Critique of Documentary “Yield” on Indian Farmer Suicide Crisis and the Role of Biotechnology

Below is the short documentary film titled Yield that I’m critiquing in this post. It’s about 18 minutes in length.

If you’d rather listen to me read the following critique, click here. This reading was filmed so as to allow me to post a video response on YouTube (which I learned were no longer directly supported after I filmed it, but I was able to link it as a comment there – if you like this critique please visit Yield and find my comment and give it a thumbs-up to keep it at the top of the comments).

Note: this isn’t a complete deconstruction, and further feedback is welcomed in the comments here.

At 8:50 mark of the documentary Yield, Vijay Jawandhia of the Farmers Union gets to the crux of the situation facing the farmers he represents:

There are claims that BT cotton has increased the production of cotton in India. I accept that production has increased. But the farmers’ profits and prosperity have not increased. If you want to measure the growth of agriculture don’t judge the growth by how much production has increased. Measure it only by the growth in the farmers’ income. Today we have subsidies for drip irrigation, for chemical fertilisers, subsidies for plastic pipes, canal irrigation. Take away these subsidies. Will the BT Cotton lot still be able to compete? America has all the technology. America also has BT Cotton. America has market efficiency. Their farmers are protected by crop insurance. Yet why have American cotton farmers been given a 4.6 billion dollar subsidy? If the price of cotton in American markets was one dollar and ten cents in 1994 and if by today’s rate in 2014, the price of New York cotton is 92 cents the price has reduced by so much and America must have 1 or 2% inflation. With such a fall in prices, why aren’t American farmers killing themselves? The simple truth is that their government treasury provides them with an economic cushion. And if you aren’t going to support our Indian farmers and expect them to compete with the world and use costly technology then, with all the uncertainty of climate and expensive technology this farmer is going to be ground to dust on a treadmill.

So first off we have an admission that the GM cotton has increased production! The problem is not that the technology failed to do what it was designed to do (which is protect yields from loss to the boll weevil beetle), and nowhere in the video are we told how or why GMO cotton itself or the traits created by biotechnology actually caused any farmer suicides.

Second, we are told that the Indian farmers have subsidies for irrigation and fertilizers. Of course it’s true that all crops need water and nutrients to grow, and Bt cotton is no different. The government is apparently helping out and covering some of the farmers’ costs and that’s probably a good thing (whatever they grow). As near as I can see the main complaint is that the Indian government isn’t providing crop insurance like the US does.

So do you think that maybe the Indian government should look into crop insurance to help protect its farmer? Regardless of what they grow, Bt cotton, conventional cotton or something else altogether, crop insurance is probably a good investment. Farming is risky business anywhere. If you are a subsistence farmer and your crop fails, you might starve to death. If you are an Indian cotton farmer and your crop fails, you might not be able to pay back loans you took out, or pay the dowry for your daughters to be married off (that dowry cost is specifically cited as the reason for the first suicide in this video).

Following this segment another farmer discusses how he decided to try growing non-Bt cotton using indigenous seeds without any pesticides or fertilizer. He explains that due to the unpredictability of the weather other farmers are scared into always following established practices and don’t have the courage to try anything novel (So how did they get the courage to try Bt in the first place?) His indigenous cotton grew faster than the Bt cotton of his neighbors. Yay for courage and innovation! (How did he get indigenous cotton seeds if no one has them anymore as is claimed repeatedly? Why hasn’t he spread the seeds around and shared his success story with his neighbors? He could start a business selling them, right?)

Harvesting cotton removes nutrients from his land. If he doesn’t put fertilizer on his field before next season, his harvest will probably decline. That will continue as long as he farms the same plot and doesn’t replenish what he removed. There’s nothing unique about Bt cotton in this regard. If you want to harvest crops you necessarily remove nutrients that were in the soil, and those nutrients have to be replenished somehow. This is Farming 101, and the Organic farming course I took from MOFGA last spring stressed this point repeatedly. Of course this fertilizer doesn’t need to be synthetic, but for some farmers there are few other options (the larger the field the more amount of manure or other organic matter you need to replace what you took out).

After this story we’re told about how the young people aren’t being educated. Then how they don’t want to be farmers anymore and are leaving their villages. Then we learn how one son of a farmer who committed suicide also tried to hang himself because he didn’t know how to farm, but had an education and couldn’t get a job with it. All of this is very inconsistent. Is there no education or no jobs for people with education?

Suicide of any kind is tragic. It’s made more tragic when people exploit it to push an agenda as some in the anti-GMO movement have done. There’s no doubt harms from globalization and economic injustice at various scales occurring there. But why pin this on biotechnology alone? It has performed as claimed.

The International Food Policy Research Institute is a non-profit think tank funded wholly by grants from governments, foundations and other non-profit organizations. None of its funding comes from corporations. Their mission is to find “sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty.” They’ve commissioned a couple studies that find Bt cotton is not a significant driver of Indian farmer suicides. People looking to exploit those suicides in the anti-biotechnology movement have attempted to link the IFPRI in some way to biotech corporations. I’ve gone so far as to read about the educational and professional backgrounds of the three researchers involved in their studies. Neither the institute itself nor the researchers have any connection to any biotechnology organization that I can find. Further, the institute has a neutral stance on biotechnology and sometimes takes positions at odds with the goals of major biotechnology companies. Clearly, their mission seems to be as stated–sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. It’s a worthy goal, and attempts to throw them under the Monsanto bus have mostly failed as far as I can see.

Here’s the first IFPRI paper on Bt cotton and Indian farmer suicides that was published in 2008 in PDF form:

Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence

The same researchers revisited the subject again in 2011. This is from the abstract of Bt cotton and farmer suicides in India: an evidence-based assessment (PDF):

Bt cotton is accused of being responsible for an increase of farmer suicides in India. In this article, we provide a comprehensive review of evidence on Bt cotton and farmer suicides. Available data show no evidence of a ‘resurgence’ of farmer suicides. Moreover, Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. Nevertheless, in specific districts and years, Bt cotton may have indirectly contributed to farmer indebtedness, leading to suicides, but its failure was mainly the result of the context or environment in which it was planted.

I went a little further in my research. This film Yield shows farmers in the state of Vidarbha. This is what wikipedia’s entry for farmer suicides in Vidarbha says of the matter:

There have been more than 200,000 farmers who committed suicide in Maharashtra in the last decade, out of which more than 70% farmers belong to the 11 districts of Vidarbha region. This is mainly because of the infertility of the land, lack of ample amount of water resources, lack of new technologies and due to the negligence of the state government towards the farmers’ needs. The main crop in Vidarbha is cotton, but the farmers growing it do not get their share from the government, which leads to the high distress among them, leading to the massive suicides. Due to the absence of any responsible counseling either from the government or society there were many farmers who did not know how to survive in the changing economy. Such stresses pushed many into a corner where suicide became an option for them.

I looked at the first IFPRI paper for references to Vidarbha. Can you believe this footnote on P. 36?!?

Some reports even mention rates of 50–60 percent from moneylenders in the district of Vidarbha.

In such an impoverished environment such high rates may be a necessity when many of the people borrowing cannot repay and lending is very risky. There’s a terrible catch-22 at work here, where the high interest rate makes farming an even bigger gamble than it already is, and because so many fail to make enough to pay back their expensive loans and kill themselves, interest rates remain high, guaranteeing a continued state of great misery and human suffering.

Vandana Shiva used to be a great hero of mine. But for distorting the truth of the myriad causes behind the Indian farmer suicides in order to damn Bt cotton, she fell very far in my esteem. She is visible in several sequences in Yield but doesn’t speak in the film at all. Her previous record on the subject is public and easily found. In fact, she completely denies what Vijay says in the quote I opened with above:

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.

But she doesn’t have to worry about crop failure. The Indian farmer suicide story earns her a nice living on the anti-biotech circuit. Her speaking fees are reportedly $40,000 USD per appearance. That’s good work… if you can get it. Maybe more Indian farmers can go on the US speaking tour with her and share some of that wealth.

Additional references:

Genetically Modified Crops and Food Security

Bt cotton cuts pesticide poisoning

Economic impacts and impact dynamics of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton in India

Interview with an Indian GMO farmer

Poor monsoon, prolonged dry spells worsen farmers’ distress (Wed, Aug 06 2014)

Playing God? Monsters, Miracles, and the Politics of Genetic Engineering (video)