The Selling of the Suicide Seeds Narrative

By Keith Kloor | January 7, 2014 11:28 am

Bitterseeds

Over the past decade, the story of hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers being driven to suicide because of the failure of their genetically modified cotton crops has circulated widely in the media and of course, in anti-GMO circles. An acclaimed 2011 documentary called Bitter Seeds chronicled the phenomenon. The film’s tagline is from a 2011 New York University think tank report.

Others have also documented this story with heartrending imagery. The tragedies of the suicides shown in the films and reported in all of the media accounts are real. The reasons often given, however, are false, as I have previously discussed. But the GMO/suicide narrative has persisted because leading environmentalists and influential writers and journalists continue to repeat it. They do this despite evidence to the contrary that has been reported in the Guardian, BBC, Canada’s National Post, and elsewhere.

Several years ago, Cornell political scientist Ron Herring gave an illuminating talk on this issue, in which he said:

Information flows through what I call authoritative brokers. Where do we get information we trust, especially with the Internet, and with the explosion of sources of information? None of us can incorporate all the possible sources of information and adjudicate them. Even if we could, we don’t have time. Most people don’t have the kind of expertise that’s required to understand what’s involved with genetic engineering of a crop. So we are dependent on brokers– all of us are.

Here’s a paper by Herring that elaborates on how “epistemic brokers” have sown global opposition to agricultural biotechnology. The successful propagation of the GMO/Indian farmer suicide narrative is a case study that is as fascinating as it is abhorrent. Nobody has unpacked it better than Herring. Here’s another paper of his from 2006 that reveals how the “suicide seeds” myth originated and why it failed to convince Indian farmers.

Still, as Herring and N Chandrasekhara Rao write in this 2012 article for the journal Economic and Political Weekly:

Much of the world believes that Prince Charles was correct in his 2008 pronouncement in New Delhi: “I blame GM crops for farmer suicides.” India has been a major source of the global narrative of catastrophe. Transgenic cotton seeds in India have been characterized not only as “suicidal,” but even “homicidal,” and finally, “genocidal” in prominent commentaries about rural India emerging from India and subsequently diffusing through global networks and media.

The catastrophe narrative is widely distributed but devoid of evidence.

Building on the work of Herring and other scholars, I have a long piece just published in Issues in Science and Technology that tells how this “suicide seeds” narrative was constructed, why it’s wrong, and why it endures.

UPDATE: In response to this this Nature article, Vandana Shiva, the prominent environmentalist who is a relentless promoter of the GMO/Indian farmer suicide narrative (which I show in my piece), recently said this:

Shutting out evidence from reality is a completely unscientific approach. Reality cannot be cooked up in papers, no matter how prestigious the journals in which these concoctions are published.

Additional information:

Read this from UK journalist Leigh Phillips (section halfway down piece called “Those Infamous Suicides in India”); this post by Siddhartha Shome, who drills down into what he rightly calls a “highly complex and multidimensional phenomenon”; this piece from India Forbes; and finally, this post from anthropologist Glenn Stone, who too notes: “Most of what is said on the issue spreads through highly polarized agenda-driven information networks.” (Interestingly, Stone is dubious about the success of Bt cotton in India. Herring argues persuasively that he is in denial.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, select
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    It is a terrible thing to offer the congenitally inconsequential a better future through gene-gineered crops (corn from teosinte, golden rice), researched medicine, or anything else. Making them more successful and viable awards them leisure and wealth in which to be angry. The British Empire and the Belgian Congo (a little heavy-handed) were much more viable business plans: Breed them and bleed them. Nobody then has the resources, will, or education to dissent. Add a dipsy religion and they are satisfied within their simple miseries.

    If a Raman or Ramanujan appears, pluck him for the home country, cherishing but isolating the outlier.

  • JonFrum

    When Herring cites Naomi Oreskes approvingly as a source, he loses me. It’s like citing Luther on the value of Papal indulgences.

  • mem_somerville

    It’s so refreshing to see this covered in depth. Geez, it’s been a good week on that front for this topic.

    I hope the people who need to hear this will actually get it, but I’m doubtful. This sentence really resonated with me:

    It is a self-validating closed loop.

    It’s so reminiscent to me of the vaccine dramas. If you blame the wrong cause (in that case MMR or mercury) you can’t get to the actual foundations or solutions because of the diversions. And there are real consequences to misplacing the blame, for the health and well-being of many.

  • J M

    Well, 3000 children under 5 die of malnutrition-related diseases every day in India. That’s over a million each year.

    http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/02/16/10424930-indias-hunger-shame-3000-children-die-every-day-despite-economic-growth?lite
    There is something rotten in India but I doubt GMOs are the cause.

    • Loren Eaton

      According to Unicef:

      1 in 3 of the world’s malnourished children lives in India.

  • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

    Figure 11 on page 27 of this IFPRI study (http://www.ifpri.org/publication/bt-cotton-and-farmer-suicides-india) doesn’t seem to leave much room for debate. Now, can we move on to naming and shaming the enablers?

  • Buddy199

    Some myths are too good to give up. They feed and reinforce a preconceived set of deeply held beliefs, as absolutely absurd and divorced from fact as they might be. If there’s blood involved, the myth becomes even more compelling. Who cares if it’s really true or not – it SHOULD be true! And that’s good enough, as every con man, Al Sharpton community organizer, ideologue with a cause and demagogue politician knows.

  • prasad

    Vandana Shiva’s blog post angers me for an additional reason separate from her inexcusable lies on farmer suicides. She writes:

    “During an interview in March, Vandana Shiva, an environmental and feminist activist from India, repeated an alarming statistic: ‘270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,’ she said. ‘It’s genocide.’”

    Yes, I am an ecologist and feminist. But I am also a scientist – a fact that Natasha intentionally avoids mentioning. As a Quantum Physicist, I have been trained to look at the interconnectedness and non-separability of processes, which in a mechanistic and reductionist paradigm, are seen as separate and unrelated.

    As a scientist, I have tried to understand what is driving our small farmers to suicide.

    Vandana Shiva did a PhD in the philosophy of physics, focusing on hidden variables in quantum mechanics. As a fellow “Quantum Physicist” I can say with complete conviction that exploring the ramifications of quantum indeterminacy has nothing whatsoever to do with the biology of GMO. And the claim that these studies tell her something relevant about ‘interconnectedness and non-separability’ in the social and cultural domain is weapons grade bullshit.

    “Dr” Vandana Shiva has about as much expertise on the biology or socioeconomics of GMO as Dr Laura has on homosexuality. You don’t need expertise to speak of course – any intelligent layman can make a study of an issue, and their arguments should be evaluated on their merits. But “Dr” Shiva has no bloody business lording her credentials over her critics. They simply don’t confer any relevant expertise.

    Shiva’s branding of herself as a “Quantum Physicist” is part of her being a Janus-faced ‘authoritative broker,’ in Ronald Herring’s words. For her western audience she’s a crunchy third-world eastern woman, who says everything that’s hip and au courant in their set. Back home she can be Doctor Shiva expert on Quanum Interconnectedness, with a degree from a western university. Both parts of this packaging are meretricious and disingenuous.

    • mem_somerville

      You had me at “weapons grade bullshit”.

      • Loren Eaton

        I concur…

    • scientist

      “I have been trained to look at the interconnectedness and non-separability of processes, which in a mechanistic and reductionist paradigm, are seen as separate and unrelated.”

      Basically, sounds like she reads tea leaves.

      • Buddy199

        Mumbai jumbo

        • scientist

          I think beyond that, it implies she has relieved herself of the burden of demonstrating causation.

          • Buddy199

            I guess if you sound “sciency” and have horn rimmed glasses that’s good enough.

    • Loren Eaton

      This woman is a quack and a dangerous one at that. With all this supposed expertise on ‘hidden variables’, you’d think she’d know the differecne between correlation and causation, and that while there was a spike in suicides between 1995 and 2002, there was a leveling off in that increase AFTER the cotton was launched. It is purposely misleading to quote a RAW NUMBER in this argument. It is also true that suicides in India are ridiculously high across the board and rates among farmers are actually LOWER than the public at large. Perhaps she should spend a little more time looking at Indian cultural oddities from the inside and stop looking for western scapegoats. But as you said Prasad, it is bad form on my part to have the temerity to criticize a ‘crunchy third-world eastern woman’ with a red dot on her head.

      • First Officer

        She does. Which makes her not merely horribly wrong, but willfully fraudulent.

  • alykatma

    Where in this article does it mention why these farmers are committing suicide? Not very good journalism when you are making your readers go to 30 different links to get these reasons or why the environmentalists arguments are false or why these farmers are killing themselves.

    • scientist

      This has already been widely discussed.
      “The reasons often given, however, are false, as I have previously discussed [link].”

      I think Keith was attempting to avoid rehashing that part of the story, and instead focus on the role of the information brokers.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      My post was written to: 1) alert readers to the “journalism” you suggest is missing–namely the nearly 5,000 word feature just published in Issues in Science and Technology–which deconstructs the false narrative; 2) to provide readers with links and background for some of the material that I used to put my story together; 3) to acknowledge my debt to the scholars who have already unpacked this false narrative–especially Cornell’s Ron Herring–whose work I lean heavily on.

      As for “30 different links” that seem off-putting to you, I provide them as a means of footnoting but mostly as a service to readers who are interested in diving more deeply into the story.

      • prasad

        This is a very detailed and valuable article, and one hopes it will have influence in blunting this talking point. Among the believers there isn’t much hope, but it can change minds at the margin, since the claim is so clearly incendiary, and so clearly false.

        Perhaps it could be useful to emphasize, info-box style, how the ’250k’ figure was arrived at?. AFAICT Shiva simply takes every Indian farmer suicide and attributes it to BT cotton.

  • First Officer

    You can feed a village for a year with what it takes to fly Vandana Shiva to her next Golden Rice protest.

    • bobito

      I really wonder about people liker her. She is smart enough to know she’s full of it. What’s the motivation? To cozy up to green’s with money to fund things she really cares about? I can’t believe it possible that she does believe all the things she says…

      People like her is why people believe in hell. There is no earthly punishment that would suffice…

  • JRLatham

    I wouldnt lean too heavily on Ron Herring if I were you, Mr Kloor. Herring told me that Indian NGOs were funded by the chemical industry because GMOs were a threat to their business (this accusation is common in India). I asked him for evidence of this and he told me he was told so by the Indian Prime Ministers office, so I said what evidence did they have. Ah! says Dr Herring, I asked them the same and they didnt have any. So I was left wondering why Dr Herring would try to pass off on me ‘information’ he had good reason to suspect was baseless.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      As as I said to you offline, I’ll reserve judgement until I hear Ron’s version of your exchange with him. Right now, he is traveling overseas, so he unavailable for a few weeks.

      Meanwhile, if you have any proof that GM cotton has driven 250,000 Indian farmers to suicide, I’d welcome seeing it.

  • MJ Chappell

    You say Herring “argues persuasively” he is in denial; perhaps you are not aware of Stone’s response (available at http://artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/research/stone/Stone%202013%20A_Response_to_Herring_and_Rao.pdf), but I would say Stone makes a plausible, if not more persuasive case that Ron’s arguments are off-base. Certainly, at the very least, readers should also access and consider Stone’s response, which was printed months ago.

  • MJ Chappell

    It’s worth noting (though I’m sure will be unpopular here to note) that it’s quite possible, if not likely, that GM seeds have contributed to the underlying problems causing farmer suicides. Stone wrote in 2011: “In fact Bt seed also appears to be exacerbating a key problem underlying the suicides: technology treadmills.

    Technology treadmills can have disastrous effects on farm management. I saw how badly farmers were trapped on the pesticide treadmill the first time set foot in Warangal in 2000: they kept asking me if I had, or knew of, a “new pesticide” because the insects had developed resistance to the last pesticide. In a bit of gallows humor, a group of farmers built a mountain of empty cans from the pesticides they had gone through (including chlorpyrifos, subject of a previous blog).

    Even worse was the “seeds treadmill,” with literally hundreds of hybrid seed brands appearing and disappearing on the stores, and the normal process of farmer evaluation breaking down.

    The seed and spray treadmills are slightly different, but both have viscious effects on local ecology, on farm economy, and on the farmer decision-making. And then, for a coup de grâce, they destroy the farmer’s confidence that he’ll ever dig his way out.

    Farms always have bugs; farmers always have debts. What is different about Indian cotton farming is this treadmill. (It’s not a problem with rice, which is the biggest crop in the area. Cotton farmers grow rice too but they hardly ever say it was their rice field that drove them to suicide. New rice varieties appear at a moderate pace that allows farmers to evaluate them.)

    Bt cotton has been generally effective in warding off caterpillars. It has not “failed” and has not run up farmer debts, no matter what the network of anti-GMO sources say. But it has now snagged farmers on a genetic technology treadmill. By 2009 there were 5 different Bt gene combinations going into 284 separate Bt hybrids. Before anyone figures out how these seeds function, they will be replaced. Now populations of the non-target pests are starting to explode, and biotech companies are working on new genes as a solution for that problem.

    But for Indian cotton farmers, the “solution” is the problem.” (http://fieldquestions.com/2011/05/13/do-not-read-gm-cotton-and-indian-farmer-suicide/)

    The problem is that it is extremely unlikely that we can conclusively resolve whether or not this exacerbation is the case, or whether the benefits outweigh the harms (i.e., treadmill effects), in the near term. I’m sure many will have a problem with Prof. Stone’s analysis, even though it is nuanced and backed by his extensive expertise and on-the-ground knowledge. But what worries me the most in these conversations is when *scientists* and *scientific work* are berated as unscientific because people disagree with their conclusions. What’s almost is bad is treating any study, critique, counter-critique, or what have you as the final word “refuting” or “proving” one complicated case or another. Science works, but in complicated problems it can take a long time to be conclusive. I fear that the complexity of the suicide and treadmill problems leaves us with plenty of opportunities to continue asserting one idea or another “correct” or “incorrect” based on the slow accumulation of studies that will likely not allow us to be conclusive about such a complex question in the near-term. (Even meta-analyses are not unimpeachable; the problems in social science are likely at least as large as those in ecology: http://www.rosenberglab.net/Pubs/Ecology1997v78p1277.pdf ; medicine: http://www.meta-analysis.com/pages/downloads/Publication-Bias%20Preface.pdf ; and the general possibility of herding: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6146/647.full?sid=7541d8f3-0883-438d-bcf5-bff88d17f1f0 ).

    This is not a paean to obfuscation. *GM crops did not *cause* the explosion of farmer suicides in India; the evidence is clear and convincing about that.* However, the evidence that the benefits outweigh the costs, that they have or have not *contributed* to the underlying mechanisms behind farmer suicides, or that they will be a fundamental part of the solution to the problems of continued poverty and hunger are bound up in conflicting, ambiguous, and confounded realities ( http://www.nature.com/news/case-studies-a-hard-look-at-gm-crops-1.12907; http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0081039#pone.0081039-Jacobsen1 ). It would be easier for all if “bad bad bad” or “good good good” were obviously the answer, but alas, we can not yet scientifically conclude either one ( http://fieldquestions.com/2013/01/13/this-is-your-brain-on-gmos/ ).

  • Vm

    if GM cotton was to blame for indian farmer economic hardship leading to suicide, then how come during the same time period african farmers who dont use GM cotton also experienced both economic hardship. They also experienced some toxic side effects from pestdicides?

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/14/mali-cotton-farmer-fair-trade

    also, the suicides started before GM cotton was introduced but after subsidies were removed. It fits perfectly. Low cotton prices would affect cotton farmers equally as long as they had no subsidies and thats what we see, GM cotton farmers (india) and non GM cotton farmers (africa) are both affected

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and 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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