Farmer Suicides Rising in India as GM Bt Cotton Crops Fail

by Jeffrey M. Smith, Institute for Responsible Technology

The record suicide rate among farmers in India continues to rise, with one farmer now committing suicide every 30 minutes. Many media reports blame failed GM Bt cotton crops for the crisis.

More than a quarter of a million farmers have killed themselves in the last 16 years in what is the largest recorded wave of suicides in history. An article for Sky News reports that one farmer who committed suicide "had been persuaded to use genetically modified seeds by the possibility of a better harvest. What he wasn’t told was that they needed more rain than the region provided."

Farmers who grow GM crops also have to borrow money for expensive pesticides and fertilizers. When the crop fails, they cannot repay their debts. The article comments, "Across rural India there is now widespread despair. The fields are also filling up with widows." [Read the Article]

Bt cotton was first released for commercial growing in India in 2002, and the data on farm suicides show clearly that the last eight years were much worse than the preceding eight – which is alarming since the total number of farmers is declining. [Read the Article]

India’s Bt cotton "revolution" has lost its sheen over the past five years, with government data showing a consistent decline in cotton yield. Even as the area under Bt has grown to 93 per cent of the total area under the cash crop, the overall yield is estimated to decline to a five-year low this year. [Read the Article]

Farmers and activists who oppose GM crops argue that none of the promises made during the introduction of GM seeds have come true. In certain cases, the opposite has happened. Some farmers report that crops failed to flower, producing no yield at all. Others report low yields and high cost of GM seed and chemical insecticides, which farmers still have to spray in spite of marketing claims that Bt cotton reduces or eliminates the need for them.

As for GM proponents’ claims that if GM seeds were so bad, farmers wouldn’t buy them, it’s clear that the consolidation in the seed market means that GM seeds are all that’s available. [Read the Article]



3 thoughts on “Farmer Suicides Rising in India as GM Bt Cotton Crops Fail

  1. Hi guys. You may want to do more thorough research on this topic. The notion that Bt cotton is responsible for farmer suicides in India has been thoroughly refuted. In fact farmer suicides are about the same as suicides across the nation as a whole. In many farming areas where they grow Bt cotton, suicide rates have fallen since the introduction of Bt cotton – see followng research and especially the report at the bottom of this post in the link
    Jason Major, Manager TechNyou, University of Melbourne

  2. Hi Craig
    I have two main points:
    First, I never said that there were no farmer suicides in India linked to Bt cotton
    Second, are you suggesting the evidence in the two documents I referred to in my initial comment – one a peer-reviewed publication; the other a report from the International Food Policy Research Institute – are nonsense, lack any credibility, and you reject all of it?

    Correct me if I am wrong but you seem to have framed your post to infer that Bt cotton is the sole culprit for farmer suicides in India – along with suggesting they are on the rise because of it. I am sure you realize that this is a narrow and distorted perspective and the situation is far more complicated than that. There are many factors at work here. Besides, considering the success of Bt cotton generally in other parts of the world, including Australia, if all these problems actually exist in India, do you think it might have more to do with poor management – agronomic, political, technology translation, etc rather than the actual Bt crop itself?

    And it is unlikely I will be able to go to India to find out for myself, but I have spoken at length to a researcher in my building at Uni Melbourne who has spent a number of years working with Indian farmers and with local researchers to develop a Bt cabbage. He also rejects the idea of Bt cotton causing any of the issues claimed in your articles, at least to the extent alluded to. This link is to another guy that seems to have spent a bit of time over there but coming from a anthropological perspective

    The other links you sent me to are off the topic and effectively irrelevant to the argument, but if I was to make a further point you appear to be attacking the way the technology is being used rather than the technology itself. Don’t confuse scientific knowledge or a technology with how society chooses to use or apply that knowledge or technology. The arguments are often different for each.

    I did notice one thing that was raised a few times in the links you put in your post which was a claim that Bt cotton uses more water than conventional cotton. There is actually a smal amount of credibility to these claims, but there are caveats and lack of context here that I rarely find explained, the first being that there are hundreds of Bt cotton cultivars and they are all going to respond differently to water stress, so presenting a blanket statement that Bt cotton uses more water is meaningless. The key caveat, and this applies to the Australian cultivars, at least, is that given equal insect pressure the water use efficiency between Bt cotton and conventional is the same. Where differences occur is when Bt has superior insect control in the early growth phase it will push the plant to early maturity and because of the higher boll formation it can suffer water stress. The farmer manages this by changes to their irrigation strategy. And if managed properly because the plant will mature earlier it can actually use less water than conventional plants, though this will be different for each cultivar and growing season. This data is part of CSIRO research and can be found here.

    How well this can be extrapolated to India I am unsure, especially since they have a proportion of their cotton on dryland (no irrigation). Again, good agronomic management will be critical.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favour of permaculture where appropriate, in fact I have Bill Mollison’s books at home and have been trying to incorporate some of the principles into my own farm. My role at TechNyou is simply to encourage an informed conversation about this stuff – and other emerging technologies. There are certainly issues with transgenic breeding technologies. Most of the issues from the public perspective, however, are becoming less about the science and technology and more about how we have applied this technology. In fact the science is rarely the focus of the debate nowadays. Equally there are issues with conventional plant breeding techniques and industrial agriculture that need to be incorporated into a big picture discussion on how we want our food produced.
    Jason, Manager, TechNyou, University of Melbourne

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