By Shaun Randol
In the past sixteen years, over 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. That's one suicide every thirty minutes. By the time I finished watching a documentary about the sad epidemic, three more farmers had taken their lives.
Cinema is a force to raise awareness of an issue and mobilize action. So said director Micha X. Peled in the post-screening discussion of his most recent documentary, Bitter Seeds. I saw the film and attended a discussion with Peled at the recent Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Bitter Seeds plays out like railroad tracks receding in the distance: two seemingly parallel lines are destined to converge at the horizon. One track tells the story of Ram Krishna, a farmer. His daughter, Sawpna, seeks marriage. For Krishna, these two elements - the high cost of farming and an impending dowry - combine to make a costly financial cocktail.
The other track follows Manjusha, an inspiring journalist who lost her father - a farmer - to suicide. She's on the trail to find out why so many men in her village are taking their own lives.
Since the introduction of genetically modified seeds in India, farming has become an especially deadly enterprise. Before Monsanto introduced their cotton seeds to the area, farmers were poor, sure, but they never faced the suicide-inducing, crippling debts that have since plagued the region. Cotton was grown the old-fashioned way, on family-sized plots, organically, with cow dung for fertilizer, and there was little need for pesticides. Monsanto's Bt seeds changed all that. Promising not only higher cotton yields, company lackeys ensured that no extra fertilizers or pesticides were needed to gain the profit higher cotton yields would command. The big catch, however, is that farmers cannot harvest their own seeds. Bt cotton is not renewable - it doesn't produce seeds, thereby forcing farmers to purchase new seeds annually from the American agro-giant.
The promised crop yields have hardly materialized. Marginal cotton harvest are now de rigueur for Krishna and most farmers in India (72% of Indians live in rural areas). Not only have higher profits failed to materialize for farmers, the super crop has failed to live up to its robust expectations. Unlike in the past, farmers must now douse their fields with chemicals, fertilizers, and insecticides in an attempt to mitigate the side effects of growing the Bt cotton crop. Sure, Monsanto's seeds are resilient to one pest, but they are wholly susceptible to other crop-destroying insects and they require much more water and fertilizer to maintain. As a consequence, farmers' costs have increased tremendously. A panel expert at the end of the screening I attended claims that 26% more pesticides alone are used by farmers than in the past.
Economic ramifications extend beyond the field. Because they have no collateral or wealth, Indian farmers cannot secure loans from banks, so they turn to illegal money lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates and accept land as collateral. In the most poignant scene of Bitter Seeds, a defeated Krishna, after signing over his land to a money lender, looks like he has been kissed by the very lips of Death. The vacant look in Krishna's eyes is crushing.
Indian farmers are being driven to the edge: failed crops (because of weather and newly invasive pests), extraordinary costs of newly needed fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals, the fact that farmers cannot harvest their own seeds, and the outlandish terms demanded by lending sharks all combine to drive farmers to the brink.
But when men like Krishna have to provide a dowry in order for their daughters to marry, the burden becomes just too much. Unable to put food on the table and to support a family, and unable to bear the shame of such short fallings, men are hanging or drowning themselves, or swallowing bottles of pesticides. They are taking their own lives at epidemic rates. (Here's what Monsanto has to say about the accusations that their seeds are the cause of so many farmer suicides.)
“Even in my time there were no suicides. The poor could survive if they worked hard,” a farmer born in 1933 proclaims with a mix of disbelief and sorrow.
Things are not all that bad, though: according to the film, since the introduction of Bt seeds in India, Monsanto’s revenues from the seeds has gone from $58 million to $750 million. At least Monsanto's shareholders aren't experiencing such debilitating pain and suffering. Let's hear it for the success of free market capitalism!
Meanwhile, in thirty minutes, when Monsanto increases its revenue just that much more, another farmer in India will have hung himself from a beam, devastating yet another family, another village.
Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol