Why is Monsanto killing Indian farmers? They’re not.

Go to any activist website and you will see a number of accusations of evil on the part of GMOs and Monsanto. Judging by these websites, it seems the dreaded agro-company has no limit to its influence and nefarious tactics. One major story is that Monsanto is forcing Indian farmers into debt through expensive seed that cannot be saved and fails to produce any substantial yields. Farmers in their desperation turn to suicide to escape the clutches of Monsanto by supposedly drinking the pesticides of the company they are indebted to. And through these diabolical tactics, GM crops have become 95% of India’s planted cotton because apparently all one needs to do is invest millions of dollars into genetically modified seed that doesn’t work in order to control the food supply.

Like all anti-GMO stories, there is a small kernel of truth and a whole lot of propaganda. It is true that Indian farmers have unacceptably high rates of suicides that are connected to inescapable debt. That being said, it is a combination of predatory banking (Monsanto is not a bank), arid regions with poor irrigation, and a liberalized economy that leaves poor farmers vulnerable. Let’s explore the history of Monsanto, Bt cotton, and Indian farmer suicides.


Stealth seeds – the smuggling of Bt cotton

GMO - Bollworm

Bollworm damage

The story of how Bt cotton found its way into India is rather fascinating, and not what one would expect. It did not end up in the fields of Indian farmers through predatory corporations or shady government officials. Rather, it was smuggled into the country by seed dealers. D.B. Desai, also known as the “Robin Hood” of GM, is the owner of the seed company that brought Bt cotton into the country. It should be noted that this is not unusual. In fact, even non-GM seed have been smuggled into India in the past forcing regulators to allow a new varietal.

Bt cotton was dealt on the black market, and farmers attempted to use it when they could. Due to the nature of a black market, there was a lot of confusion on what was genuine and what was fake. Sometimes farmers would be sold non-Bt cotton as having the Bt trait, and would end up with poorer performance than expected. Scenarios like this contributed to some early stories of failed crops. [4] Yet, the black market Bt cotton remained popular when it could be acquired and for years farmers stealthily used the seeds in order to protect their crops.

Then, in 2001, a large bollworm infestation hit India. Regarding one province, Gujarat, Herring states that:

“Gujarat saw all its traditional hybrid cotton crop standing devastated, side-by-side the Bt-gene crops standing resplendent in their glorious bounty. The Government was upset and ordered destruction and burning of the bountiful crop.”4

The great reveal wasn’t through a scandal involving smugglers, corporations, or people being exploited – it was through the GM crops standing unmolested among the devastation that wracked the cotton industry. The government was angry as it had already banned the use of GM crops and directed local officials to destroy the smuggled Bt cotton, despite the clear success of the trait. Needless to say, farmers were angry. After the infestation they were not prepared to see what was left burned and they reacted:

“On 25 March 2002, farmer representatives led by Sharad Joshi – a member of the Kisan [agriculturalist] Coordination Committee (KCC) – threatened to launch a civil-disobedience movement if Bt cotton were not approved by Delhi. KCC representatives from cotton-growing states across India – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh – rallied for immediate approval, and threatened to cultivate transgenic varieties whether or not the government approved.”4

The cotton farmers stood up to the Indian government and demanded that not only their crops remained untouched, but that the government should deregulate the Bt trait for cultivation as well. The reality for the Indian government was that Bt cotton was widespread and visibly successful and to force farmers to have their crops destroyed would have been unthinkable.

A. K. Dixit, Director of Agriculture for Gujarat, said: ‘It is impossible to control something at this large a scale. When we go to the fields, we become targets for trying to take away a beneficial technology from farmers.’4

This is the part of the story you won’t read on any activist websites because it doesn’t fit the narrative of poor farmers being exploited by agro-corporations. Stories about poor farmers smuggling and fighting for the right to use GM seed does not help groups like Greenpeace. Instead, the stories of these farmers are ignored and Monsanto is targeted in order to rally activists and urban elites. A combination of smuggling, biopiracy, and the success of black market seeds forced Bt into the mainstream and opened the next segment of the story of Bt cotton in India.


Indian cotton – from zero to economic hero

Prior to 2002, when Bt cotton was deregulated, India’s cotton production languished. Yields were some of the lowest in the world, while area dedicated to cotton cultivation was the highest. [7] Farmers were spraying large amounts of insecticides to combat pests yet yields remained low, resulting in high production costs. The black market GM seed gave farmers a useful tool in the fight against pests. Despite the higher costs and scarcity of Bt seed, farmers were willing to use any means necessary to fight the bollworm and other pests. The eventual deregulation of Bt cotton lead to steady adoption among farmers.

Indian cotton production, 1961 – 2013. Bt cotton was deregulated in 2002. (FAOSTAT)

India’s economic progress with cotton production has seen a major shift since Bt cotton deregulation:
– Prior to Bt deregulation India was seeing an average yield of 300 kilograms per hectare. [6]
– By 2008, Bt cotton had nearly doubled the nation’s average yield per acre and turned India from a cotton importer to a major exporter. [3]
– According to FAOSTAT, in 2002 India had imported 230,000 tons of cotton and by 2012 was exporting 1.9 million tons of cotton a year.*
– Between 2002 and 2013, area use for cotton increased by roughly 26% while total production increased by 313%.*
– By 2013 adoption rates of the GM crop reached 95%. [8]


Bt cotton adoption has steadily risen over time. Overall yields have increased accordingly. [3]

It has become clear to farmers, firms, and government regulators that Bt cotton is here to stay, even if activists and urban elites choose to stay in denial. The yield increases, change from cotton importer to cotton exporter, and high adoption rate indicate that Bt cotton is popular and effective. We’ve looked at the macro-level effects of GM cotton, so why do farmers enjoy it so much?


Performance – the driver behind Bt cotton adoption

By the time of the bollworm infestation in 2001, farmers were already finding that Bt cotton was useful, but due to the illegal status of such crops very little was known about their empirical performance. Since their deregulation in 2002, Bt cotton crops have been under close scrutiny of an assortment of organizations. Activists, public researchers, government officials, and biotech companies have been paying close attention to the adoption rates and performance of Bt cotton in India as a real world case study of what biotech crops can do in a developing economy. Still, the most important actors here are the farmers themselves – the heroes of our story.

Some studies were conducted in a limited amount of provinces, or covered all provinces. [3]

Farmers have been able to drastically reduce the amount of insecticides sprayed and, despite the higher cost of Bt seed, the higher profits make up for higher input cost. In 2005, a study by the University of Andhra found that Bt cotton farmers earned three times more than non-Bt cotton farmers in the Guntur district and eight times more in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, India. [3] Not only is there a financial benefit here, there is also an underlying health benefit to farmers since they are spraying less, especially since children often work in these fields.

Furthermore, in a study examining the spillover effects of Bt cotton, researchers found that households where Bt cotton was grown had higher rates of antenatal checkups, professionals to handle child births, vaccination rates, and children enrolled in school. While this may be because more successful farmers were more likely to adopt new technology, it was found that even new households growing Bt cotton had generally higher rates. [13]

Additional Bt traits have been brought into the market by indigenous firms. [3]

Another interesting aspect of the use of Bt cotton in India is that Monsanto is not the only corporation selling seeds with the Bt trait. While Monsanto does work with an Indian seed company, Mahyco, in a join venture, there are other Bt traits that have been developed by indigenous firms. Not only has Monsanto not forced farmers to use their seeds, other firms have also developed their own traits. GM cotton has proved popular with both farmers and indigenous biotech firms in India.


Farmer suicides – a real problem surrounded in myth

The narrative being pushed by the anti-GMO movement is that Monsanto has forced farmers into crippling debt and a perpetual racket where they are obligated to constantly buy new seed from the agro-company. It is important to note, that under the Indian Seed Act of l966, section 24, farmers are allowed to save seed and sell seed to other farmers. There is no legal mechanism by which Monsanto, or any of the other biotech companies, could force farmers to purchase new seed or prevent the saving and redistribution of seed in India. Additionally, the so called “terminator-seed” that ensures a plant cannot produce has never been sold. There is no corporate control here.

As with all myths there is an origin to this part of the story: cotton in India is mostly hybrid, and by the second generation hybrid plants lose vigor and consistency. While hybrids perform better, farmers will need to purchase new seed to retain vigor. This is true of all hybrid cotton – GM and non-GM. Fortunately, the profits from higher yields more than offset the higher seed costs. Farmers can, and sometimes do, save this hybrid seed, but will experience a loss in performance. The Bt trait itself is not affected, but overall performance of the crop will decline and be inconsistent. F2 generation seeds and black market fakes have contributed to reports of Bt crop failures.

Hybrids combine the best traits of two parents, but lose vigor after the first generation. http://m.plantphysiol.org/content/early/2015/05/22/pp.15.00231.full.pdf

There have also been claims that the Bt trait has failed, leading to crop failures with expensive seed. These reports are likely due to the inconsistencies of the early products as a result of the black market, F2 generation seeds being sold as second-hand product, and incorrect cultivars. Critics fail to realize that Bt is not unique to one cultivar, and often times the use of the wrong cultivar can lead to a loss in yields, especially since early on the Bt trait was not bred into most of the available varietals. [4, 6]

So why are farmers committing suicide? Studies have pointed to a variety of reasons, but generally agree on three main and interrelated factors: a predatory banking system, poor irrigation infrastructure, and a newly liberalized economy. [6, 10]

In order to afford seed, fertilizer, equipment, and pesticides, poor farmers must often take out loans with the hope that these loans can be paid back after a harvest is sold. If a farmer experiences a crop failure, they are unable to pay back loans and enter into a situation where they are harassed by these predatory banks. Exacerbating this situation is the poor level of irrigation infrastructure in India. About 60% of India is rain dependent and, according to the World Bank, only 35% of the country is irrigated. The arid regions of India tend to be used for cash crops, like cotton, rather than for food crops. This means that cotton is more likely to experience crop failure as a result of poor irrigation and geographical concerns, not because of the Bt trait. Additionally, this problem predates the introduction of Bt cotton into India. [6, 10]

Bt_Cotton_Hectares_and_Farmer_Suicides_Time_Trend_India (1)
Farmer suicides predate the deregulation of Bt and has seen a general downward trend. [6]

The most upsetting part of this story is that there is a genuine social ill in Indian agriculture that must be addressed, but by painting Monsanto and GMOs as the source of these problems activists are diverting attention away from legitimate concerns. An example is that once the Indian economy was fully opened to outside trade, farmers could no longer offset crop loses with higher prices. This highlights the vulnerability of poor farmers to liberalized economies in the developing world. But rather than addressing this problem we see claims that Monsanto is killing farmers when in reality this is patently false.


Fighting GM success – false narratives make good propaganda

The story of cotton in India is a fascinating one. It involves smugglers, farmers fighting for GM crops, economic problems, and social ills. It is a complex situation that doesn’t neatly fit into any one narrative. Bt cotton has been successful in helping turning India into a cotton exporter, yet the country is still plagued by banking problems and irrigation issues. If anything, India is a perfect example that socio-economic issues cannot be solved with a silver bullet. Complex problems require critical thinking and an attention to detail. Unfortunately, these are often overlooked when creating anti-GMO / anti-corporate narratives.

The disconnect between the overwhelming findings in studies and what is being reported by anti-GM critics is disappointing, to say the least. The reporting of this story has been irresponsible and a blatant attempt to create a narrative of corporate misconduct. This simultaneously diverts attention away from a genuine problem and trivializes real events of economic exploitation and the vulnerability of the poor – in this case, a predatory banking system and poorly developed irrigation that the vulnerable farmers of India rely on.

NGOs and activists cannot continue to claim that they care about the poor and vulnerable if they insist on hijacking the stories of the exploited for the purposes of discrediting biotechnology. Demonizing the tools of the farmers while pretending to care about their plight comes across as contradictory. Their so-called skepticism is in reality denialism and an attempt to maintain ideological purity.

The case of Bt cotton in India is an example that progress cannot be stopped, only shaped. Something will eventually overcome the obstacles to progress – and in this case it was cotton farmers of India.




*FAOSTAT: Current production stats can be found at here. Import/export stats can be found here.

[1] Bennett R., Ismael  Y. and Morse S. (2005). Explaining contradictory evidence regarding impacts of genetically modified crops in developing countries. Varietal performance of transgenic cotton in India. The Journal of Agricultural Science, 143, pp 35-41.

[2] Choudhary, B., and Kadambini, G. 2010. Socio-Economic and Farm Level Impact of Bt Cotton in India 2002 – 2010. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). An e-copy of the report is available here.

[3] Choudhary, B., and Kadambini, G. July 2010. Bt Cotton in India: A Country Profile. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). An e-copy of the report is available here.

[4] Herring, Ronald J. 2007 Stealth Seeds: Bioproperty, Biosafety, Biopolitics. Journal of Development Studies, Vol.43 (No.1). pp.130-157.

[5] International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), 2008. Bt cotton and farmer Suicides in India, IFPRI Discussion Paper 00808. Reviewing the Evidence, by Guillaume P Gruere, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt and Debdatta Sengupta, October 2008. An e-copy of the report is available here.

[6] International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), 2011. Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: An Evidence-based Assessment, by Guillaume P Gruere and Debdatta Sengupta, February 2011. An e-copy of the report is available here.

[7] James, Clive. 2002. Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 2001 Feature: Bt Cotton. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). An e-copy of the report is available here.

[8] James, Clive. 2014. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2014. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). An e-copy of the report is available here.

[9] Mitra, S. and Shroff, S. (2007) Farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra. Economic and Political Weekly, 42(49), pp. 73–77

[10] Nagaraj, K. (2008) Farmers’ Suicide in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial Patterns. Preliminary Report (Madras, India: Madras Institute of Development Studies).  An e-copy of the report is available here.

[11] Subramanian, A., and Quaim, M., 2010 The impact of  Bt Cotton on poor households in rural India. Journal of Development Studies, Vol.46 (No.2). pp.295-311.

[12] Subramanian A and M Quaim. 2009. Village-wide Effects of Agricultural Biotechnology: The Case of Bt Cotton in India, World Development. 37 (1): 256-257.

[13] Indicus Analytics, 2007. Socio-economic appraisal of Bt cotton cultivation in India. Indicus Analytics Study

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