By Andrew Malone
November 3 2008
When Prince Charles claimed thousands of Indian farmers were killing themselves after using GM crops, he was branded a scaremonger. In fact, as this chilling dispatch reveals, it’s even WORSE than he feared.
The children were inconsolable. Mute with shock and fighting back tears, they huddled beside their mother as friends and neighbours prepared their father’s body for cremation on a blazing bonfire built on the cracked, barren fields near their home.
As flames consumed the corpse, Ganjanan, 12, and Kalpana, 14, faced a grim future. While Shankara Mandaukar had hoped his son and daughter would have a better life under India’s economic boom, they now face working as slave labour for a few pence a day. Landless and homeless, they will be the lowest of the low.
Human tragedy: A farmer and child in India’s ‘suicide belt’
Shankara, respected farmer, loving husband and father, had taken his own life. Less than 24 hours earlier, facing the loss of his land due to debt, he drank a cupful of chemical insecticide.
Unable to pay back the equivalent of two years’ earnings, he was in despair. He could see no way out.
There were still marks in the dust where he had writhed in agony. Other villagers looked on – they knew from experience that any intervention was pointless – as he lay doubled up on the ground, crying out in pain and vomiting.
Moaning, he crawled on to a bench outside his simple home 100 miles from Nagpur in central India. An hour later, he stopped making any noise. Then he stopped breathing. At 5pm on Sunday, the life of Shankara Mandaukar came to an end.
As neighbours gathered to pray outside the family home, Nirmala Mandaukar, 50, told how she rushed back from the fields to find her husband dead. ‘He was a loving and caring man,’ she said, weeping quietly.
‘But he couldn’t take any more. The mental anguish was too much. We have lost everything.’
Shankara’s crop had failed – twice. Of course, famine and pestilence are part of India’s ancient story.
But the death of this respected farmer has been blamed on something far more modern and sinister: genetically modified crops.
Shankara, like millions of other Indian farmers, had been promised previously unheard of harvests and income if he switched from farming with traditional seeds to planting GM seeds instead.
Distressed: Prince Charles has set up charity Bhumi Vardaan Foundation to address the plight of suicide farmers
Beguiled by the promise of future riches, he borrowed money in order to buy the GM seeds. But when the harvests failed, he was left with spiralling debts – and no income.
So Shankara became one of an estimated 125,000 farmers to take their own life as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops.
The crisis, branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners, was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed that the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and the time had come to end its unstoppable march.
Speaking by video link to a conference in the Indian capital, Delhi, he infuriated bio-tech leaders and some politicians by condemning ‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.
Ranged against the Prince are powerful GM lobbyists and prominent politicians, who claim that genetically modified crops have transformed Indian agriculture, providing greater yields than ever before.
The rest of the world, they insist, should embrace ‘the future’ and follow suit.
So who is telling the truth? To find out, I travelled to the ‘suicide belt’ in Maharashtra state.
What I found was deeply disturbing – and has profound implications for countries, including Britain, debating whether to allow the planting of seeds manipulated by scientists to circumvent the laws of nature.
For official figures from the Indian Ministry of Agriculture do indeed confirm that in a huge humanitarian crisis, more than 1,000 farmers kill themselves here each month.
Simple, rural people, they are dying slow, agonising deaths. Most swallow insecticide – a pricey substance they were promised they would not need when they were coerced into growing expensive GM crops.
It seems that many are massively in debt to local money-lenders, having over-borrowed to purchase GM seed.
Pro-GM experts claim that it is rural poverty, alcoholism, drought and ‘agrarian distress’ that is the real reason for the horrific toll.
But, as I discovered during a four-day journey through the epicentre of the disaster, that is not the full story.
Death seeds: A Greenpeace protester sprays milk-based paint on a Monsanto research soybean field near Atlantic, Iowa
In one small village I visited, 18 farmers had committed suicide after being sucked into GM debts. In some cases, women have taken over farms from their dead husbands – only to kill themselves as well.
Latta Ramesh, 38, drank insecticide after her crops failed – two years after her husband disappeared when the GM debts became too much.
She left her ten-year-old son, Rashan, in the care of relatives. ‘He cries when he thinks of his mother,’ said the dead woman’s aunt, sitting listlessly in shade near the fields.
Village after village, families told how they had fallen into debt after being persuaded to buy GM seeds instead of traditional cotton seeds.
The price difference is staggering: £10 for 100 grams of GM seed, compared with less than £10 for 1,000 times more traditional seeds.
But GM salesmen and government officials had promised farmers that these were ‘magic seeds’ – with better crops that would be free from parasites and insects.
Indeed, in a bid to promote the uptake of GM seeds, traditional varieties were banned from many government seed banks.
The authorities had a vested interest in promoting this new biotechnology. Desperate to escape the grinding poverty of the post-independence years, the Indian government had agreed to allow new bio-tech giants, such as the U.S. market-leader Monsanto, to sell their new seed creations.
In return for allowing western companies access to the second most populated country in the world, with more than one billion people, India was granted International Monetary Fund loans in the Eighties and Nineties, helping to launch an economic revolution.
But while cities such as Mumbai and Delhi have boomed, the farmers’ lives have slid back into the dark ages.
Though areas of India planted with GM seeds have doubled in two years – up to 17 million acres – many famers have found there is a terrible price to be paid.
Far from being ‘magic seeds’, GM pest-proof ‘breeds’ of cotton have been devastated by bollworms, a voracious parasite.
Nor were the farmers told that these seeds require double the amount of water. This has proved a matter of life and death.
With rains failing for the past two years, many GM crops have simply withered and died, leaving the farmers with crippling debts and no means of paying them off.
Having taken loans from traditional money lenders at extortionate rates, hundreds of thousands of small farmers have faced losing their land as the expensive seeds fail, while those who could struggle on faced a fresh crisis.
When crops failed in the past, farmers could still save seeds and replant them the following year.
But with GM seeds they cannot do this. That’s because GM seeds contain so- called ‘terminator technology’, meaning that they have been genetically modified so that the resulting crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.
As a result, farmers have to buy new seeds each year at the same punitive prices. For some, that means the difference between life and death.
Take the case of Suresh Bhalasa, another farmer who was cremated this week, leaving a wife and two children.
As night fell after the ceremony, and neighbours squatted outside while sacred cows were brought in from the fields, his family had no doubt that their troubles stemmed from the moment they were encouraged to buy BT Cotton, a genetically modified plant created by Monsanto.
‘We are ruined now,’ said the dead man’s 38-year-old wife. ‘We bought 100 grams of BT Cotton. Our crop failed twice. My husband had become depressed. He went out to his field, lay down in the cotton and swallowed insecticide.’
Villagers bundled him into a rickshaw and headed to hospital along rutted farm roads. ‘He cried out that he had taken the insecticide and he was sorry,’ she said, as her family and neighbours crowded into her home to pay their respects. ‘He was dead by the time they got to hospital.’
Asked if the dead man was a ‘drunkard’ or suffered from other ‘social problems’, as alleged by pro-GM officials, the quiet, dignified gathering erupted in anger. ‘No! No!’ one of the dead man’s brothers exclaimed. ‘Suresh was a good man. He sent his children to school and paid his taxes.
‘He was strangled by these magic seeds. They sell us the seeds, saying they will not need expensive pesticides but they do. We have to buy the same seeds from the same company every year. It is killing us. Please tell the world what is happening here.’
Monsanto has admitted that soaring debt was a ‘factor in this tragedy’. But pointing out that cotton production had doubled in the past seven years, a spokesman added that there are other reasons for the recent crisis, such as ‘untimely rain’ or drought, and pointed out that suicides have always been part of rural Indian life.
Officials also point to surveys saying the majority of Indian farmers want GM seeds – no doubt encouraged to do so by aggressive marketing tactics.
During the course of my inquiries in Maharastra, I encountered three ‘independent’ surveyors scouring villages for information about suicides. They insisted that GM seeds were only 50 per cent more expensive – and then later admitted the difference was 1,000 per cent.
(A Monsanto spokesman later insisted their seed is ‘only double’ the price of ‘official’ non-GM seed – but admitted that the difference can be vast if cheaper traditional seeds are sold by ‘unscrupulous’ merchants, who often also sell ‘fake’ GM seeds which are prone to disease.)
With rumours of imminent government compensation to stem the wave of deaths, many farmers said they were desperate for any form of assistance. ‘We just want to escape from our problems,’ one said. ‘We just want help to stop any more of us dying.’
Prince Charles is so distressed by the plight of the suicide farmers that he is setting up a charity, the Bhumi Vardaan Foundation, to help those affected and promote organic Indian crops instead of GM.
India’s farmers are also starting to fight back. As well as taking GM seed distributors hostage and staging mass protests, one state government is taking legal action against Monsanto for the exorbitant costs of GM seeds.
This came too late for Shankara Mandauker, who was 80,000 rupees (about £1,000) in debt when he took his own life. ‘I told him that we can survive,’ his widow said, her children still by her side as darkness fell. ‘I told him we could find a way out. He just said it was better to die.’
But the debt does not die with her husband: unless she can find a way of paying it off, she will not be able to afford the children’s schooling. They will lose their land, joining the hordes seen begging in their thousands by the roadside throughout this vast, chaotic country.
Cruelly, it’s the young who are suffering most from the ‘GM Genocide’ – the very generation supposed to be lifted out of a life of hardship and misery by these ‘magic seeds’.
Here in the suicide belt of India, the cost of the genetically modified future is murderously high.
|Ranjit Deshmukh / DNA|
|The widow and children of Loke|
Vidarbha remains a grim statistic. One suicide in every eight hours. More than half of those who committed suicide were between 20 and 45, their most productive years. The Maharashtra government says as many as 1920 farmers committed suicide between January 1, 2001 and August 19, 2006. Nearly 2.8 million of the 3.2 million cotton farmers are defaulters, reports Jaideep Hardikar
There are no authentic figures on the exact number of farm suicides in Vidarbha, but the Maharashtra government accepts a figure of 1920 from January 1, 2001 to August 19, 2006. The Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a farmers’ movement, puts the toll at 782 from June 1, 2005 to August 26, 2006. And, in the last three months, there has been a suicide every eight hours.
Cost of cultivation
Across the country, the average cost of cultivation in cotton is a little more than Rs 16,000 per ha. With an average productivity of 460 kg per ha, it costs between Rs 35 to Rs 48 per kg to grow cotton. In Vidarbha, the cost of cultivation could go well beyond Rs 20,000 perha and if marketing cost is added, it crosses Rs 22,000. But the productivity is only 146 kg per ha. In other words, the cost per kg is almost double — well over Rs 70 per kg. In Maharashtra, the cost of growing cotton increased from Rs 17,234/ha in 2001-02 to Rs 20,859 in 2002-03.
Right age, wrong step
Among the farmers who committed suicide in the past year, more than 50% were between 20 and 45 years of age (their most productive years), according to a study by the Sakal Newspapers Limited of the two districts, Amravati and Yavatmal.
The hybrid cotton covers about 73% of the cotton area in Vidarbha, whereas desi varieties cover about 27%. Most of these produce medium to medium-long fibre.
Area under Bt cotton has risen from a mere 0.4% in 2002-03 to 15% in 2005-06 in Vidarbha, according to the agriculture department statistics. Only 3% cotton land falls under assured irrigation. Cotton area has declined from 16.12 lakh ha in 2001 to 12.18 lakh ha in 2005-6. Only 3% of it is under irrigation. The shift is towards soybean.
The Planning Commission’s fact-finding mission members found out that nearly 2.8 million of the 3.2 million cotton farmers in Vidarbha are defaulters. Of every Rs 100 borrowed, approximately Rs 80 goes back in to servicing of old loans.
The Prime Minister in his Rs 3750-crore package jacked up an additional credit flow of Rs 1200 crore taking it to Rs 2000 crore for 2006-07. But the ground situation shows a credit disbursal of less than a thousand crore.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
Revive traditional crops. Pump money back into the rural economy, say experts
“In Vidharbha, it is too risky to adopt expensive technologies. Small farmers who take loans for cultivation have no capacity to meet the calamity of crop failure. Traditional crops like jowar should again be revived. The funds allotted under the Prime Minister’s package for seed replacement should be used to promote jowar, pulses and legumes. Also, organic farming and crop-livestock integration should be promoted on both ecological and economic grounds. Vidharbha can be declared as the Organic Farming Zone of Maharashtra, so that its oranges, jowar, cotton and other crops become known as organic products and thereby gain in market value.” — MS Swaminathan Chairman, National Commission on Farmers
“It’s not true that suicides are taking place only in Vidarbha. They began in Andhra and spread to other parts of the country. But why did farmer suicides begin after 1994? The answer is we liberalised the economy and devalued our rupee. As a result, the cost of energy went up, the cost of agriculture rose and living costs soared. The 5th Pay Commission was a vindication of this. But the farmers remained in a low-cost economy. The promise that exports in a free market would bring profits to farmers was never kept. We imported 110 lakh bales from 1998 to 2004.” — Vijay Jawandhia Wardha farmers’ leader, social commentator
“The point is we need to understand that green revolution has collapsed. Continuing suicides by farmers is a reflection of that. Suicides are more alarming in those areas where green revolution was pushed with force. But that doesn’t mean there is no agrarian crisis in other areas; it’s all over the country now. A few areas like Vidarbha are peculiar with socio-economic, agro-climatic and other factors. We borrowed a technology that did not fit into our socio-economic milieu. Tractor is today a symbol of suicides. Fertilizers and pesticides have destroyed our natural base. Farmers in Vidarbha and elsewhere are the victims of policies that have siphoned money from the rural economy.” — Devinder Sharma Former journalist, agriculture expert
They have created many problems for farmers. They bully, sue and torment them.
They are one of the worst Companies imaginable.
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In order for the FDA to determine if Monsanto’s growth hormones were safe or not, Monsanto was required to submit a scientific report on that topic. Margaret Miller, one of Monsanto’s researchers put the report together.
Shortly before the report submission, Miller left Monsanto and was hired by the FDA. Her first job for the FDA was to determine whether or not to approve the report she wrote for Monsanto. In short, Monsanto approved its own report. Assisting Miller was another former Monsanto researcher, Susan Sechen. Deciding whether or not rBGH-derived milk should be labeled fell under the jurisdiction of another FDA official, Michael Taylor, who previously worked as a lawyer for Monsanto.
This just the tip of the Iceburg. It is a very large Iceburg.