the best understanding I can come up with from personal sources is that about 80% of the world’s seed remain open source; that they’re not patented, they’re not hybrid.”
Anti-GMO critics aren’t the only sources concerned that Monsanto now holds a monopoly on the seed supply. Monsanto’s GMO competitor, DuPont, has gone public with the same concerns about a monopoly, though DuPont’s concern is a monopoly within the bio-tech seed industry. 3
Monsanto’s latest seed company acquisitions to make the headlines are two of the largest seed companies in the world. While purchasing an overseas company is not addressed under U.S. anti-trust laws, the greater concern now becomes global dominance.
On March 31, 2008, Monsanto announced its agreement to acquire DeRuiter Seeds, a Dutch company, one of the world’s leading vegetable seed companies. This action followed the acquisition of Seminis in 2007 for 1.4 billion in cash plus assumed debt. Seminis was the world’s largest seed company. Monsanto’s news release stated, “Seminis is the global leader in the vegetable and fruit seed industry and their brands are among the most recognized in the vegetable-and-fruit segment of agriculture. Seminis supplies more than 3,500 seed varieties to commercial fruit and vegetable growers, dealers, distributors and wholesalers in more than 150 countries around the world.” The Organic Seed Alliance reports Seminis controlled 40% of the U.S. vegetable seed market and 20 % of the world market. 5
Again, we asked Mr. Mitchell for clarification on the monopoly issue, this time in writing. “What percentage of the world’s marketable seeds is owned by Monsanto (not counting seeds saved by farmers from their own crops)?”
He responded, “Monsanto’s share of the total worldwide seed market is very small. Of the global seed market, it is estimated that greater than 80 percent is ‘open source’ farmer saved seed. So, the commercial seed market is less than 20 percent and Monsanto’s is a fraction of that 20 percent.”
That “fraction” equals 23% of the global proprietary seed market. In 2007, their sales totaled $4,964 million dollars.5
Monsanto is wildly criticized for the fact that farmers are not allowed to save seeds for the next crop. Farmers who purchase GMO seeds enter a contract, fully aware that they will have to buy new seed next season. Yet critics abound, saying this goes against nature, that farmers have always saved seed.
Brad Mitchell reminds us that this is not always true. “You can’t save hybrids. I’m a little perplexed, frankly, by this whole thing about not being able to save seeds, because it’s nothing new. Beyond that, I guess I look out in the marketplace and I’m a home gardener and I have friends who are organic farmers. I’ve yet to hear one of them who can’t get the heirloom seeds they want. I look at catalogs like Johnny Seeds and it doesn’t look to me like all those seed varieties are going away. In fact it seems like Johnny Seeds is growing every year. So I don’t see the evidence of us losing these open source varieties of seed.”
Mr. Mitchell tells us farmers would never save and plant hybrid seeds for a second season as they don’t do well for second generation planting—the farmer doesn’t know what he’s getting.
Hybrid seed is not new to India. The traditional relationship between the famer and his seeds has already been disrupted by the “Green Revolution” and the acceptance of hybrid seeds.
The abundance first realized through petroleum-based fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides has taken its toll on the land itself. “The foundation of all agricultural production is quality soil,” says K. Rashid Nuri, of Truly Living Well Natural Urban Farms. “Conventional agriculture uses soil as simply a receptacle for the roots, and then attempts to add chemical nutrients that plant and soil scientists feel are necessary. These chemicals actually degrade and pollute the environment and do not provide or create life-giving food.”
Lessons we have learned over thousands of years of agriculture are being ignored. Short term gains are realized at the expense of long-term results. It is only through honoring the land itself that we will reap benefits in the long run.
“Farmers who understand agricultural practices holistically,” says Nuri, “realize that all life begins and ends in the soil. Thus, the proper agricultural focus is on building quality soil through application and incorporation of copious amounts of compost and other organic materials. This material feeds the soil and the life found in it. Plants grown in healthy soil that is full of earthworms, fungi and other micro-flora and fauna create an environment that produces healthy, disease resistant plants full of vital nutrients requisite to human health.”
Isn’t it high time we support traditional farming?
Monsanto Part IV (click to read) addresses RoundUp safety and GMOs in Europe as well as other safety issues regarding GMOs
- Monsanto’s website
- Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India, Reviewing The Evidence.
- Monsanto, DuPont Square Off in Crop Seed Turf War, Reuters
- And We Have Seeds, Organic Seed Alliance, January 24, 2005
- Etc Group, Who Owns Nature? Nov 2008