The claim, based on an increase in total suicide rates across the country in the late 1990s, has become an oft-repeated story of corporate exploitation since Monsanto began selling GM seed in India in 2002.
Bt cotton, which contains a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to ward off certain insects, had a rough start. Seeds initially cost five times more than local hybrid varieties, spurring local traders to sell packets containing a mix of Bt and conventional cotton at lower prices. The sham seeds and misinformation about how to use the product resulted in crop and financial losses. This no doubt added strain to rural farmers, who had long been under the pressures of a tight credit system that forced them to borrow from local lenders.
But, says Glover, “it is nonsense to attribute farmer suicides solely to Bt cotton”. Although financial hardship is a driving factor in suicide among Indian farmers, there has been essentially no change in the suicide rate for farmers since the introduction of Bt cotton.
That was shown by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, who scoured government data, academic articles and media reports about Bt cotton and suicide in India. Their findings, published in 2008 and updated in 2011, 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.
And since its rocky beginnings, 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.
Glenn Stone, an environmental anthropologist at Washington University in St Louis, says that the empirical evidence for yield increases with Bt cotton is lacking. He has conducted original field studies and analyzed the research literature on Bt cotton yields in India, and says that most peer-reviewed studies reporting yield increases with Bt cotton have focused on short time periods, often in the early years after the technology came online. This, he says, introduced biases: farmers who adopted the technology first tended to be wealthier and more educated, and their farms were already producing higher-than-average yields of conventional cotton. They achieved high yields of Bt cotton partly because they lavished the expensive GM seeds with care and attention. The problem now is that there are hardly any conventional cotton farms left in India to compare GM yields and profits against, says Stone. Qaim agrees that many studies showing financial gains focus on short-term impacts, but his study, published in 2012, controlled for these biases and still found continued benefits.
Bt cotton did not cause suicide rates to spike, says Glover, but neither is it the sole reason for the yield improvements. “Blanket conclusions that the technology is a success or failure lack the right level of nuance,” he says. “It’s an evolving story in India, and we have not yet reached a definitive conclusion.”