How Seeds of a False Story Took Root and Spread

By Keith Kloor
May 9, 2012 9:42 PMNov 20, 2019 12:50 AM


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When a questionable story gets rolling and takes on a life of its own, you can usually count on journalists to check it out thoroughly. Not that debunking it necessarily puts an end to the matter, as we discovered with President Obama's birth certificate and the global warming hoax cooked up by thousands of scientists. Some stories, no matter how discredited, remain believable for certain audiences. A case in point is the story of India's shockingly high farmer suicide rates being blamed on agricultural multinationals and GE (genetically engineered) crop technology. The short version of this story is that hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have killed themselves after the GE cotton crops they switched to either failed or didn't produce a high enough yield to offset their costs, thus putting individual farmers (and their families) in massive debt. This assertion, which has been percolating for nearly a decade, rocketed far and wide in 2008 after the UK's Prince Charles hooked his personal anti-GMO campaign to a very real and tragic story in rural parts of India. That indebted Indian farmers have taken their own lives in horribly high numbers is true. But it's a complex story that surprisingly few in the media have attempted to unravel. This has allowed anti-GMO activists to build and propagate their farmer suicide/biotech narrative without much journalistic scrutiny. In a minute, we will see where this has led. So shortly after Prince Charles made his claim in 2008, the Daily Mail, a bastion of melodramatic and scurrilous journalism, parachuted one of its reporters into India for a first hand look-see. That resulted in a story headlined:

The GM Genocide: Thousands of Indian farmers committing suicide after using genetically modified crops

The piece had all the hallmarks of the Daily Mail's standard dreck: It was one-sided, biased, sensationalist, and egregiously irresponsible. No matter. On the web, it has had a huge and useful afterlife for GMO opponents. One month after the Daily Mail piece appeared, the Guardian reported on a new study suggesting that,

if anything, suicides among farmers have been decreasing since the introduction of GM cotton by Monsanto in 2002. "It is not only inaccurate, but simply wrong to blame the use of Bt cotton as the primary cause of farmer suicides in India," said the report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC. "Despite the recent media hype around farmer suicides," it added, "fuelled by civil society organisations and reaching the highest political spheres in India and elsewhere, there is no evidence in available data of a 'resurgence' of farmer suicide in India in the last five years." It also found that the adoption of pest-resistant Bt cotton varieties had led to massive increases in yield and a 40% decrease in pesticide use. "What we argue is that it's far more complex than simply adopting a technology," lead author Guillaume Gruère told New Scientist magazine.

Indeed, the story of those Indian farmer suicides is exceedingly complex and multi-causal. In another study published several years ago, K. Nagaraj, an economist at Madras Institute of Development Studies in Tamil Nadu, examined data from 1997 to 2010 in one of the regions hardest hit by farmer suicides. He concluded:

The answer to the question as to why the farmers are committing suicides? lies in a combination of factors such as crop failure, shifting to more profitable but risky (in terms of output, quality and prices) cash crops like cotton/ sugarcane/ soyabean, exorbitant rate of interest and other terms and conditions of loans availed from money lenders, lack of non farm opportunities, unwillingness to adopt to scientific practices, non availability of timely credit from formal channel, absence of proper climate/ incentive for timely repayment of bank loan, etc. At some places even though water is available but can't be exploited fully due to insufficient power supply. Huge expenditure on children's education and sudden demand of money for health considerations and marriage, etc. in the family are also major contributors for stress in farming community. Inconsistency of rainfall during monsoon,absence of support mechanism for marketing of agriculture produce also contributed to uncertainty and financial risk of the farmers.

In 2011, NYU's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice released a report on India's farmer suicide crisis that cited predatory behavior of GMO sales reps as one of the contributors, but its overall assessment was nuanced:

These farmers and their families are among the victims of India's longstanding agrarian crisis. Economic reforms and the opening of Indian agriculture to the global market over the past two decades have increased costs, while reducing yields and profits for many farmers, to the point of great financial and emotional distress. As a result, smallholder farmers are often trapped in a cycle of debt. During a bad year, money from the sale of the cotton crop might not cover even the initial cost of the inputs, let alone suffice to pay the usurious interest on loans or provide adequate food or necessities for the family. Often the only way out is to take on more loans and buy more inputs, which in turn can lead to even greater debt. Indebtedness is a major and proximate cause of farmer suicides in India.

Nonetheless, William Pentland at Forbes was critical of the report's thrust and acidly noted (in a dig at GMO opponents):

Despite what many may believe, most companies "“ agribusiness included "“ prefer to keep their customers alive and prosperous.

Now if you want to know how widely the meme of biotech culpability in India's rural tragedy has spread, just google Indian farmer suicides. But at the top of your search, I recommend you read the Wikipedia page titled, "Farmers' suicides in India." It is quite evenhanded. Which brings me to media coverage of a new documentary called Bitter Seeds. The fawning reception to it in various quarters is uncritical and not surprising. For example, here's the write-up in Grist:

The film follows a plucky 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, whose father was one of the quarter-million farmers who have committed suicide in India in the last 16 years. As Grist and others have reported, the motivations for these suicides follow a familiar pattern: Farmers become trapped in a cycle of debt trying to make a living growing Monsanto's genetically engineered Bt cotton.

As anyone doing a modicum of background reading would learn, that statement is a tad simplistic, to put it charitably. But the narrative of Monsanto's villainy and the dark side of GMO crops is unquestionably accepted and reinforced at places like Grist. But that's on Grist if it's content to mostly nod approvingly at the talking points of advocacy campaigns. By now, its readers should know what to expect. For those interested in just how intellectually bankrupt (but also incredibly persistent) the larger narrative of the GM cotton "failure" in India is, read this essay by Cornell University's Ron Herring. He concludes:

The answer to our puzzle about farmers adopting disastrous technologies"”perhaps the most rapid global adoption of any technology in history"”is that the disasters exist entirely in the ideational imaginary of transnational advocacy networks. Nevertheless, the narrative of Bt-cotton catastrophe in India is coherent and globally distributed; it catches attention and compels action. It is also without any empirical or biological basis.

Which goes to show that on certain issues like genetically modified crops, social activists and green writers are masters at post-truth politics.

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