Biotechnology and Suicide in India
Glenn Davis Stone
Ver 1.4, 12 July 2002
Were it not for the debate over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), few outside of India ever would have heard of the suicides. St Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Bill Lambrecht only found the story because he was covering the GMO controversy in India, and even then his paper ran the story under a headline about Monsanto’s problems (“India Gives Monsanto An Unstable Lab For Genetics In Farming,” Nov 22, 1998).1
Who: cotton farmers, particularly small and marginal ones. What: suicide, mostly by drinking pesticides. Where: the epicenter was Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh, although agrarian suicides were (and still are) occurring elsewhere. When: the worst was in 1998, when over 500 took their own lives in Warangal, but the suicides have continued, topping 600* in Warangal alone. But why?
This is the subject of sharp disagreement, largely because of GM issues. India is a key battle line in the global war over GM crops, and both sides interpret the Warangal suicides as supporting their position. Monsanto attributes the suicides to crop destruction by pesticide-resistant bollworms; they offer GM “Bollgard” cotton, which they have been trying to get approved for sale in India, as a solution. Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s top anti-GM activists, blames the suicides on globalization, purchased farm inputs and intrusive technologies; she contends that GM crops would worsen poverty and indebtedness by concentrating power, promoting ecologically unstable monocultures, and discouraging traditional seed-saving and exchange.2
For such competing interpretive claims, the stakes are very high: dozens of GM plants are at various stages of development and approval for use in developing countries, and public opinion often turns on striking and memorable stories. For Monsanto and Shiva, Warangal is a means of promoting polarized views on GM crops. Yet as an anthropologist who studies farmers in developing countries, I cannot see how Warangal can offer any lessons on biotechnology until the case is understood on its own merits.
I do not oppose GM crops in general; in fact, I recently took a leave to participate in the genetic modification of cassava. There are GM crops in development that probably can contribute to agricultural sustainability (more so than the overhyped “Golden Rice”). What I do oppose is the monolithic praising or condemning of GM crops, which is what we hear routinely from industry, green critics and even well-meaning public-sector biotechnologists who are poorly equipped to evaluate the larger contexts of their inventions.
Cotton is the classic “pesticide treadmill” crop. Warangal farmers spend heavily on pesticides that are applied desperately and indiscriminately to combat a plethora of increasingly resistant pests. Monsanto emphasizes the predations from the “American bollworm,” against which Bollgard is effective (it is modified with a gene from the “Bt” bacterium to produce proteins lethal to some lepidopteran insects). Monsanto’s India marketing director even has claimed Bollgard could have prevented the 1998 suicides.4 Unfortunately, the American bollworm is only one of many cotton pests in India, and the main destruction in 1997-98 was caused by Spodoptera, against which Bollgard is not effective.5 Pesticide sprayings will have to continue even with Bollgard. Preliminary studies in China and Mexico show the higher cost of Bt cotton initially is offset by reduced pesticide costs, 6 but those areas do not have Warangal’s problems with insects unaffected by Bt. In the short run, Bollgard may have as much potential to exacerbate debt traps as to mitigate them. In the long run, bollworms surely will develop resistance to Bt; the US practice of planting non-Bt refugia to prevent resistance is unworkable in India.
Warangal crops also fail because of “spurious seed”inferior cotton seed packaged as popular brands. Warangal farmers need much tighter regulation at the point-of-sale (the input vendors), but India’s regulatory focus long has been at the other end of the seed system (approval and certification).7 This year, unapproved and illegal GM cotton (apparently developed with stolen germplasm) was found growing in Gujarat, prompting “corporate fury” and great pressure to increase regulation of production and distribution of seed.8 If this comes at the expense of the point-of-sale regulation that Warangal farmers need, the spurious seed problem will only get worse.
These factors that the farmers themselves cite provide a good starting point, but there are much larger forces at work in Warangal, including the emergence of a global corporate agricultural oligarchy, the internationalization of gene patenting and the poorly understood process of agricultural deskilling (a focus of my own research).
The situation for Warangal farmers and their role in the global war of rhetoric is about to move into a new phase. In March 2002, Bollgard was approved for sale in India. By May, some Warangal farmers will be planting GM seeds in their fields; by this time next year, whatever has happened with the suicide rate, both Monsanto and Vandana Shiva will be claiming vindication. The truth about the effects of Bollgard will be more complex, and the first year will not tell the whole story. Moreover, the effects of Bollgard in Warangal should not be taken as an indicator of GM in general: just as local agrarian situations vary, so will the direct and indirect effects of different GM crops. I see more problems with Bollgard than with other crops being developed in India that are more consistent with agricultural sustainability (although most are coming from the public sector, rather than from the biotech corporations that spend fortunes touting them).
The Warangal case may be unusually distressing, but the struggles between the biotech industry and green activists to interpret problems in culture and agriculture in developing countries are becoming increasingly ordinary. The struggle involves a set of issues of importance in anthropology, and anthropological perspectives are sorely needed in the debate. 9
* [Addendum November 2003: The figure originally published in Anthropology News was 1,000 sucides. After subsequent inquiry I put the figure closer to 600.]
2. Monsanto presses its case on its India website at http://www.monsantoindia.com, largely through reposting of selected articles from other publications. Examples on the website in Spring of 1999 included Sun-Sentinel 1999, Times of India 1999, and Farmers' View 1999. For examples of Shiva's use of the suicides see Shiva et al. 1999, 2002. For scholarly analysis of causes behind the Warangal suicides, see Sudarshan Reddy and Rao 1998, Parthasarathy and Shameem 1998, Revathi 1998 and Prasad 1999; Christian Aid 1999 also analyzes the issue. For an example of analysis of agrarian suicides in neighboring areas, see Assadi 1998 and Vasavi 1999.
[Addendum 12 July 2002: a significant study of agrarian suicide in neighboring Karnataka has been published by Deshpande 2002.]
3. However, the Chief Minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh recently ruled out such ex gratia payments on the grounds that they encouraged suicide (Hindu 2002). In March, when a procession of spouses of suicide victims marched on Hyderabad to try to get their ex gratia payments, they were arrested.
9. Stone 2002 discusses anthropological aspects of the research needed on GM crops for developing countries; what follows is based in part on a synopsis of that discussion.
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Glenn Davis Stone conducts research on political ecology and agricultural change. His current research on biotechnology involves comparative material from sub-Saharan Africa, India, Western Europe and the US.