A common story that's done the rounds following the rise in use of genetically-modified crops through agri-business giants like Monsanto relates to the tragic knock-on effects. The seeds that these companies sell are expensive and sterile, meaning that poor farmers can't keep some of the seed from one year's crop to start another. This leads to a spiral of debt and poverty that has caused nearly a quarter of a million farmer suicides in the last ten years. It's a shocking indictment of how business can run rough-shod over people's lives.
It's also not quite the truth.
The suicides are real enough, and the method: drinking pesticides, often supplied by the same companies that provided the seed, would seem to support the received assumption. It's a compelling tale that we've commented on here at The Pier. We've even supported a documentary film, Dirty White Gold, on the subject. But there's another side to the story, with an equally viable villain.
Banking reform in India has provided much the same benefits for the sub-continent as it has for the rest of the world. Freed from government oversight, Indian banks have become more competitive and, viewing farming as unprofitable, have heavily scaled back loans to the agriculture sector. Predatory money-lenders have moved into this vacuum, and their massive rates of interest have led to predictable results. Agriculture is one of the biggest workplace providers in India, and yet it is plagued by poverty. The suicides are concentrated in five states, which coincidentally have the highest incidences of GM crop take-up and the lowest levels of bank investment. Many of the farmers who took their own lives were not even farming cotton.
We can't minimise the catastrophic effect that the needless deaths of these farmers have had, but at the same time, we shouldn't place the blame firmly at one business sector's door. Anoop Sadanadan, a political economist at Syracuse University whose study is reframing the conversation over rural agrarian suicide, notes that there are many factors at play, from social isolation to poor access to mental health care. It's a terrible situation, but also a highly complex one.
These days, it's as important to keep an eye on the aftermath of a story as its initial release. It's all too easy to fall for the pat response, the easy answer, the demand for change that we can put onto a placard or condense down to 140 characters for a tweet. Often, the truth is not so easily synopsised.
It's worth your while reading the full report on the GMO Suicide myth, available at the link below from Discover Magazine.
The GMO-Suicide Myth, by Keith Kloor for Discover Magazine