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Seed Monopolies, GMOs and Farmer Suicides in India – A response to Nature

Submitted by Food Democracy Now on November 13, 2013 - 5:45am

By Dr. Vandana Shiva,



Response by Dr Vandana Shiva to an article published on 1st May 2013 in Nature by Natasha Gilbert titled “Case studies: A hard look at GM crops

The article by Natasha Gilbert begins a section entitled GM cotton has driven farmers to suicide by quoting me:

During an interview in March, Vandana Shiva, an environmental and feminist activist from India, repeated an alarming statistic: ‘270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,’ she said. ‘It’s genocide.’”

Yes, I am an ecologist and feminist. But I am also a scientist – a fact that Natasha intentionally avoids mentioning. As a Quantum Physicist, I have been trained to look at the interconnectedness and non-separability of processes, which in a mechanistic and reductionist paradigm, are seen as separate and unrelated.

As a scientist, I have tried to understand what is driving our small farmers to suicide. Two things are evident. One, the suicides begin with the period of globalization which allowed MNC’s entry into India’s Seed Sector, making seeds a non-renewable ‘input’, to be bought every year.

Secondly, the suicides have further intensified after the introduction of GMO Bt cotton. GMOs are intrinsically linked to Intellectual Property Rights, which in turn are linked to royalty payments. Royalties are extracted from poor farmers through credit and debt. The Monsanto representative, who appeared before India’s Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, admitted that Monsanto was collecting Rs 700 as royalty for a 450 gm packet of seed costing Rs 1600. The shift to Bt cotton meant a jump of 8000% in the cost of seed. This is at the root of the farmers’ distress in the cotton areas of India.

As a human being, it concerns me deeply that 284,694 small farmers of India, the most resilient and courageous people I have known, have in recent times been driven to the desperation of taking their lives because of  a debt trap created by a corporate  driven economy of greed that profits from selling them costly chemicals and non-renewable seeds. And we must not forget that the agrochemical industry is the biotechnology industry is the global seed industry.

I look at GMOs as a system of corporate control over seed, a system of Intellectual Property, a system of ecological impacts on soil and biodiversity, a system of health impacts on humans and animals, a system of socio-economic impacts on the livelihoods and survival of farmers.

GMOs are not a “thing”, they are a set of relationships, and it is the context created by these relationships that is driving farmers to suicide. GMOs are not a disembodied “technology” as so many pro-GMO commentators try to present. These commentators then proceed to protect this abstract construction of GMOs as disembodied technologies from the evidence of reality. In reality, what exists is a GMO complex, or nexus, that has an impact on real ecosystems and real farmers.

Shutting out evidence from reality is a completely unscientific approach. Reality cannot be cooked up in papers, no matter how prestigious the journals in which these concoctions are published.  Reality is what happens in reality – the reality of farmers’ suicides, reality of the emergence of super-pests and super-weeds, the reality of rising costs of seed as royalties are extracted from poor peasants. These are no abstractions; rather, they are the lived realities of the consequences of GMOs.

In a systems framework, the scientific approach is to identify the interconnections in reality, and identify systems causality and contextual causation. In the cotton areas, farmers’ suicides started in a context of seed monopolies and destruction of alternatives. And that is the context that must be understood. Contexts require the understanding of contextual causality. Systems require an understanding of systems causation.

The figures of farmers’ suicides are not mine. They come from government statistics of the National Bureau of crime records. The latest figure updated up to 2012 is 284,694.  Any human being anywhere should be outraged at this tragedy. And any scientist working for social and ecological responsibility should want to go to the roots of the crisis, not try and cover it up with unscientific analysis and false claims.

As Natasha’s quote makes clear, I link farmers suicides, which are concentrated in the cotton areas, to Monsanto’s entry into the Indian seed market and its establishment of a monopoly in the cotton seed market.  However, Natasha leaves out the role of Monsanto’s monopoly in her article, and reduces the issue to GM cotton. This is not a hard look, but a blinded, blinkered and biased delusion. What Natasha, in her article, brushes off as an ‘oft repeated story of corporate exploitation’ is a story that is deeply grounded in both human and scientific realities. It is, indeed, a genocide.

The Emergence of Farmers’ Suicides 

When the role of seed monopolies in cotton as contributing to farmers suicides has to be studied, one must focus on the cotton areas, not on the entire country . All studies that try and disconnect suicides in the cotton areas from Monsanto’s seed monopoly take the aggregate national data, not the figures of the regions and states where cotton cultivation and cultivation of Bt cotton is concentrated. It is equivalent to declaring that a patient suffering from throat cancer is fine by looking at the health of cells in the entire body, instead of focusing on the cancerous cells in the throat.

We have been studying the creation of seed monopolies since 1987, during the period of the Uruguay Round of the GATT, when corporations like Monsanto pushed intellectual property rights over seeds and life forms into trade treaties. This led to the TRIPS agreement of WTO. Monsanto has admitted that it was the “patient, diagnostician, and physician” in defining intellectual property in WTO. In this way, GMOs are the vehicle for introducing patents and IPR in order to collect royalties. With the introduction of Bt. cotton, the price of seed jumped 8000% because of royalties. Every year more $200 million flows from the Indian peasants to Monsanto. This is at the heart of the intensification of farmers suicides in the cotton belt of India.

We have been studying farmers’ suicides on the ground since 1997 when we first witnessed a suicide of a farmer in Warangal, who had shifted from mixed dry land agriculture to hybrid cotton cultivation and gotten into debt for seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation. We have issued reports entitled ‘Seeds of Suicide’ since 1997, based on field research on the ground, not secondary data analyzed incoherently in distant places.

In 1997, Monsanto started its illegal field trials of Bt. cotton in India. We had to sue them in the Supreme Court of India, and as a result they could not commercialize their Bt cotton until 2002. But the consolidation of the seed industry and the erosion of farmers’ seed sovereignty through creating dependence on purchase of non-renewable seed was already underway.

Farmers’ suicides started in 1995 when globalization enabled seed MNCs like Monsanto to enter the Indian seed market and start establishing seed monopolies. The suicides have increased with the commercial sales of GMO Bt. cotton. Bt. cotton currently accounts for 95% of the cotton seeds commercially sold in India. Famers have adopted Bt. cotton not because it gave higher yields or gave them higher incomes, but because all alternatives have been destroyed.

Destruction of Choice 

Farmers are not choosing Bt. cotton. They have no choice left. The systematic wiping out of non Bt. alternatives from the market and the aggressive marketing of Bt. cotton has created a monopoly. It is not profits, but deliberate destruction of alternatives that have pushed farmers into the Bt. cotton trap, and as a consequence, into the suicide trap. Farmers’ varieties are displaced through the very clever strategy termed as “seed replacement”. Public varieties have mysteriously stopped being released. And most Indian companies are locked into licensing arrangements with Monsanto, and can only sell Monsanto’s Bollgard Bt. cotton seeds.

The Standing Committee on Agriculture of the Indian Parliament went to Vidarbha, an area where farmers been deeply affected, to hold public consultations. Here they found the reality to be entirely different from what promoters of Bt cotton had been telling them about increased production, productivity, and prosperity. The report from the committee states, “The last 10 years of Bt cotton also establish the fact that monopolies in the seed sector could be a great concern. In the current scenario, 93% of Bt. cotton has the propriety gene of Monsanto, the American seed giant, which is the world’s largest seed company.

This monopoly has also given Monsanto the power to arm twist governments to increase prices of seeds.

Strangely, this lack of choice for the farmers is drummed around as farmers accepting Bt. cotton seeds.” (Report of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, Indian Parliament, 2012).

Failure to Yield 

Yields of cotton have not grown since Bt. cotton was introduced. Cotton yields were higher before Bt cotton than after. Our field surveys reveal frequent failure. There has been a trend of declining yields as corroborated in the paper by Dr. Keshav Kranthi (CICR) reviewing the 10 years of Bt Cotton. “Currently the main issue that worries stakeholders is the stagnation of productivity at an average of 500 kg lint per ha for the past seven years. The gains have been stagnant and unaffected by the increase in area of Bt cotton from 5.6% in 2004 to 85% in 2010. The yield was 463 kg per hectare when the Bt cotton area was 5.6% in 2004 and reached a mere 506 kg per hectare when the area under Bt cotton increased to 9.4 M hectares at 85% of the total 11.1 M hectares.” (Kranthi.K (2011), “10 years of Bt. in India”:

Increase in Pests and Pesticide Use 

Secondly, contrary to the claim of the GMO lobby, pests have increased not reduced, and therefore pesticide use has gone up, not come down. Insects which were not cotton pests have become pests. These include aphids and jassids, mealy bug, army bug. The mealy bug was not observed in India before the introduction of Bt. cotton. The increase in no target pests is as high as 300%. In his 2011 report Dr. Kranthi states, “Productivity in north India is likely to decline because of the declining potential of hybrids; the emerging problem of leaf curl virus on the new susceptible Bt-hybrids; a high level of susceptibility to sucking pests (straight varieties were resistant); problems with nutrient deficiencies and physiological disorders; and mealy bugs, whiteflies and miscellaneous insect problems that are likely to increase (Kranthi.K (2011). Part-3: “10 years of Bt. in India”:

Meanwhile, the bollworm, which was supposed to be controlled by the Bt. toxin in Bt. Cotton, has become resistant. This is admitted by Monsanto, which has now introduced the more expensive Bollgard II to replace the Bollgard I.  [Sharma, D (2010). Bt cotton has failed, admits Monsanto. India Today, March 6, 2010:].

Bollworm resistance to Bt. resistance monitoring studies done at CICR have demonstrated that bollworm (helicoverpa armigera), the target pest of Bt cotton, has developed tolerance for it. Other studies have also shown bollworm surviving and reproducing in Bt. Cotton, in both single gene and double gene Bt.

(M.T. Ranjith, A. Prabhuraj, & Y.B. Srinivasa. (2010). Survival and reproduction of natural populations of Helicoverpa Armigera on Bt. cotton hybrids in Raichur, India, Current Science, 99, (11) 1602-1606)

Our field studies in Vidarbha show a 13 fold increase in use of pesticides after Bt cotton was introduced. Farmers’ profits have not increased; in fact, the farmers have got into debt, and that is the reason they are committing suicide.

Table 1: Increasing Cost of Pesticide in Maharashtra




Area under Bt Cotton Million Hectares 

Cost of Pesticide (Rs. Crores) 

























The increase in pesticide use in Maharashtra is confirmed by the official statistics. The pesticide usage trends in the major cotton-growing states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka are shown above. While Maharashtra shows a significant upward trend from 3198 MT to 4639 MT, the other states show only marginal change, except for the downward trend in Andhra Pradesh. The decline in Andhra Pradesh is because of a major government programme to promote sustainable, non pesticide farming.

Table 2: Pesticide usage in Metric Tonnes technical grade






Andhra Pradesh  






























Madhya Pradesh  






All India  






Source: Directorate of Plant Protection:

Seeds of Suicide: GMO Bt. cotton has contributed to an increase in farmers’ suicides 

The combination of high costs of seed due to royalty collection, failure to increase yields or control pests, Bt. cotton has intensified the agrarian distress faced by farmers in the cotton areas of India.

Maharashtra is the state which today has maximum area under Bt. cotton. In the state there were 1083 farmer suicides in 1995 which increased to 3695 in 2002, more than three times jump; coinciding with the year when Monsanto introduced Bt Cotton.

The scenario of Vidarbha, which is the epicenter of Bt. cotton cultivation, and the epicenter of farmers’ suicides, clearly shows that suicides increased after the introduction of Bt. Cotton. There were only 52 farmer suicides in 2001 but since 2002 suicides increased alarmingly as the area under Bt. cotton increased.

Table 3: Number of farmers’ suicides


No of Suicides 















































Graph 1: Farmer suicides over the years in Vidarbha, Maharashtra

The figures went down in 2008 after the announcement of the Rs. 169.78 billion debt relief package by the Prime Minister:

Farmers” suicides prompts Cabinet into announcing over 16,000 crore rehabilitation package

What even the accurate figures, hide, though, are the lives ruined as collateral damage. Every suicide ruins the lives of 8-9 people in a family. A simple calculation shows that during 2002-2011 the lives of 55,000-65,000 people was ruined due to the farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha. The stories of surviving members are tragic. With the husband’s death, a new vicious cycle of debt is set in motion, wherein the widows inherit their husbands’ debts and work round the clock both to pay it back as well as to make ends meet.

According to P Sainath, who has covered farmers’ suicides systematically, “The total number of farmers who have taken their own lives in Maharashtra since 1995 is closing in on 54,000. Of these, 33,752 have occurred in nine years since 2003 at an annual average of 3,750. The figure for 1995-2002 was 20,066 at an average of 2,508.”

The fact is clear: suicides have increased after Bt. cotton was introduced. The price of seed jumped 8000%. Monsanto’s royalty extraction and the high costs of purchased seed and chemicals have created a debt trap. According to Government of India data, nearly 75% rural debt is due to purchased inputs. Farmers’ debts grow as Monsanto profits grow. It is in this systemic sense that Monsanto’s seeds are Seeds of Suicide. An internal advisory by the agricultural ministry of India in January of 2012 had this to say to the cotton growing states in India – “Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt. cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers”:

( cotton-for-farmer-suicides/Article1-830798.aspx)

Natasha quotes Martin Qaim, who in many of his studies has used data from Monsanto. She states Bt. cotton has benefited farmers, says Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist at Georg August University in Göttingen, Germany, who has been studying the social and financial impacts of Bt. cotton in India for the past 10 years. In a study of 533 cotton-farming households in central and southern India, Qaim found that yields grew by 24% per acre between 2002 and 2008, owing to reduced losses from pest attacks. Farmers’ profits rose by an average of 50% over the same period, owing mainly to yield gains (see ‘A steady rate of tragedy’). Given the profits, Qaim says, it is not surprising that more than 90% of the cotton now grown in India is transgenic.”

Every statement of Qaim’s is false as shown from both our field studies and studies of India’s parliament and leading scientific institutions.

Natasha also cites Gruère, G. & Sengupta, D. Their findings, published in 2008 (ref. 4) and updated in 2011 (ref. 5), “show that the total number of suicides per year in the Indian population rose from just under 100,000 in 1997 to more than 120,000 in 2007.

But the number of suicides among farmers hovered at around 20,000 per year over the same period.”  

What she does not cite is that they admit that in the Bt. cotton dominated states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the suicides have increased.  “What we cannot reject, however, is the potential role of Bt cotton varieties in the observed discrete increase in farmer suicides in certain states and years, especially during the peaks of 2002, 2004 and 2006 in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.”

Graph 2: Farmers Suicides in Maharashtra

In the cotton areas of India, which are now predominantly Bt. cotton, the potential role of Bt. cotton in aggravating farmers distress cannot be brushed aside.

Artificially separating farmers’ suicides from seed monopolies and Bt cotton is bad science. But the issue of farmers’ suicides is not an academic debate. It is a social debate about lives unnecessarily extinguished for corporate profits. It is a debate about democracy, and the choices we make as free citizens, without our alternatives being closed by corporations and their spokesmen and women. It is a choice between corporate control over seed and over our knowledge systems.

I am not the only one connecting farmers’ suicides to debt and seed monopolies. The Agriculture Committee has made this point. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, of India’s National Parliament led by CPM’s Basudeb Acharya, which tabled the report “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects” has also stressed the link between Bt. cotton and farmers’ distress. Unlike the researchers who work separated from reality, the Parliamentary Committee has worked over 4 years, interacting with every sector of society – government, industry, scientists and farmers. The All Party Committee visited the epicenter of suicides, Vidarbha in Maharashtra, to interact with farmers and understand the ground reality. This is what they concluded unanimously:

“8.124 During their extensive interactions with farmers in the course of their Study Visits, the Committee has found there have been no significant socio-economic benefits to the farmers because of introduction of Bt. cotton. On the contrary, being a capital intensive agriculture practice, investments of the farmers have increased manifolds thus, exposing them to far greater risks due to massive indebtedness, which a vast majority of them can ill afford. Resultantly, after the euphoria of a few initial years, Bt. cotton cultivation has only added to the miseries of the small and marginal farmers who constitute more than 70% of the tillers in India.”

Originally published: The Navdanya Institute.

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