Feature
February 10, 2014

Seeds of deception

The claim that Indian farmers have been committing suicide because of failed Monsanto seeds is a myth, but a hard one to dislodge, writes Keith Kloor.

Vandana Shiva, the prominent Indian anti-GMO activist.Credit: Amanda Edwards/WireImage

Of all the stories that opponents use to illustrate Monsanto’s alleged evil, one stands out for its shock value. Vandana Shiva, the prominent Indian activist, mentions it frequently to the media, as she did last year on an American news program when she said, “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. That’s more than a quarter-million. It’s a genocide”.

Specifically, Shiva is referring to genetically modified cotton, which contains a Bt protein that is poisonous to certain insect pests. Bt cotton has been adopted all over the world, including China and the United States, where farmers have overwhelmingly embraced it. The same holds true in India, where Monsanto and a partnering Indian seed company, Mahyco, introduced it in 2002. It has been crossed into hundreds of local cotton varieties.

Since then, Shiva and allied opponents to GM have repeatedly claimed that the insect-fighting technology has “failed” in India, causing debt-ridden farmers to take their own lives in despair. This story has circulated widely in the media, especially after Prince Charles gave it credence in 2008. Recent documentary films have chronicled Monsanto’s “suicide seeds”, as Shiva refers to them. She also calls them “homicidal” and “genocidal” seeds. 

Last year, the journal Nature found no merit to the asserted link between GM cotton and Indian farmer suicides. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have come to the same conclusion. If anything, biotech cotton has been a net plus in India, raising farmer incomes and enabling them to use much less pesticide, which is better for their health and the environment. It is true that at least 250,000 Indian farmers have taken their own lives since the mid-1990s. But this has been due to a complicated mix of socio-economic factors that have made it difficult for smallholder farmers to obtain loans except through private moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates.

But Shiva and like-minded opponents of biotechnology persist in attributing these personal tragedies to Monsanto’s GM cotton through a narrative that has been credulously repeated, and amplified in the media by influential thought leaders and esteemed environmentalists.  

Once a myth takes root and spreads, it is awfully hard to dislodge.

Keith Kloor is a senior editor at COSMOS magazine, based in New York.