Vandana Shiva: “Monsanto’s contribution to the suicide economy is by extracting super profits from farmers in the form of royalties and by intentionally transforming seeds from a renewable resource that farmers can save to a nonrenewable resource that they must buy in the market every year … The government should impose a moratorium on GMO seeds such as Bt cotton until full independent assessment of its performance in small farmers’ fields has been completed. The government should also promote organic farming, since from the perspective of farmers this is the only way to get out of the debt and suicide trap.”
I’m upgrading Roberto Verzola’s comment to our previous discussion, because they are such a cogent explanation of the counter-arguments against accepting GM foods. Roberto is with the Philippino Greens and a major thinker on issues of abundance and scarcity.
This is followed by the concrete example, showing how Monsanto’s Bt. Cotton is directly linked to farmer suicides in India, which are reaching the 200,000 level. Excerpts orginate from an interview with Vandana Shiva.
“There are several points I’d like to raise in response to the article. Developing these points fully will take a long article, so I will just be brief:
1. Organic food has proven its healthful effect over centuries of use, and this has been confirmed by modern consumers of organic food. On the other hand, genetically-engineered food is so novel that we’ve had very little time to assess its health impact. The organic movement therefore rightly insists on strict standards that exclude any GM ingredient in organic foods. And those who market it have tried to make sure we cannot effectively assess the impact by opposing the mandatory labelling of GM food. But the few studies which have been done (the Russian feeding study on GM soya and the Austrian feeding study on Bt corn) already reveal the harm GM food can cause on smaller mammals. The few scientists who do independent studies like these are often persecuted by the chemical/GM industry, unfortunately. The Obama administration promised adopt the mandatory labelling of GMOs. Expect the GM industry to fight this to death, because that will be the end of their business.
2. The article makes a big issue out of the cost of organic food. This cost is due to a regulatory system designed to make organic foods expensive and chemical/GM foods cheap, by forcing organic foods to shoulder all the costs of differentiating the organic category from the chemical/GM category. In fact, since organic practice is the natural default, and chemical/GM is the synthetic exception, a fair regulatory system would put the burden of identifying themselves on chemical/GM foods. This means that we should have a system of mandatory labelling of GM/chemically-sprayed foods: they should bear the burden of the cost of recording, testing, labelling, and ensuring they can be distinguished from the naturally, organically-grown, in accordance with the “polluter pays” principle. If this were the case, the cost structure of the food industry will shift in favor of organics.
By the way, the Obama administration offers $50 million for organic farming. It is a good start, but that is less that $1 million per state of the U.S., a pittance compared to the subsidies that the GM/chemical food industry has been getting.
3. GM food cannot even feed the U.S., how can it feed the world? In 2006, around 10% of American adults and 17% of children suffered from occasional involuntary hunger, despite the aggressive introduction of GM crops in the U.S. (Food Research and Action Center, “Hunger and Food Insecurity in the United States,” so “Feeding the world” is just an excuse.
4. The real reason for GM, gene patents, and modern hybrids is control of the seed and food supply by a few giant monopolies. These developments are in effect a declaration of war against farmers in a global battle for the food supply of the world. The movement against GM is part of the movement to keep our seeds and our foods free from corporate monopolies. We must regain control of our food supply.”
Vandana Shiva on the link between Monsanto and Indian farmer suicides:
Tara Lohan: Farmer suicides in India recently made the news when stories broke last month about 1,500 farmers taking their own lives, what do you attribute these deaths to?
Vandana Shiva: Over the last decade, 200,000 farmers have committed suicide. The 1,500 figure is for the state of Chattisgarh. In Vidharbha, 4,000 are committing suicide annually. This is the region where 4 million acres of cotton have been grown with Monsanto’s Bt cotton. The suicides are a direct result of a debt trap created by ever-increasing costs of seeds and chemicals and constantly falling prices of agricultural produce.
When Monsanto’s Bt cotton was introduced, the seed costs jumped from 7 rupees per kilo to 17,000 rupees per kilo. Our survey shows a thirteenfold increase in pesticide use in cotton in Vidharbha. Meantime, the $4 billion subsidy given to U.S. agribusiness for cotton has led to dumping and depression of international prices.
Squeezed between high costs and negative incomes, farmers commit suicide when their land is being appropriated by the money lenders who are the agents of the agrichemical and seed corporations. The suicides are thus a direct result of industrial globalized agriculture and corporate monopoly on seeds.
TL: Suicides of Indian farmers unfortunately is not news — how long has this been a problem, how serious is the problem, what are the underlying causes?
VS: The first suicide that we studied took place in Warrangal in Andhra Pradesh in 1997. This region is a rain-fed dry region and used to grow dry land crops such as millets, pigeon pea etc. In 1997, the seed corporations converted the region from biodiverse agriculture to monocultures of cotton hybrid. The farmers were not told they would need irrigation. They were not told that they would need fertilizers and pesticides. They were not told they could not save the seeds. The cotton seeds were sold as “White Gold,” with a false promise that farmers would become millionaires. Instead, the farmers landed in severe unpayable debt. This is how the suicides began.
TL: How has the Green Revolution changed things for farmers? Is the most significant change in the ownership of seeds by corporations?
VS: The Green Revolution was the name given to the introduction of chemical/industrial farming in India in 1965-66 under the pressure of the U.S. government and World Bank. The Green Revolution was based on seeds bred for responding to chemical inputs. Companies made money from sale of agrichemicals, the seeds were in the public domain.
Genetic engineering is often called the second Green Revolution. Now, the seeds are owned by corporations through intellectual property rights. This leads to a very drastic change in how farming is done and who controls decisions in agriculture.
TL: How have companies like Monsanto, Cargill and others created what you call a “suicide economy” for farmers?
VS: Monsanto’s contribution to the suicide economy is by extracting super profits from farmers in the form of royalties and by intentionally transforming seeds from a renewable resource that farmers can save to a nonrenewable resource that they must buy in the market every year. Monsanto had a big role in shaping the TRIPs agreement [on intellectual property] of WTO.
Cargill’s contribution to the suicide economy is as the biggest controller of agricultural trade. Cargill was responsible for the Agreement on Agriculture, which has promoted dumping and denying farmers of the Third World their right to fair prices.”
TL: What should the government of India be doing, and what can the world community do?
VS: The government of India should be playing a major role in public seed supply. Before Monsanto’s entry, 80 percent of the seed used to come from farmers’ own fields, and 20 percent came from government seed farms. Under privatization, government seed breeding has been wiped out. Seed is a public and common good, and hence seeds should stay in the hands of farming communities and public-sector institutions.
The government should also impose a moratorium on GMO seeds such as Bt cotton until full independent assessment of its performance in small farmers’ fields has been completed. The government should also promote organic farming, since from the perspective of farmers this is the only way to get out of the debt and suicide trap.
At the international level, the world community needs to defend seed as a common good and build a strong movement against seed patents and seed monopolies.