Planet Earth

The Exploitation of Indian Farmer Suicides

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 5, 2014 4:36 PM

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FromThe Economist's Demography and Development blog, several months ago:

FACTS can be stubborn - and irritating. It is satisfying—perhaps even gratifying—to accept the idea that genetically modified crops are causing thousands of Indian farmers to commit suicide (as this article claims). The notion seems plausible: farmers take out higher debts on the promise that GM seeds will be a bonanza and then lose everything when the harvest fails. There is genuine distress: farmers are indeed killing themselves. Their cause has been adopted by high-profile campaigners such as Britain’s Prince Charles and India’s Vandana Shiva, who blames the spate of deaths on Monsanto, an American biotech firm.

Shiva, a prominent environmentalist, has spread this false narrative in the media for years. To understand how she's done it, and who has enabled her, read my recent feature in Issues in Science and Technology.

The Monsanto-Indian famer suicide connection is a recurring motif for Shiva. She raises it when she references Monsanto or GMOs in her many writings, media interviews, and public talks. I heard her expound on it during a recent talk on sustainability that she gave at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York City. Shiva’s words are treated with earnest respect in liberal and environmental circles, where she is held in great esteem. If she insists that Monsanto and its GMO seeds have driven hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers to suicide—and she has said this frequently—then there must be something to it.

There isn't. But that doesn't matter, because a compelling media narrative--no matter how false--builds on itself in such a way that it becomes received wisdom. The latest example:

India's farmer suicides: are deaths linked to GM cotton? – in pictures http://t.co/YqImW5q7NQ — The Guardian (@guardian) May 5, 2014

The Guardian's cynical clickbait headline doesn't lead you to an actual discussion of the question, of course. (You were expecting as much?) Instead, the pictures and captions conflate the story of agrarian hardship with the introduction of genetically modified cotton seeds. It is a conflation that anti-GMO campaigners have seeded globally, with much success. In my piece, I show how the GMO suicide myth has been crafted and perpetuated; I also lay out the evidence demonstrating that genetically modified cotton has improved the economic fortunes of many Indian farmers. The editors who operate the Guardian Development blog are either lazy, ignorant, or doing the bidding of anti-GMO activists. They don't even seem to be paying attention to the work of their own journalists. The photo essay they published, combined with the suggested culpability of Monsanto and GMOs, is shameless exploitation of personal tragedies for a political cause. I have to think that people--including more of my colleagues in the media--will eventually wake up to that truth.

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