Farmer Suicides in India

Field of cotton by Brian Hathcock via Flickr.

We’ve all heard about the tragic suicides of farmers in India, and we’ve all seen blame placed on Bt cotton. Vandana Shiva has been a leading finger pointer, saying that farmer suicides are due to genetically engineered crops (specifically, due to Monsanto), as in the April 2009 post From Seeds of Suicide to Seeds of Hope: Why Are Indian Farmers Committing Suicide and How Can We Stop This Tragedy?, instead of focusing on real problems like the lack of fair credit.
The farmer suicides in India were studied in depth in an October 2008 report Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence by IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute). I covered the report over at Genetic Maize in Bt cotton and suicides in India, but I have zero experience in India, so it wasn’t a very in depth post. Happily, I have just found the post I wish I had the experience to write!
Siddhartha Shome writes about India and agriculture (among other things) at Sid’s Blog. His November 2008 post P. Sainath and Farmers’ Suicides in India is as relevant as the day it was written. I hope you’ll take a look. His recent post Frequently Asked Questions about GMOs and Bt-Brinjal is well worth a read as well.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.


  1. What I find interesting is that Shiva has not gone beyond there mere claim of a correlation of high suicide in high BT cotton-growing regions. As we know, any number of factors can account for such a correlation, including the inverse – that regions that are doing really poorly and have high suicide rates may be switching to Bt cotton. Finally, the correlation fails because as Bt cotton acreage has continued to climb, suicides have not.
    I find it wholly odd that Shiva has training in science – she has a Ph.D in Physics, and yet, this passes for a factual claim.

  2. Workin’ on it…
    Done! Very good, particularly how the very issue of the suicide rate and what it means is in question, along with considering many various factors. The pattern that I notice in the discussion of farmer suicides in India is that there are a lot of internal problems, and it appears that the anti-globalization movement have latched onto genetic engineering as an external influence, and are ignoring the internal ones. Thus, opposing GE because there are US companies that make it is seen as a necessary step to further that agenda, whether or not it has contributed to suicide rates. One of the reasons why I hate politics!
    But yet I continue to read and analyze it…

  3. Hi Anastasia, thanks a lot for linking to my posts on farmers’ suicides and GMO crops. I enjoyed reading the Biofortified blog.
    Karl, you should not be surprised at Vandana Shiva’s wild claims. Despite her Ph.D. in physics she has intense antipathy towards science and rationality. She believes that “science is the source of violence against women and nature”. For people like Shiva, their message is directed mainly towards a Western audience, so they need to have a target (multinationals/GE) that the Western audience can relate to. Criticizing the cotton procurement policy of the Maharashtra state govt is not going to play well with the audience in Berkeley.
    Anastasia, one minor quibble: when referring to my post, it should “his” not “her”.

  4. -Fixed!
    I had to look up the quote, and lo and behold, here it is:
    “Reductionist science is a source of violence against nature and women because it subjugates and dispossesses them of their full productivity, power, and potential.”
    That couldn’t be more wrong. I find many critiques against reductionism severely lacking. For one thing, they often don’t understand what reductionism is, technically, and rely on cultural caricatures of it. Second, the charge of ‘reductionism!’ is usually only applied to those things that the author dislikes, while other things that are reductionistic are ignored. And finally, settling on reductionism itself as the problem that must be dealt with is, itself, reductionistic!
    I should be used to these kinds of things considering the other controversies surround science that I have followed. But it still does I guess.

  5. I’m happy to have found your blog, Sid.
    Critiques against reductionism frustrate me, mainly because without some amount of reductionism, applying the scientific method is impossible. It is a little amusing that reductionism that they like is ok.

  6. The reductionism that Vandana Shiva refers to is science’s reason-and-evidence based approach, which minimizes the importance of other approaches to viewing the world, such as religion-based, or superstition-based approaches. In Shiva’s view this reason-based approach is a Western approach than has been forced upon non-Western cultures. Contrary to what Shiva says however, many people in the non-Western world have found a reason-and-evidence-based worldview to be liberating and empowering, not only because of the material and economic benefits of reason-based science and technology, but also because it allows them to challenge long held dogmas and prejudices and social hierarchies. I have written about this here (a rather long read).

  7. Thanks for linking to this. I’m starting to find it really despicable how some people are using these suicides in GMO arguments.

  8. The cultural factors in India do seem to be very different from the US, which is what I am more familiar with. Different history, traditions, religion, etc. For example, the language of imperialism has been used in the discussion over genetic engineering in India for the reason that the country was controlled by the British. An outside company from the “Western World” then represents the same oppression. I wonder how the dynamic would be different if their first food crop was home-grown. Can you say Tomato?

  9. I think that a completely home-grown GM food crop like the long lasting tomato might well have had a different reaction in India. In China they seem to emphasize a lot more on home grown GM technology. But it is really difficult to make “what if” predictions with the GM food issue because it is not a matter of science with clear cut causes and effects. This is a game of moving goalposts. Anti-GMO activists are good at picking holes, creating doubt, and scaring people. If one doubt is addressed, they can come up with some other doubt. Maybe with the tomato as well, if the “multinationals are evil” line cannot be used, they will find something else to scare people.
    In India, the relationship with the “Western World” is complex and often confused. Sometimes things are rejected because they come from the West. But it can work the other way too. Sometimes the sentiment is “if it is good enough for Americans, it is surely good enough for us”.

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