India’s countryside has been marred with tragedy over the past twenty years with nearly 300,000 farmers committing suicide. A staggering 60,000 of these tragic deaths have taken place in the state of Maharashtra, located in India’s ‘cotton-belt.’
Many factors have contributed to this suicide epidemic including debt due to crop failures, reduced subsidies and volatility in global markets. But locals point the finger at the global seed corporation, Monsanto. Last month, Global Justice Now commissioned independent documentary photographer, Jordi Ruiz Cirera to create a photo exhibition to raise awareness about the impact of corporate power in global agriculture.
His photos tell the stories of Baby Bai Viwodratnod, 52, Sampati Tara Songh, 58, Vimal Vishnu Chavan, 40, Anita Raju Pawn, 36 – widows who recount how their husbands borrowed money to pay for Monsanto’s GM cotton seeds as well as chemicals and other supplies. When the GM cotton seeds failed to produce enough crops and generate sufficient revenue, the extreme levels of stress and pressure of unsustainable debt led farmers to take their own lives.
Unlike farmers’ own-seeds which can be freely saved and used the following year, farmers have to buy GM cotton seeds every year. There is also evidence that suggests Monsanto’s cotton seeds can cost up to four times more than traditional varieties. With a 90% market share in cotton-seeds, Monsanto has a tight grip on cotton growing in India. Its business model shores up its control of agriculture as farmers become dependent on expensive seeds and chemicals.
Monsanto’s GM cotton seeds contain a gene that gives the plant the ability to produce a natural pesticide inside its leaves. This is intended to kill the ‘bollworm’, a common pest for cotton farmers. But local farmers are reporting that the cotton plants are losing their resistance to the bollworm over time and that they are paying for expensive chemicals to get rid of other pests such as whitefly.
Kapil Shah, who works with Jatan: Mission for Organic Farming in Maharashtra says that pests are becoming more aggressive and even becoming resistant to pesticides. This means that farmers have to bear the cost of buying even more chemicals. This is also affecting soil quality as the GM cotton plants drains the soil of its nutrients.
But it’s not all bad news. Farmers are turning their backs on Monsanto and taking control over what they grow and how they grow it. In the first eight months of 2016, Monsanto’s sales in Bt cotton in India have fallen 15 percent, according to Kalyan Goswami, executive director of the National Seed Association of India. The move to using local seeds is being actively encouraged by the Indian government. It is claimed to be less than half the price, and the crop yield almost as high.
Organic farmers are using a range of corporate-free seeds to diversify their crops so that every year they are free to save and swap these at little or no cost. These seeds produce ample yields and so farmers are able to build sustainable livelihoods. Kapil says “There was a marriage with Monsanto but the honeymoon is over and now farmers are ready to get divorced.”
There’s no doubt that Monsanto’s immense corporate power is impacting the lives of ordinary people. But communities across South Asia are taking back control and demonstrating that farming without corporate-control is better for their livelihoods, their environment and their communities.