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20th December 2017
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Killing fields

A. Nair, 20 December 2017

009 Cotton plant

Tragically, more than 300,000 Indian farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2015. The latest, 2015, figures show a jump of 41% over the previous year.

Growing levels of personal debt are a factor in many farmer suicides. There are many causes, with the high cost of chemicals, fertilisers and GM also held by many as partly to blame. GM seeds, for example, often cost nearly twice as much as ordinary ones.

Amidst the celebration of Earth Day on 22 April 2017, farmers from India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as regional organisations such as the Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific, Asian Peasants Coalition and GRAIN, called for rejection of technologies including GM crops such as Golden Rice, accused of threatening the lives and livelihood of Asian farmers.

Currently, Bt-cotton remains the only commercially cultivated GM crop in India, but several others are in the process of commercialisation. However, Narasimha Reddy Donthi of the Pesticide Action Network India, points to both increased pest resistance and cotton production costs since it was introduced in 2002. The organisation says it has also observed lots of non-germinating Bt cotton seeds, with no compensation from private seed companies.

Farmer misuse of the technology, meanwhile, is another issue pinpointed as exacerbating the resistance problems.
However, the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur, Maharashtra notes that: ‘It is unlikely that cultivation of Bt cotton in Vidarbha region [of Maharashtra] could be linked in any way to instances of farmers suicides.’ This despite the Institute’s own findings explaining how pests have been rapidly developing resistance to the toxins in Bt cotton, defeating its purpose (Current Science, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jegh.2016.03.003).

Soil degradation and erosion are yet another factor making farmer livelihoods more difficult. Ranjan Bhattacharyya, of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi says the causes are excessive tillage, ‘unbalanced’ use of inorganic fertilisers, pesticide overuse, inadequate crop residue and/or organic carbon inputs, and poor crop cycle planning. ‘A major imbalance is in the over-use of fertilisers and less use of organic residues,’ he says, adding that soil degradation in India is widespread (Sustainability, doi:10.3390/su7043528).

India is the fourth largest producer of agrochemicals globally, after the US, Japan and China; it imports around $925m of technical pesticides, intermediaries and finished products from China. Meanwhile, credit rating agency ICRA warns the price of agrochemicals in India has soared by more than 20% and look set to rise even higher.

The Indian government reported over 12,000 suicides in the agriculture sector every year since 2013, despite a multi-pronged approach to improve income and social security of farmers. There has been a recorded increase of 40-46% in the number of farmer suicides across India, since 2014.

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