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Killing Fields

In Vidharbha, India, suicides by debt-ridden cotton farmers continue unabated

The region of Vidarbha in the state of Maharashtra in central India, once known for its high yielding cotton harvest, has become infamous for driving local cotton farmers in India to their deaths. A downward price spiral, sinking yields, and rising debts have driven more than 200,000 cotton farmers to take their own lives in Maharashtra over the last decade. Seventy percent of these deaths occurred in Vidarbha. Each growing season, the suicides of debt-ridden cotton farmers continue to grab headlines. (In 2012, farmer suicides in Maharashtra increased by almost 450 to 3786.)

photo of a woman looking sadly into the cameraIsabell ZipfelThe wife of a cotton farmer who committed suicide. She now farms the family's one-acre field, but that isn't enough to make ends
meet, so she works as a day-laborer for other farms 100 rupees ($1.6) a day. (Click this photo to view more.)

Cotton, once described as white gold, is becoming a synonym for price collapse in this country. Back in 1970, the Indian state guaranteed the cotton producers a fixed price, independent of the world market, but in 1998 as India “liberalized” its economy, this regulation was abolished on the insistence of the World Trade Organization. Since then, cotton prices in India have fallen continuously.

photo of a framed portrait of a manIsabell ZipfelFaced with mounting debts, this farmer killed himself by drinking pesticide in his field.

The use of genetically modified Bt cotton seeds, that was approved for use in India 2002, is said to have exacerbated the crisis, but conflicting studies make hard to pin this down as a hard fact. However, while farmer suicides cannot be attributed directly to Bt cotton, the high cost of seeds, increasing cost of cultivation, and the risk of crop failure have definitely played a role.

After Bt Cotton seeds were introduced, cotton production in India soared from 13.6 million bales (each bale is about 374 lbs) in 2002-03 to 31.2 million bales in 2010-11– turning India into a major cotton producer. However, after an initial bump in yields – from an average 302 kg per hectare in 2002-03 to 554 kg in 2007-08 –productivity has been stagnating. What’s been keeping the production up is the increasing amount of land under cotton cultivation. In 2002 the area under cultivation was only 50,000 hectares, by 2011 it was more than 11.1 million hectares. Bt cotton is currently India’s only genetically modified crop, but it accounts for 95 percent of all cotton farming in the country. Today, India counts as one of the countries with the largest area of Bt cotton under cultivation.

photo of a double handfull of cottonIsabell ZipfelWhite gold or death trap?

One reason for stagnating yields has been attributed to the fact that farmers often aren’t able to choose the right kind of seeds for their soil and farming conditions among the huge array of Bt hybrids (more than 780 varieties) that have flooded the market.

Meanwhile, the use of Bt cotton has led to a steep increase in production costs. Bt cotton seed is more expensive than traditional seeds: The GM seeds can cost anywhere between 700 to 2,000 rupees ($11 to $38) per packet, or about three to eight times the cost of conventional seeds. Bt seeds also have to be bought each year, while the traditional seeds could be saved and used for future plantings. Add to that the lack of irrigation systems – 90 percent of all cotton fields depend on rain – and most of the Bt seed varieties are not suitable for regions that have absolutely no irrigation system. One failed Monsoon is enough destroy the year’s crop.

Then there are, new pests and pathogens, which were not of concern before, like the mealybug, which destroys complete fields and “leaf streak virus” that are affecting the Bt hybrids. Which means more money spent on pesticides.

photo of a crushed package on a field of dry plantsIsabell ZipfelThe use of Bt cotton seeds has led to a steep increase in production costs.

For small farmers, the cumulative effect of all these factors can be devastating financially. The option of switching back to traditional cotton seeds is nearly impossible since conventional seed varieties have virtually disappeared from both the market and from farmers’ homes. Thus the farmers are forced to buy Bt cotton seeds (and the fertilizers and pesticides needed for them) every year at prices set by the seed companies.

Without cotton cultivation, the economy of the entire Vidharba region would die out. Although many famers in the region grow soya beans too, that is only a side business. Falling yields and rising debts have forced many farmers to seek refuge in the Indian metropolises where they can find work as day laborers. Others, who have lost their land to moneylenders, work as field laborers for local farmers who still have some farmland left.
The rest, sadly, continue to choose death as a way out.

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