The farmer’s friend

Agriculture
Environment
Biotech
thefarmer'sfriendblog.jpg

© Joerg Boethling/Alamy

Farming was the only life that Dhanraj Pawar, a farmer from Maharashtra in central India, had ever known. His farm had been handed down through several generations of his family, and his life and aspirations were firmly rooted in his land. But last year, worn out and mired in debt, he threw down his plough, sold his ancestral land and quit.

Every sowing season, he had put his faith in the latest variety of Bt cotton seeds, hoping for the bountiful yields they promised. Developed by Monsanto, these genetically modified seeds justify their high cost by claiming to generate bumper harvests by guaranteeing protection from the deadly pest called the bollworm that can ravage the crop.

But these seeds were a bitter disappointment for Dhanraj. ‘After 10 straight years of losses, I had to sell my buffalo and all my land,’ he says. ‘When I started using Bt seeds, expenses on chemical fertilizers and pesticides soared. And the price of cotton is too low to make any profit.’

Now he plans to uproot his family and move to a nearby city to work as a daily wage labourer. Dhanraj may be bankrupt and landless but, ironically enough, he is a survivor. In what is the worst agricultural crisis in modern India’s history, more than 296,400 cotton farmers have killed themselves in the past 20 years, according to National Crime Bureau Records.1

Some have swallowed a bottle of pesticide, others have hanged themselves. A number of factors are at work in this heartbreaking story of farmer suicides – including the failure of agricultural banking, the loan sharks that take its place, and the unfair international trade regime.

While Bt cotton seeds are not solely responsible for the rise in suicides in India, they are far from the magic solution they are touted to be. ‘There is a multiplicity of policies working against Indian cotton farmers, such as low prices, high costs, subsidized agriculture in the West, and the growth of seed monopolies,’ says Vijay Jawandhia, a farmers’ leader from Maharashtra.

‘Even though yields have increased, farmers are making losses, because the price they get for their cotton is lower than it was 10 years ago, while farm expenses have multiplied.’

He points out that Bt cotton seeds are meant for irrigated farms. But more than 80 per cent of Indian agriculture is non-irrigated, so the seeds don’t deliver the yields promised. ‘This high-cost GM technology is only making agriculture more risky and farmers more vulnerable,’ he says.

Bullied and short-changed

GM seeds are created by merging DNA from different species. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses or other sources. The purpose of genetically modifying seeds is to create herbicide-, insect- and drought-tolerance, or crops with enhanced nutritional qualities.2

Some GM seeds, like Bt cotton, contain toxins that kill bugs without having to spray pesticides that disturb the entire farm. However, pests have developed resistance, leading to increased use of pesticides and herbicides, and greater damage to the environment.3

Monsanto, which pioneered the use of genetically modified seeds, describes itself as a ‘sustainable agriculture company’. It proclaims: ‘We are focused on empowering farmers – large and small – to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world’s natural resources such as water and energy.’4

But farmers across the world have a strikingly different story to tell. Far from being empowered or sustained, they feel bullied and short-changed by Monsanto’s products and its aggressive methods to enforce its seed patents.

Farmers in Guatemala, Mexico and Ghana are part of growing resistance to Monsanto and GM. Organic growers in the US, Canada and Australia are fighting against contamination of their fields and destruction of their livelihood by GM crops from neighbouring farms or wind drift.

So, why don’t farmers boycott Bt? Why does GM cotton dominate the market? As Monsanto itself points out, ‘If Bt cotton were a root cause of suicidal tendencies, why do Indian farmers represent the fastest-growing users of biotech crops in the world?’5

Farmer Dhanraj Pawar has an answer: ‘There is no other seed available in the market. Before Bt seeds, we used hybrid seeds. But we can’t find the old seeds in the shops any more,’ he says.

‘Monsanto has tied up with state governments and local seed companies that distribute its patented seeds, while they collect the royalties,’ explains Kavitha Kuruganti, an activist with the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA). ‘That’s how they have monopolized the seed market.’

Having friends in high places helps. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the US Agency for International Development, all partner with Monsanto and encourage the use of their seeds in the Global South, especially in Africa. But farmers’ organizations are not easily taken in.

‘Farmers feel bullied and short-changed by Monsanto’s products and its aggressive methods to enforce its seed patents’

In Burkina Faso, the National Union of Agropastoral Workers (Syntapa) is battling against Bt cotton and biofortified sorghum because they have impoverished farmers and had adverse effects on the environment.6 While the cost of Bt cotton seed in Burkina Faso has tripled, there has been no increase in yields, according to Syntapa leader Ousmane Tiendrébéogo.6

‘The government has every interest in encouraging GM in order to continue to attract funders and international donors like the US, which make their development aid conditional on the adoption of GMOs,’ says Tiendrébéogo.6

Several governments have proposed new laws that restrict farmers from saving, breeding and bartering seeds on which they rely. Some, including Ghana and Canada, are attempting to change their laws in line with the 1991 Act of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.

This is supposed to help protect plant variety and to encourage plant breeders to develop new varieties. However, farmers and campaigners see this as strengthening corporate control over seed patents, while disempowering the rights of farmers to save seeds, which may result in further losses of biodiversity.7

Around 75 per cent of plant genetic diversity has vanished since the 1900s, as farmers have abandoned their local seed varieties for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.8

Taking farmers to court

In the West, pro-corporate patent laws have been used against several family-run farms. The Canadian farmer couple Percy and Louise Schmeiser became icons of the anti-GM movement when they received a lawsuit notice from Monsanto in 1998 accusing them of patent infringement for cultivating Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola (rapeseed) without a licence.

They said that they had never bought Monsanto seed nor intended to have it on their land.

Monsanto seeds inadvertently reached their farm either from their neighbour’s farm or from passing trucks. But Monsanto stated that Schmeiser was a ‘patent infringer’ who knowingly planted this seed in his field and used Monsanto’s patented technology without permission or licence.9

When Monsanto sued the Schmeisers for damages of up to $400,000, the couple fought the case in the Canadian Supreme Court. Eventually, the court ruled that while the Schmeisers had infringed on Monsanto’s patent, they did not have to pay damages since they had not in any way benefited from the seeds.

Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers since 1997 in the United States alone.10 The company says filing these cases is necessary because the loss of revenue hinders investment in research and development to create new products to help farmers.10

In order to prevent further litigation against small farmers, the Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association filed a case against Monsanto in 2011 to prohibit Monsanto from filing lawsuits against organic farmers whose farms may have been contaminated by Monsanto’s seeds.11

The court rejected the organic growers’ case, stating they had no reason to try to block Monsanto from suing them since the company had given its assurance that it would not file lawsuits against organic growers if GM seeds accidentally mix in with organics.11 Monsanto states that two separate courts in 2012-13 acknowledged that Monsanto took no action against organic growers for crosspollination.12

Though Monsanto often appears to have the law on its side, in Brazil there have been rulings against it. Around five million Brazilian soybean farmers sued the agrochemical giant for charging excessive royalties on crops planted using seed from the previous year’s harvest.13 The company justifies its royalties by saying it reinvests $2.6 million a day in research and development ‘that ultimately benefits farmers and consumers’.

But in 2012, the court ruled in favour of the Brazilian farmers, saying Monsanto owes farmers arrears of around $2 billion in lieu of the excess royalty charged to them since 2004.13 Monsanto reached an agreement with the farmers to end the litigation.13

Later, however, Monsanto asked soy exporters in Brazil to collect royalties on the company’s behalf so that it did not miss out on royalties from seeds that are being reused.14 Brazilian traders have been reluctant to do so, leading to growing tension between them and Monsanto.

When farmers lost their crop to a pest attack despite using Monsanto’s pest-resistant corn seeds, the Association of Soybean and Corn Producers of Mato Grosso region asked Monsanto and other seed producers to reimburse them for money spent on additional pesticides.15

Maui fights back

The most impressive victory against Monsanto has been in Maui, Hawaii, in November 2014, when residents voted in favour of a temporary ban on the farming of GM crops. This will hold until Maui county conducts an analysis of the health effects of genetically modified farming and foods.16

Monsanto and Dow Chemical conduct field trials of genetically modified crops in Maui and also grow engineered seed for commercial purposes.

This has created several problems, including chemical pollution, birth defects, surface water contamination and glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ seeds) toxicity in residents, according to the website of the Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the ‘Aina (SHAKA) Movement which led the campaign for the moratorium.

Monsanto and Dow Chemicals spray over 80 chemicals on their GMO fields in Maui, which is unregulated by the US Environment Protection Agency, according to the SHAKA Movement.17

‘The moratorium protects small farmers from having to use more and stronger chemicals to control the newly resistant weeds and insects being created in and around neighbouring GMO fields,’ says the website of the SHAKA Movement. Crops were contaminated by unwanted GM crops and the farmers were sued for patent infringement.17 Monsanto and Dow are fighting the ban.18

Across the world, farmers who have felt the fallout of GM seeds have staged valiant resistance movements against the biotech giant, despite the odds. Yet Monsanto’s monopoly keeps growing and its markets expanding.

‘The farmer is always in search of the next miracle. Monsanto’s marketing appeals to that vulnerability,’ says Maharashtra farmers’ leader Vijay Jawandhia. ‘Why do people still buy the lottery? We are always hoping.’

Dionne Bunsha is an award-winning journalist and editor, working in Mumbai and Vancouver.

  1. P Sainath

  2. Monsanto

  3. David Suzuki.org

  4. Monsanto

  5. Monsanto blog

  6. GM-watch

  7. FAO

  8. FAO

  9. Monsanto

  10. Monsanto

  11. Reuters

  12. Monsanto

  13. Russia Today

  14. Reuters

  15. Russia Today

  16. Bloomberg

  17. SHAKA

  18. Natural Society