The Real Seeds of Deception

By Keith Kloor | March 11, 2013 11:15 am

In October, Dan Charles, NPR’s food and agriculture correspondent, wrote an excellent piece headlined:

Top Five Myths of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted

There is one myth, however, that should have been included because of its widespread dissemination and emotive power. It is the one GMO myth that exploits real human tragedy and for that reason, I find it so offensive. It is a myth that, in 2008, Prince Charles fueled and the UK’s Daily Mail blew up, tabloid style. It is a myth that has since become part of the GMO discourse, largely unchallenged in the media. It is a myth that Vandana Shiva, a celebrated environmentalist, feminist hero, and globe-trotting icon, repeats every chance she gets, as she did on Friday, in an interview with Democracy Now: 

Two hundred and seventy thousand Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. That’s more than a quarter-million. It’s a genocide.

That seems pretty clearcut. Monsanto–the poster child for GMO evil–is responsible for farmers in India killing themselves. Lots of people, from the nutty fringes to respectable green media, have parroted this myth. A recent highly praised documentary gave it currency. I’ll get to that film in a minute, but first let’s check out one of the few articles that actually unspools this madness. Here’s some helpful context it provides:

The issue of farmer suicides first gained media attention in 1995 as the southern state of Maharashtra began reporting a significant rise in farmers killing themselves.

Other states across the country began noticing an increase in farmer suicides as well.

But it wasn’t until seven years later — in 2002 — that the U.S.-based agribusiness Monsanto began selling genetically modified cotton seeds, known as Bt cotton, to Indian farmers. The seeds produce insecticides and led to higher yields, but can be up to 10 times more expensive than regular cotton seeds.

Within years, a narrative began to take shape that farmers were getting into debt to pay for the seed and when they couldn’t repay the money were killing themselves. Another version was that the GM crop failed, leading to debt, leading to suicide.

It is a narrative that is hard to break.

Finally, a reporter figured out the real story. What I love most about this article is that it’s written by a journalism student–Rubab Abid–interning at the National Post. She took the time to investigate a claim taken at face value by many other journalists, including the esteemed Bill Moyers. In doing so, Abid also provided essential context to the larger (and very real) tragic story of suicide in India, a story with complex and heartbreaking cultural and socio/political dynamics.

Ironically, the documentary (Bitter Seeds) that perpetuates the GMO/Indian farmer suicide myth also indirectly captures those complex factors. I was actually quite moved by the film, which showed a side of the story that indicts Indian cultural mores and predatory lending practices way more than it indicts Monsanto. This is a side of the story that the Vandana Shiva’s of the world choose to ignore. But don’t take my word for it; watch the movie for yourself.

The truth is that the real causes of farmer suicides in India cannot be pinned on Monsanto, however venal you may regard the company. To discuss those causes you have to wade into a very complex equation that includes institutional, social, and governmental factors in India.  Doing this requires a cold objective eye and cultural sensitivity. I’m fairly certain that Vandana Shiva, in her heart,  knows well why so many Indian farmers have taken their lives over the last several decades. Just as I’m sure that she knows all about India’s high rate of suicide and the reasons for it. After all, she is a student of inequality and social justice. That Shiva prefers to keep the conversation squarely and inaccurately focused on GMOs and Monsanto reveals to me that she cares more about advancing an ideological agenda than addressing the root causes of suicide in India. That she has succeeded in exploiting real tragedy and distracting conversation away from those true causes is something I find utterly offensive.

Over the weekend, Shiva visited New York City to give a talk at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, which is close to my home. My wife and I love to stroll through this oasis with our two boys. It’s also a venerable institution that regularly hosts terrific educational programs, which we have attended. So what would my fellow Brooklynites learn from Shiva, I wondered? I had to find out.

To start, they would first learn a few things from Robin Simmen, the director of a community horticulture program at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, who introduced Shiva before her talk. Simmen said that when she and her colleagues were considering last year who could give the lecture, they decided to think big and reach out Shiva. “We are so, so grateful that the universe responded by blessing us with a true ecological visionary,” she told a capacity crowd  seated in an indoor auditorium. After listing some of Shiva’s career highlights, Simmens foreshadowed one of the topics that would be discussed, when she said “over a quarter million Indian farmers have committed suicide because of GMO seed.” The crowd gasped.

The myth had been successfully reseeded once again.

Shiva dutifully repeated and elaborated on this myth during her speech, the substance of which I will discuss in a follow-up post tomorrow. For now, let me jump ahead to the brief exchange I had with Shiva after her talk, outside the auditorium, where she was signing copies of one of her books. When it was my turn to approach the table where she sat, I introduced myself and mentioned to her that my NYU journalism class had done an exercise this semester, in which they looked into the facts of the GMO-Indian farmer suicide story.

As a point of reference, I had them read the infamous 2008 Daily Mail story. I also explained to my students that the central claim in the story–that 250,000 farmers had committed suicide because GMOs–has become popular lore. I then gave the students 20 minutes to root out legitimate sources of information that either supported or contradicted this narrative. To a person, they found that the main claim didn’t hold up and that the true story was much more complicated than people have been led to believe.

“My students found the Indian farmer-GMO link to be way overstated,” I said to Shiva.

“Not overstated,” she shot back. “Look at government data.”

I said they did. The students also found several comprehensive reports (such as this one) casting doubt on the link, I said. “Those are the Monsanto studies,” she replied. I realized this would not be a fruitful exchange, and didn’t want to hold up the line, so I said my thanks and moved on.

I have previously attempted to untangle this story, and I intend to keep doing so. Meanwhile, if you want some larger insight into it, read this by Cornell University’s Ronald Herring, and watch his talk.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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