Bt cotton and suicides in India

The idea that GMOs are causing people to commit suicide is very compelling. But is it true?

A study released by IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) in October says there is no connection between Bt cotton and farmer suicides in India. IFPRI “seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty”, so it makes sense for them to investigate any possible links between Bt and farmer suicides. Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence examines every aspect of the problem, concluding that farmers in India do have very real issues pressing upon them, but Bt is not to blame for their choice to commit suicide.

The report is through, but written in language that lay people can easily follow. I encourage you to read it for yourself. To me, the most interesting part was titled “The Bt Cotton Controversy: The Institutional Context”. This section listed the actual causes of farmer distress, and once we identify the real problems, we can start talking about real solutions. The biggest problem seems to be education. Farmers have access to new technology but little if any information on how to use it to maximize benefit.

Even with the yearly increases in adoption, production, and yields, Bt cotton has had its share of controversy. Farmers lack of information on growing conditions, pesticide use, the importance of planting proper seeds, and the earnings to be expected from using this technology seem to be behind the controversy shrouding Bt cotton’s performance. More specifically, four factors or issues seem to have dominated the Bt cotton debate…

The first issue is the widespread distribution and use of spurious seeds. Inclusive of the technology fee, in the absence of regulations, Bt cotton (hybrid) seeds were initially sold at a price equal to five times that of the local hybrid varieties… This prompted a booming market for spurious seeds, which were sold at much lower prices. However, these seeds were mostly a mix of Bt and non-Bt cotton as well as seeds of unapproved varieties. Mostly sold by local traders, the seeds were targeted to farmers trying to save on seed costs. The germination rate of these seeds was inconsistent and often resulted in crop loss and disappointment for many farmers…

Another factor, which has helped the sale of spurious seeds, is the confusion related to the large release of approved Bt cotton varieties by the government of India in recent years… The lack of agriculture extension and dissemination of knowledge about these new varieties from the government has left farmers solely dependent on the companies for information regarding these varieties (SEMC 2007). The spreading adoption of Bt cotton has been driven mainly by demonstrations from farmers who have had success cultivating it (Ministry of Environment and Forests 2003a). Very few agriculture extension services were provided and were located in distant places (Rao and Suri 2006). The seed and fertilizer company agents have been the sole interface between the technology and the farmers (Shridhar 2006). Faced with choosing among the numerous brands of Bt cottonseeds released between 2004 and 2005, farmers were practically gambling on the seed they used (Stone 2007).

Third, the high use of pesticides even with Bt cotton seems to have played a role (SEMC 2007)…The higher price paid for Bt cottonseeds is justified by the reduction in pesticide use since the plants themselves guard against bollworms. But this does not mean a total elimination of pesticide sprays. To have maximum yield results from Bt cotton, pesticide sprays should be optimized and targeted to the secondary pests that used to be covered by the wide-spectrum pesticides used before Bt cotton.

However, farmers, lacking knowledge about the requirements for Bt cotton, followed their own spraying schedules… This indiscriminate spraying led to development of resistance in the bollworm and hence pest infestation returned, lowering the yield from Bt cotton in these regions… However, the situation has improved according to a more recent report (ASSOCHAMIMRB 2007), showing that Bt cotton farmers have largely reduced pesticide consumption, compared with conventional hybrids.

Lastly, the controversy has been fueled by the lack of consistent public information on the performance of Bt cotton (SEMC 2007). Many studies have been published by various institutes and cited one after the other by the media or selectively by opponents or proponents to Bt cotton. However, there has been no visible public effort toward a comprehensive and synthetic assessment of the effects of Bt cotton in the field. The proliferation of reports supporting both sides of the argument has contributed to the public confusion on the use of genetically modified crops among educated readers. Yet, as shown in the next section, a comprehensive review of the literature shows a convergence in the empirical evidence on Bt cotton, progressively dismissing any controversy on the observed productivity and income effects of the technology.

While quite a few science blogs (such as Counterknowledge Prince Charles and India’s “GM Genocide”) and scientific media sources (including New Scientist GM cotton in the clear over farmer suicides ) reported on the paper, I can only find one popular media source that reported on it (The Guardian Indian farmer suicides not GM related, says study). Other media sources (such as The Daily Mail The GM genocide: Thousands of Indian farmers are committing suicide after using genetically modified crops) continue to spread rumors based on claims made by Greenpeace and Prince Charles. These sources don’t even attempt to present information based on peer-reviwed data, and seem to encourage rampant speculation. People are still talking about “terminator seeds” and “fish tomatoes” even though neither has ever been on the market. We talk about media bias in politics, but this bias is far worse and rarely discussed. Even worse, the same people, the same media sources and NGOs that spread the rumors, ask why we have seen no biotech crops that directly benefit the consumer. What corporation would invest in developing a crop that has been rejected before it existed? What government would invest resources in such a project? It’s time to clear away the speculation and start to concern ourselves with the facts.