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India farmers’ ‘seeds of suicide’: 200-year old story behind a modern tragedy

In 1998, a farmer in Warangal, India killed himself after a failed crop by drinking pesticide. His body was found hours later lying amidst his one-acre crop, which was overrun by worms. This suicide was one of many that were reported on at the time; the incidence was particularly high among cotton farmers. It set off much hand-wringing in the press: how was India failing its farmers?

The stated cause of this farmer’s suicide was debt, and many anti-GMO activists have linked a spate of similar tragedies to the introduction of GMO cotton — although the genetically engineered crop was not introduced into India until 2002. But if one looks deeper, one can see the real cause: modern crops and a modern economy abutted against a rural population that had changed little since the nineteenth century.

The story actually begins two centuries ago, in the 1820s. A cotton spinner in Bengal, India found herself at the edge of starvation. Her livelihood was disappearing; weavers didn’t call for her handspun yarn anymore, and if sent to the market, her yarn was undersold by foreign yarn that came from England. Not only was English yarn drastically cheaper, it was finer than hers. The heart-breaking letter where she recounts her struggles appeared in the newspaper Samachar Darpan, and was later quoted by Gandhi.

In the letter, she evinces surprise that yarn that comes from England can be sold so much cheaper than hers. She takes this to mean that her English counterparts, who hand-spin yarn like her, must be even more down-trodden than herself. “I beat my brow,” she writes, “…they have sent the product of so much toil out here because they could not sell it there.”

Unbeknownst to her, it was not poverty-stricken spinners in England who were bringing down the price of yarn, but rather, machines. The farmer who killed himself in 1998 in Warangal and the starving spinner of Bengal in the 1820s were both victims of the same technological disruption that still reverberates in the subcontinent today.

The old days

By 600 BCE, India had become the center of global trade in cotton. Households grew their own cotton intermingled with grain, hand-spun and hand-wove the cloth, satisfied their own needs, and traded the surplus. Cotton cloth of Indian manufacture was carried along rivers and across land on the backs of donkeys; in the west to Egypt, Rome and Greece, in the East — to China.

Indian craftsmen were sitting at the pinnacle of innovation. It was said that the muslin woven in Dacca was so fine that an entire six-yard saree could pass through a ring that fit on a woman’s finger. They had invented the spinning wheel which could triple the output of hand spindles, while the horizontal treadle loom made cloth with a finer weave than had been possible before.

The wild cotton plant grows hairs around its seeds to help them disperse. The cotton fruit splits along the sides when ripe, and exposes seeds studded in a coarse fluff. While many plants grow hairs around their seeds, cotton fluff is unique — each hair, which is a single, long cell, is covered with cellulose that is laid down in an alternating spiral. This causes each hair to develop a kink. The kink allows hairs to cling together, so they can be twisted into bundles and spun into yarn.

The plant invests some energy in growing this hair long, but for its purposes, it need not be very long. The plant must invest the rest of its energy in fighting pests, surviving drought and other stressors. There is tension between how long it allows its fibers to grow and how much it invests in itself.

Wild Gossypium arboreum Credit: KENPEI, GFDL,Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.1 Japan License
Wild Gossypium arboreum Credit: KENPEI, GFDL,Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.1 Japan License

Indian farmers cultivated a variety known as tree cotton (Gossypium arboretum). The cotton plant had evolved alongside their craftsmanship. The fibers were longer, finer and whiter than the wild cousins. But since this plant was native to India, it could also handle failed monsoons, it suited the soils, and it could beat the local pests. Its yield matched the speed of human harvesters. Before modern times the length of each hair had been bred up to half an inch.


In the early 1800s, England, which had until then been a bit player in cotton craftsmanship, caught up with India. In fact, Lancashire’s cotton mills kick-started the Industrial Revolution. A cascade of inventions such as the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny took over from human hands, while steam power took over from human power. As historian Sven Beckert writes in Empire of Cotton, in a mere three decades productivity went up so much that the machines in Lancashire could spin in 135 hours what Indian spinner would take 50,000 hours to do. It is no wonder that the spinner in Bengal found buyers wanting.

"Cotton mill" by E.L. Hoskyn
“Cotton mill” by E.L. Hoskyn

Lancashire’s vast hunger for raw cotton was satisfied by the American South — much ink has been spilled on slavery and how it powered cotton plantations there. But I want to focus on something not as well-known: the variety of cotton they grew. This was Upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), a native of the Americas.

Upland cotton is a remarkable plant. Much like its home country, its genome is a curious melting pot: united, but not assimilated. It is a hybrid of two wild cottons, one a new world native, the other an African. But their DNAs are not intermingled in the usual way: rather, they cohabit in each cell, so it retains the full characteristics of both ancestors. This strange form of hybridization, known as polyploidy, gives a plant vigor and robustness. Upland cotton obtained important qualities from each of its progenitors. The African parent gave it spinnable fibers, while the new world parent made it exquisitely responsive to cultivation.

Its fibers could be bred long and strong enough to handle the stress of machines, and yet fine enough to not make coarse cloth. Its yield grew as innovations in mechanical harvesting came along in the 1940s. More than 90 percent of world commercial cotton crop today is some variety of Upland cotton.

India’s messy progress

Meanwhile, Indian cotton craftsmen floundered. Even though Gandhi made some rather heroic (some say quixotic) attempts to revive the hand-spun cloth industry, it was ultimately in vain. Even in his day, cotton mills in the style of England’s began opening around the country. In the 1970s, when I was a child, the smokestacks of Girangaon (‘mill village’) that I could see from my window in Mumbai had been in place for a hundred years. The mechanization of cotton was complete. Today hand spun cloth in India is a boutique niche; even handlooms, which are a popular fashion statement, are made from machine-spun yarn.

"India United Mill 1" by Rohidas Gaonkar - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons
“India United Mill 1” by Rohidas Gaonkar – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

With Indian Independence in 1947, what Upland cotton fields India once had once were lost to Pakistan. Native cotton did not have fibers long enough or yields high enough to feed the mills. The onus then shifted to the Central Institute for Cotton Research, where scientists succeeded in breeding Upland hybrids honed for performance and suited to Indian soils. Yields by 1997 increased seven times greater than at the time of Independence.

This progress was welcome and necessary but did not come cheap. The new hybrids were cash crops. They did not put much energy into surviving drought, poor soils and pests. They were not resilient against monsoon failures so irrigation was needed. But 60 percent of farming in India was (and still is) rain-fed.

Aside from the expense of irrigation, farmers now needed inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers. But regulated credit has been impossible for most Indian farmers to get: most are tenant farmers, with unofficial holdings and unofficial agreements.

Many thus resorted to moneylenders who charged interest as high as 24 percent. Debt drove them to devote more lands to cotton (‘white gold’), because in good years it could make enough profit to fulfill their loans. Cotton often replaced food crops that they might have been wiser to grow.

What they had was a modern crop, a result of modern science. It had been bred for abundant fiber, which made it an unceasing attraction for pests. But farmers were ill-equipped to deal with it. Their knowledge came mainly from traditional farming. American farmers, learning the hard way, had moved on to integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, only using chemical pesticides as the last resort. But Indian farmers are plagued with illiteracy and insularity, and most were unaware of these advances. When they needed to fight pests, they reached for the ‘medicines’ on sale: chemical pesticides.

They were not educated in safe usage. Farm workers would go on foot across the fields with possibly just a piece of cloth held over their mouths as they sprayed. Overuse led to one particular pest, the old world bollworm, becoming resistant to four generations of pesticides in quick succession — from DDT to pyrethroids. By the late 1990s, this moth larva, which bores through immature bolls, had infested fields from the north in Punjab to the south in Andhra Pradesh. They were spraying more and more but fighting a losing battle. Some years, they would lose half their cotton to it. Eventually, although cotton is grown on only about 5% of land, it consumed up to 50% of all pesticides in India.

Bollworm damage in green boll
Bollworm damage in green boll

Farmers found themselves pinched on the side of profits as well. The Indian government liberalized trade policy around agriculture due to the WTO agreements in 1995. As a result, farmers found themselves exposed to world cotton prices that rose and fell capriciously. Nor was this truly free trade, since there continue to be large subsidies given to farmers in advanced countries, which brings down prices for those exports. By the mid-1990s, almost a decade before the introduction of GMO cotton, farmer suicides were in the news. They reached a peak in 2004, a drought year, when only a small number of Indian farmers used GM seeds.

Source: Nature 2013
Source: Nature 2013

In search of a villain

You might notice that one name has been conspicuously absent from my account — Monsanto. In fact, the greatest tragedy of this slow-moving tragedy was the lack of a villain. Yes, there were villains, but they were multiple and diffuse. Most were circumstantial. And the solutions were not glamorous: Loan Eligibility Cards for farmers. National Agricultural Insurance. Training. Research.

Monsanto brought GM technology to India in 2002. Even at the time, its promise was clear from the fact that the technology was energetically bootlegged in Gujarat. Over the next decade, it had shown benefits both in 50 percent reduced pesticide usage and doubling of farm incomes.

Nevertheless, the symbolism of Monsanto as the suicide-causing villain became an irresistible mind-worm that spread globally. One can see from interviews of activists at the time that Monsanto was being implicated due to guilt by association with industrial agriculture before GM technology had even taken root. Rumors spread that Monsanto was going to program their cotton to produce sterile seeds. Their product was thus derided as ‘terminator’ or suicide seeds, which morphed in meaning to seeds that cause (farmer) suicide. This notion gained currency from the deep suspicion with which people viewed genetically modified crops.

Thus, well-meaning people across the globe protested Monsanto’s entry into the Indian market, unaware that they were rejecting seeds that had been designed to solve specific problems. The search for a villain derailed any attempt to address the farmers’ real issues.

With thanks to agricultural entomologist Dr. T. M. Manjunath for advice and expertise.

Aneela Mirchandani blogs about food at The Odd Pantry, and can be found @TheOddPantry on Twitter . 

21 thoughts on “India farmers’ ‘seeds of suicide’: 200-year old story behind a modern tragedy”

  1. Well considered article. The theme that all was well in India until ge seeds were introduced, and that the cost of seed inputs broke farmers to the point of suicide, is pretty well defunct. The chart here is like others that elevated rates of suicide began well before introduction of ge cotton and shows no response of suicide rate since ge cotton was introduced other than perhaps a slight overall decline. I can believe in early years there was mismatch of the first cultivars endowed with the ge trait to some local growing conditions, but as the trait was added to more cultivars, that issue declined. Also as you and others have pointed out, prior to ge approval, there was a thriving bootleg market in ge seeds and I suspect some farmers were sold misrepresented and inferior seed whereby the eventual official approval of ge reintroduced some integrity to the marketplace.

    I think a lot of folks who continue to advance the suicides are the result of ge costs and failures narrative assume that even if not exactly true, there is no harm because it only harms Monsanto, so what. But you point out why it is important to get cause and effect right, because the implied solution, i.e. prohibit ge, would do very little, if anything, to ease the economic stresses Indian farmers face. Those stresses, as you’ve explained, are rooted in much more complex historical and economic contexts. Understanding those contexts, I would at the same time caution against any narrative that overhypes that ge cotton solves India’s farmers’ problems. It is probably more accurate to say that ge cotton gives Indian farmers an agronomic management tool to help cope with the competitive realities imposed by the global marketplace they now find themselves a part of.

    Thank you for an article that respects our intelligence.

  2. It is rather strange that for the historical economic perspective rather a good analysis is made, only to exonerate GMOs towards the end. The author seems to have forgotten what happened in Karnataka and Punjab over the years and where in agronomy, the increase in cotton production happened at a loss of pulses, millets and edible crops in India. If one were to increase land under agriculture, with traditional or hybrid varieties of cotton even then the production will go up. The usage of loopholes by companies like Monsanto to predict success of their technology is the problem, and then stating it as a matter of success smacks of sanctimonious behaviour. It is not a presumed villian, but it is the real villian so far as the problem of farmers suicide goes.

    One must remember that farmers adapt to economic scenario, when farmers were unable to sell cotton, they switched to other crops to which they had access to from seed to inputs. But today, if a farmer has to switch from growing cotton, he/she will have to go back to the market to get expensive inputs again, so today a farmer is at a much serious disadvantage than say 60 years ago.

    That is an issue which a company like Monsanto does not want addressed, so what if a few farmers die in an overly laden agricultural sector in India so long as GMO cotton is grown more and more to its ill gotten (and now illegal – since they had no permission to reap in royalties to their parent company) profit.

    • Yoda, I would suggest looking at the bar chart that shows suicide rate vs use of GE seeds, and then rethink your position, as the chart disproves your rather muddled points convincingly.

      • Farmer suicides reported by the NCRB were lopsided as of 2007 – as per our analysis (civil society) most suicides ignored due to other reasons were actually atrributed to stress related to cost of purchasing inputs (including BT seeds) and hence are attributed to this fact. So just because someone published some data in Nature does not hold it true – One has to see it on the ground.

        Secondly consider another analysis – Monsanto boasts that 90% of Cotton in India has been Bt since 2000 – and it reduced use of pesticides – so why did the cotton farmers have to buy pesticides to spray to their fields? It is because Monsanto lied about the resistance of their seeds and the issues with pests remained. The high costs of the Bt seeds only added as a multiplier to the overall cost for the farmers and eventually did result in their demise!!

        @danboersma:disqus – data and statistics can be managed to prove or disprove a point in the press – the reality however may be something else altogether – this article is actually quite lopsided in that respect and seems to be an industry sponsored mole to avoid blame onto itself for the crisis the farmers are in India today!!

        • So you imply that after 2007 the NCRB falsified data on farmer suicide, may I ask why the NCRB would do that and where one can find the actual data?
          The introduction of BT Cotton should reduce pesticide use but not abolish it. Aphids I believe are not affected so still have to be sprayed against. With an application rate of as you say 90% the bottom line is that farmers must still be pretty happy with the BT Cotton. See, I can accept that an official organization like the NCRB gets data wrong, but 90% of the farmers whose existence depends on cotton get it wrong as well? I find that not very logic.
          In the end you avoid all argumentation by dismissing this whole article as data manipulation and bought by industry, that’s poor.


          • The author of this article has had some very good interviews with ACTUAL farmers in India. Mr. Yoda-Bar should go read them at her blog. The farmers she interviewed were very candid about the advantages and shortcomings of Bt Cotton. The ads were obvious: dramatically higher yields, dramatically lower amounts of pesticide, dramatically higher profitability. The disads: farm labor has become more expensive as demand for harvesting services increases with yields, Bt Cotton needs more irrigation in non-monsoon periods, something not all farmers have access to. I will believe these anecdotes more than propaganda put out by some checkbook activist NGO.

            Mr. Yoda-Bar, just what does the following mean?

            “If one were to increase land under agriculture, with traditional or hybrid varieties of cotton even then the production will go up.”

            Are you suggesting there is some unused land in India just waiting for farmers to discover? And if such land existed, wouldn’t planting it with Bt Cotton and its dramatically higher yield lead to even greater harvests than planting it with traditional or hybrid lower yielding varieties? Just pointing out the obvious, and I am not a farmer.

          • @disqus_4vSU9PIIXU:disqus large swathes of land which was under millet/pulses/lentils was switched over in Vidharbha to cotton and mostly due to force, lies and coerced pressure by the government departments with the false promise that in a rain fed dry area like Vidarbha the Bt seed will work well – it turned out to be false.

            Then most of the land in Punjab which was under wheat rice was also turned into cotton by creating a false sense of market benefit that farmers will somehow get better prices for cotton. So a large part of existing arable land went under cotton.

            You need to get your facts right on land use in India!!

          • @Twan – You are right about NCRB gets the interpretation of the data wrong – eg in rapes – only now that rapes are being reported in FIRs are they finding their way to NCRB records. A commision setup by state governments went through the suicides to decide whether it should be linked to Bt cotton or not found that most cases reported were determined not to be due to Bt. But this was contrary to the position found by civil society and farmers groups working on the ground.

            The idea that 90% farmers are happy after a decade is absolutely untrue – ask dairy owners who feed their cattle with cotton seed cake from Bt, consumers who eat cotton seed oil from Bt and the farmers themselves – everyone is unhappy with Bt –

            Monsanto, the governments, departments threw their weight behind marketing this dubious seed to 90% of the cotton farmers and forced this adoption by a string of lies and deceit and hence you see a large scale adoption and also the reprecussions at a 10 year time frame – it will be altogether another story in the next 5 years when farmers voluntarilu throw out these so called “smart solutions” by companies like monsanto and switch to traditional straight line varieites of cotton –

            Then when it happens you will be on the convincing side of the story yourself and will not need to ask this questions to me. And mark my words well – it will happen sooner than you expect.

      • For every blog post there may be 10 other blog posts which show NPM/Organic/Traditional agriculture to be at par of better than Bt and GMO based agriculture. So blogs mean nothing – then again if someone with eminence talks to farmers and it is put on a blog it catches on – but if someone from civil society puts out data nobody trolls in its defence!! Hypocritical I would say – so many managed blog writers are paid by companies like Monsanto to promote their interest as well as have people defend them as Diqus or Twitter trolls – it can be managed – but if NGOs who speak the truth in an unbiased manner it us ignored and ganged upon!! So what is the truth – judge for yourself?

        • Mr. Yoda-bar, the problem with making false claims and then including a URL to back them up is that some reader might click on the URL and find out you are making up things out of thin air. The India Times article mentions a plague of whiteflies which is decimating Bt cotton in Punjab. Bt cotton is engineered to be immune to the common bollworm, not whitefly. According to the article, many pesticides suggested for use against the whitefly were ineffective. The reasons given were some pesticides were fake and some pesticides were applied improperly. How any of this can be a criticism of Bt cotton I don’t know.

          Lastly, everyone is very tired of the “Monsanto shill” gambit that is played over and over again against anyone who speaks reasonably about GMO. Until you provide proof or apologize for making the accusation, I will consider you a liar.

          • @disqus_4vSU9PIIXU:disqus your profile on disqus clearly shows that you are a lobbyist for GMO companies and are probably paid to have that bias. No matter what links I provide you are not going to change your stance due to your biases which prevent you from looking at the picture holistically. So I am not going to give you what you want – an endless discussion on this.
            Suffice to say that if I had enough money to pay you to lobby for say “Organic Farming” you may have done that even.

            Unprincipled to say the least! I rest my case.

  3. I read with interest your piece” India farmer’s seeds of suicide : a 200 year old story behind a modern tragedy”.

    It is good to see the way you traced the origins to the beginnings of Industrial Revolution and the invention of the spinning jenny and the fly shuttle. I work with an organisation involved with handloom weaving and weavers for the past two decades. We do follow with interest the journey of cotton and the impact of the post-liberal phase in the Indian economy, what it means to traditional modes of production like handloom weaving etc.

    The crisis in agriculture and the distress of cotton farmers impacts the livelihood of the weavers. I would like you to go through a piece in the Times of India(12/10/15) about cotton farmers in the State of Punjab. I would like your response.

    Syama Sundari

    • Thank you for writing in and thank you for your work with weavers.
      The whitefly is a pest that is not controlled by Bt — this is because Bt is a very targeted pesticide that attacks larvae of moths and butterflies (old world bollworm, pink bollworm, tobacco caterpillar). This is a good thing, because it is safe for beneficial insects.
      However, I have been hearing that the whitefly, which is a sucking pest, has become a big problem in Punjab and elsewhere. Farmers do not want to go back to non-Bt cotton because they will then be susceptible to the bollworms:
      But, I did see that there are some good organic and integrated methods of controlling whitefly upto 80%. Here is an educational video for farmers:
      There is also some work being done on genetic methods of resistance to whitefly. I’m not aware of any product though. Unfortunately, fighting pests is likely to be a constant battle for farmers who grow cash crops.

    • The answer to your questions is – It is difficult to know. But not impossible.

      From your profile it seems that you are a proponent of western medicine system who, having tried eastern medicine without good results blamed its efficacy in comparison. I respect your experience but will not go so far as to apply it generally or to myself, since my experiences greatly vary from yours!

      The problem really occurs when companies try to impost ‘their’ solution on the whole world in general as a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

  4. Farmers have urged the state government to pass the Compensation Guarantee Act for farmers who suffer damage to their crops due to various reasons, warning that the deepening farm crisis could cause social unrest.

    He said Bt cotton seeds were not resistant to various insects and pests. “Bt cotton that was launched with much fanfare some years ago has proved to be a liability for farmers. They even sprayed a lot of pesticide to save their crop, but in vain,” said Sandhu. He said though Bt seeds were banned in many countries, these were being sold in the country without any check.

    “Certain experts, who had warned against sowing Bt seeds, have been proved correct,” he said. He further demanded that Bt seeds should be banned immediately and farmers should be persuaded to switch to traditional seeds.

  5. In French here:

    It was a real pleasure because this article adds something to the sane and sober analyses.

    I have one query and two main pieces of criticism.

    The query is about the question of F1 hybrid seeds, which has not been addressed. More specifically, to what extent have farmers used to sow traditional varieties been at a loss when they switched to GM varieties which — unless I am mistaken — where all F1 hybrids, meaning that progeny seed did not yield and behave like the initial seed?

    The first element of criticism is about the husbandry requirements of upland cotton: more yield of course requires more input. That is independent of the type of cotton grown.

    The second is about market opening and WTO. It appears to me that, contrary to widespread propaganda, cotton growers in India have been fairly well insulated from the influence of world prices. I know, WTO is favorite for the Vandana Shiva’s of this world, but it is not borne out by the facts, at least for cotton.

    • Thanks for writing in and for reblogging.

      From my conversations with farmers (more to come on that, but check my blog for prior interviews) they were already using F1 hybrids developed by researchers in India at CICR and elsewhere. I’m not sure how many switched from native (‘desi’) cotton to Bt. My understanding is that most had left desi behind already and were growing Upland hybrids.

      You are right that more yield requires more input. However, I don’t think very high-yield varieties have been possible with native cotton, from what I have been reading.

      The government has tried to insulate farmers from world cotton prices by using MSP (minimum set price). However, farmers have often complained that MSP is set too low. So they are not completely insulated. But you are right I did not go into too much detail there.

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