The website of US-based biotech giant Monsanto boasts that the corporation qualifies as “a sustainable agriculture company”.
Given Monsanto’s legacy as a producer of the lethal defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, Southeast Asian agriculture would presumably beg to differ with this characterisation.
Sustainability is also not the first word that comes to mind when contemplating Monsanto’s policy of sowing the earth with genetically modified seeds that destroy soil and are designed with nonrenewable traits so as to require constant repurchase as well as acquisition of a variety of other company products like fertilizers and pesticides.
Nor would the term appear to define a situation in which nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995 after being driven into insurmountable debt by neoliberal economics and the conquest of Indian farmland by Monsanto’s Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton.
In tragic irony, many kill themselves by imbibing pesticides intended for their crops.
As for Monsanto’s shameless claim that one of its primary objectives is “to improve lives”, we might similarly conclude that butchers aim to improve the lives of cows and pigs and that two plus two is 86.
Writing in 2009, physicist and author Vandana Shiva outlined Monsanto’s contributions to a “suicide economy” in India, such as an increase in the price per kilogram of cotton seeds from 7 to 17,000 rupees. Shiva lists additional complications:
“Indigenous cotton varieties can be intercropped with food crops. Bt-cotton can only be grown as a monoculture. Indigenous cotton is rain fed. Bt-cotton needs irrigation. Indigenous varieties are pest resistant. Bt-cotton, even though promoted as resistant to the bollworm, has created new pests, and to control these new pests, farmers are using 13 times more pesticides then they were using prior to introduction of Bt-cotton. And finally, Monsanto sells its GMO seeds on fraudulent claims of yields of 1500/kg/year when farmers harvest 300-400 kg/year on an average.”
There are a couple of reasons why mass farmer suicides have not generated the international attention that should ostensibly accompany such a phenomenon. For one thing, the image of desperate peasants killing themselves by the hundreds of thousands does not mesh particularly well with the portrait of India fabricated by free market pundits, who hallucinate rampant upward economic mobility among the country’s citizens thanks to globalisation.