[back] Farmer suicides
The GM genocide: Thousands of Indian farmers are committing suicide after using genetically modified crops
Last updated at 12:48 AM on 03rd November 2008
When Prince Charles claimed thousands
of Indian farmers were killing themselves after using GM
crops, he was branded a scaremonger. In fact, as this
chilling dispatch reveals, it's even WORSE than he
The children were inconsolable. Mute with shock and fighting back tears, they huddled beside their mother as friends and neighbours prepared their father's body for cremation on a blazing bonfire built on the cracked, barren fields near their home.
As flames consumed the corpse, Ganjanan, 12, and Kalpana, 14, faced a grim future. While Shankara Mandaukar had hoped his son and daughter would have a better life under India's economic boom, they now face working as slave labour for a few pence a day. Landless and homeless, they will be the lowest of the low.
Human tragedy: A farmer and child in India's 'suicide belt'
Shankara, respected farmer, loving husband and father, had taken his own life. Less than 24 hours earlier, facing the loss of his land due to debt, he drank a cupful of chemical insecticide.
Unable to pay back the equivalent of two years' earnings, he was in despair. He could see no way out.
There were still marks in the dust where he had
writhed in agony. Other villagers looked on - they knew
from experience that any intervention was pointless - as
he lay doubled up on the ground, crying out in pain and
Moaning, he crawled on to a bench outside his simple
home 100 miles from Nagpur in central India. An hour
later, he stopped making any noise. Then he stopped
breathing. At 5pm on Sunday, the life of Shankara
Mandaukar came to an end.
As neighbours gathered to pray outside the family home, Nirmala Mandaukar, 50, told how she rushed back from the fields to find her husband dead. 'He was a loving and caring man,' she said, weeping quietly.
'But he couldn't take any more. The mental anguish
was too much. We have lost everything.'
Shankara's crop had failed - twice. Of course, famine and pestilence are part of India's ancient story.
But the death of this respected farmer has been
blamed on something far more modern and sinister:
genetically modified crops.
Shankara, like millions of other Indian farmers, had been promised previously unheard of harvests and income if he switched from farming with traditional seeds to planting GM seeds instead.
Distressed: Prince Charles has set up charity Bhumi Vardaan Foundation to address the plight of suicide farmers
Beguiled by the promise of future riches, he borrowed money in order to buy the GM seeds. But when the harvests failed, he was left with spiralling debts - and no income.
So Shankara became one of an estimated 125,000 farmers to take their own life as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops.
The crisis, branded the 'GM Genocide' by campaigners,
was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed
that the issue of GM had become a 'global moral
question' - and the time had come to end its unstoppable
Speaking by video link to a conference in the Indian
capital, Delhi, he infuriated bio-tech leaders and some
politicians by condemning 'the truly appalling and
tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India,
stemming... from the failure of many GM crop varieties'.
Ranged against the Prince are powerful GM lobbyists and prominent politicians, who claim that genetically modified crops have transformed Indian agriculture, providing greater yields than ever before.
The rest of the world, they insist, should embrace
'the future' and follow suit.
So who is telling the truth? To find out, I travelled to the 'suicide belt' in Maharashtra state.
What I found was deeply disturbing - and has profound
implications for countries, including Britain, debating
whether to allow the planting of seeds manipulated by
scientists to circumvent the laws of nature.
For official figures from the Indian Ministry of Agriculture do indeed confirm that in a huge humanitarian crisis, more than 1,000 farmers kill themselves here each month.
Simple, rural people, they are dying slow, agonising
deaths. Most swallow insecticide - a pricey substance
they were promised they would not need when they were
coerced into growing expensive GM crops.
It seems that many are massively in debt to local money-lenders, having over-borrowed to purchase GM seed.
Pro-GM experts claim that it is rural poverty,
alcoholism, drought and 'agrarian distress' that is the
real reason for the horrific toll.
But, as I discovered during a four-day journey through the epicentre of the disaster, that is not the full story.
Death seeds: A Greenpeace protester sprays milk-based paint on a Monsanto research soybean field near Atlantic, Iowa
In one small village I visited, 18 farmers had
committed suicide after being sucked into GM debts. In
some cases, women have taken over farms from their dead
husbands - only to kill themselves as well.
Latta Ramesh, 38, drank insecticide after her crops failed - two years after her husband disappeared when the GM debts became too much.
She left her ten-year-old son, Rashan, in the care of relatives. 'He cries when he thinks of his mother,' said the dead woman's aunt, sitting listlessly in shade near the fields.
Village after village, families told how they had fallen into debt after being persuaded to buy GM seeds instead of traditional cotton seeds.
The price difference is staggering: ?10 for 100 grams
of GM seed, compared with less than ?10 for 1,000 times
more traditional seeds.
But GM salesmen and government officials had promised
farmers that these were 'magic seeds' - with better
crops that would be free from parasites and insects.
Indeed, in a bid to promote the uptake of GM seeds,
traditional varieties were banned from many government
The authorities had a vested interest in promoting
this new biotechnology. Desperate to escape the grinding
poverty of the post-independence years, the Indian
government had agreed to allow new bio-tech giants, such
as the U.S. market-leader Monsanto, to sell their new
In return for allowing western companies access to
the second most populated country in the world, with
more than one billion people, India was granted
International Monetary Fund loans in the Eighties and
Nineties, helping to launch an economic revolution.
But while cities such as Mumbai and Delhi have
boomed, the farmers' lives have slid back into the dark
Though areas of India planted with GM seeds have doubled in two years - up to 17 million acres - many famers have found there is a terrible price to be paid.
Far from being 'magic seeds', GM pest-proof 'breeds'
of cotton have been devastated by bollworms, a voracious
Nor were the farmers told that these seeds require double the amount of water. This has proved a matter of life and death.
With rains failing for the past two years, many GM
crops have simply withered and died, leaving the farmers
with crippling debts and no means of paying them off.
Having taken loans from traditional money lenders at
extortionate rates, hundreds of thousands of small
farmers have faced losing their land as the expensive
seeds fail, while those who could struggle on faced a
When crops failed in the past, farmers could still save seeds and replant them the following year.
But with GM seeds they cannot do this. That's because
GM seeds contain so- called 'terminator technology',
meaning that they have been genetically modified so that
the resulting crops do not produce viable seeds of their
As a result, farmers have to buy new seeds each year
at the same punitive prices. For some, that means the
difference between life and death.
Take the case of Suresh Bhalasa, another farmer who
was cremated this week, leaving a wife and two children.
As night fell after the ceremony, and neighbours
squatted outside while sacred cows were brought in from
the fields, his family had no doubt that their troubles
stemmed from the moment they were encouraged to buy BT
Cotton, a geneticallymodified plant created by Monsanto.
'We are ruined now,' said the dead man's 38-year-old
wife. 'We bought 100 grams of BT Cotton. Our crop failed
twice. My husband had become depressed. He went out to
his field, lay down in the cotton and swallowed
Villagers bundled him into a rickshaw and headed to
hospital along rutted farm roads. 'He cried out that he
had taken the insecticide and he was sorry,' she said,
as her family and neighbours crowded into her home to
pay their respects. 'He was dead by the time they got to
Asked if the dead man was a 'drunkard' or suffered
from other 'social problems', as alleged by pro-GM
officials, the quiet, dignified gathering erupted in
anger. 'No! No!' one of the dead man's brothers
exclaimed. 'Suresh was a good man. He sent his children
to school and paid his taxes.
'He was strangled by these magic seeds. They sell us
the seeds, saying they will not need expensive
pesticides but they do. We have to buy the same seeds
from the same company every year. It is killing us.
Please tell the world what is happening here.'
Monsanto has admitted that soaring debt was a 'factor
in this tragedy'. But pointing out that cotton
production had doubled in the past seven years, a
spokesman added that there are other reasons for the
recent crisis, such as 'untimely rain' or drought, and
pointed out that suicides have always been part of rural
Officials also point to surveys saying the majority
of Indian farmers want GM seeds - no doubt encouraged
to do so by aggressive marketing tactics.
During the course of my inquiries in Maharastra, I encountered three 'independent' surveyors scouring villages for information about suicides. They insisted that GM seeds were only 50 per cent more expensive - and then later admitted the difference was 1,000 per cent.
(A Monsanto spokesman later insisted their seed is
'only double' the price of 'official' non-GM seed - but
admitted that the difference can be vast if cheaper
traditional seeds are sold by 'unscrupulous' merchants,
who often also sell 'fake' GM seeds which are prone to
With rumours of imminent government compensation to stem the wave of deaths, many farmers said they were desperate for any form of assistance. 'We just want to escape from our problems,' one said. 'We just want help to stop any more of us dying.'
Prince Charles is so distressed by the plight of the
suicide farmers that he is setting up a charity, the
Bhumi Vardaan Foundation, to help those affected and
promote organic Indian crops instead of GM.
India's farmers are also starting to fight back. As
well as taking GM seed distributors hostage and staging
mass protests, one state government is taking legal
action against Monsanto for the exorbitant costs of GM
This came too late for Shankara Mandauker, who was
80,000 rupees (about ?1,000) in debt when he took his
own life. 'I told him that we can survive,' his widow
said, her children still by her side as darkness fell.
'I told him we could find a way out. He just said it was
better to die.'
But the debt does not die with her husband: unless
she can find a way of paying it off, she will not be
able to afford the children's schooling. They will lose
their land, joining the hordes seen begging in their
thousands by the roadside throughout this vast, chaotic
Cruelly, it's the young who are suffering most from
the 'GM Genocide' - the very generation supposed to be
lifted out of a life of hardship and misery by these
Here in the suicide belt of India, the cost of the
genetically modified future is murderously high.