Mar 14 2014

GMO and Indian Farmer Suicide

In 2005 PBS aired a Frontline special: Seeds of Suicide, in which they report:

In recent years, as Heeter finds in the fields of Andhra Pradesh, crop failure can often be traced to Bt cotton, a genetically modified breed that contains a pesticide that naturally occurs in soil rather than plants. Bt technology should, in theory, repel bollworm — cotton’s worst enemy — but some farmers who plant more expensive Bt seeds often wind up worse off than those who don’t. One farmer, Pariki, confides that after he fell into debt, his wife killed herself, leaving him to care for their three small children.

In 2008 Prince Charles, who has campaigned against GM crops, directly blamed a rise in suicides among Indian farmers on the failure of GM crops and the predatory practices of big seed companies. It was reported at the time:

“He called cultivating the modified crops ‘a global moral question’ and ‘a wrong turning on the route to feeding the world.’ He associated the technology with ‘commerce without morality’ and ‘science without humanity.’”

And Prince Charles criticized in a speech:

‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.

This idea, that GM crops were responsible for farmer suicides in India, became part of the standard canon among anti-GMO activists. An article in the Mail Online from 2008 begins with a heart-wrenching story of a father who committed suicide by drinking pesticides after back-to-back crop failures with GM cotton. The article, referring to “GM genocide” concludes:

“Here in the suicide belt of India, the cost of the genetically modified future is murderously high.”

Of course the usual suspects of anti-science fearmongers jumped on the “GMO causes suicide” bandwagon. Mercola published an article in which claims:

It’s been called the “largest wave of recorded suicides in human history.”

The most obvious culprits are global corporations like Monsanto, Cargill and Syngenta and the genetically engineered seed they have forced upon farmers worldwide.

Whatever you think about the bigger issues of GMO, it’s important that in our conversation about this technology that we get the basic facts correct. Science and evidence should dominate the conversation, not emotion and innuendo.

Even while anti-GMO articles were playing the “Indian suicide” card, the scientific evidence was already coming in showing that such claims were largely baseless. A comprehensive review in October of 2008 by the International Food Policy Research Institute found:

We first show that there is no evidence in available data of a “resurgence” of farmer suicides in India in the last five years. Second, we find that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. However, the context in which Bt cotton was introduced has generated disappointing results in some particular districts and seasons. Third, our analysis clearly shows that Bt cotton is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides.

Essentially the evidence shows that there was no increase in farmer suicides, and farmer suicides are not linked to the use of Bt cotton (the primary GMO approved for use in India). Sure, some Bt crops failed, just like all crops can fail, and crop failure can lead to indebtedness and in some tragic cases to suicide. But the GMO crop was not the critical element in such tragedies – it was a complex interplay of economic and farming choices combined with bad luck.

A recent study looking at farmer suicides in India comes to a similar conclusion – there is no increase in farmer suicide linked to the use of GMO, in fact if anything there is a slight decrease.

There is also an excellent review published in The Conversation – an academic journal funded by universities the purpose of which is to inject objective facts into policy discussions. After a review of the evidence they found that the suicide rate among Indian farmers is actually less than the suicide rate among non-farmers in six out of the nine cotton-growing states. Further, the rate of suicides has decreased slightly:

Also in 2001 (before Bt cotton was introduced) the suicide rate was 31.7 per 100,000 and in 2011 the corresponding estimate was 29.3 – only a minor difference.

Further still, this suicide rate is comparable to that in some Western countries, such as France and Scotland (although other countries, such as the UK, do have lower rates). They conclude from the evidence:

The balance of evidence favours the argument that adopting Bt cotton has increased yields in all cotton-growing states except Punjab, and has reduced pesticide costs so that the crop has become more profitable for farmers. So it’s reasonable to suppose that these farmers have reduced their debts and, to the extent that suicide has an economic component, are less at risk of committing suicide.


The claim that the introduction of GM crops in India has caused an increase in farmer suicides was not based upon any rigorous evidence. Rather it seems to have been based on individual stories and facts taken out of context. When the data is reviewed in a more objective and thorough way it seems clear that there is no correlation between the use of Bt cotton by Indian farmers and farmer suicide, and if anything there is a small decrease (although too small to conclude causation).

Whether or not you support or condemn the use of GM technology, it is to everyone’s advantage that the conversation be as evidence-based as possible. Critics of GM should be especially offended by the propagation of the GM suicide myth (still a common claim on anti-GMO sites), because it harms their credibility. Obviously this one point does not settle the complex issue of using GM technology in agriculture. It does, however, reveal the propaganda aspect of some anti-GMO activism. In the end such myths may cause more harm to the reputation of the propagators than the targets.


14 responses so far

14 Responses to “GMO and Indian Farmer Suicide”

  1. SteveAon 14 Mar 2014 at 10:38 am

    Unfortunately, Charles is something of a dingbat; but thankfully he’s perceived as such (on this side of the pond at least) and few people give his words any weight.

    He seems to have accumulated a team of advisors and confidantes who are either as ignorant as he is, too timid to gainsay him, or just don’t care.

    He can generate headlines (so spreading the woo) but that’s about the sum of his influence.

  2. tmac57on 14 Mar 2014 at 11:22 am

    Critics of GM should be especially offended by the propagation of the GM suicide myth (still a common claim on anti-GMO sites), because it harms their credibility.

    I have become increasingly concerned that it is now almost impossible to harm the credibility of anyone pushing even transparently false and crazy ideas and talking points.
    Directing someone to what traditionally would be credible sources that falsifies or undermines suspect claims just seems to cause them to dig in deeper.
    From a skeptics point of view,all that is needed should be good evidence for or against an idea/claim.But I see all around me people who just cannot grasp the concept of critical thinking. Even very smart people fall in to going with what their gut says,even in the face of information that contradicts them. It is very depressing.

  3. evhantheinfidelon 14 Mar 2014 at 12:12 pm

    This particular type of argument always seemed especially insidious to me. Perhaps it isn’t fair, but taking advantage of the tragic deaths of others in order to use it as propaganda for your goal, whether consciously or not, taints not only the perception of the topic, but the memory of the deceased individual, and the memory of them is all we have left.

  4. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Mar 2014 at 1:12 pm

    This kind of story is one reason why the anti-GMO movement has been so effective in garnering a lot of public support because it appeals to very visceral and base emotions (much of the anti-GMO movement is based on appeals to emotion fallacy), and can then generate other emotions in response (primarily fear and anger). It’s difficult to counter emotionally vested ideology and interest with facts and logic, especially if the subject is too complex to fit in a meme.

  5. BBBlueon 14 Mar 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Those campaigning against GMOs in India have an interesting twist to their cause: anti-colonialism.

    …and just like the British Empire was fighting an ultimately futile battle against a people who had awoken and who would never again sleep in the colonial dreamworld they had constructed, the people of India today are pushing out multinationals and building a wall against their return.

    It was in India where Mahatma Gandhi challenged the might of the British Empire, not with armed resistance or deadly protests in the streets, but by short-circuiting the paradigm of dependence imposed upon India by its foreign occupiers.

    There is also more than a little bit of Gaia philosophy and a wish to respect traditional Indian values (including mysticism?) in their arguments.

    …plants have right to integrity and we need to abandon “anthropocentric worldview” in favor of “Earth Democracy. –Vandana Shiva

    Navdanya started the Earth democracy movement, which provides an alternative worldview in which humans are embedded in the Earth Family, we are connected to each other through love, compassion, not hatred and violence and ecological responsibility and economic justice replaces greed, consumerism and competition as objectives of human life.

    Dr. Novella, regarding a semi-related subject: I believe you erred in your recent “Monoculture” post by concluding that the PNAS report documented an effect on local varieties. The authors only offered an inference on that point (a debatable one, I might add) and the report explicitly stated that there was no data on that specific component. The data also showed that while globalization may be leading nations towards a sort of “standard” crop mix, it is a more diverse standard. I came late to that party and my comments are at the tail end of that post.

  6. ConspicuousCarlon 14 Mar 2014 at 3:28 pm

    SteveA on 14 Mar 2014 at 10:38 am

    He can generate headlines (so spreading the woo) but that’s about the sum of his influence.

    The problem is that people can hear/read something, then once the idea is in their head they don’t remember where they heard it. If you think Charles is a complete crank, you will probably remember every thing he says as something said by a nut. But there are probably a lot of people who think he is maybe just a little weird but not insane, and they are less likely to remember it in that context.

  7. NNMon 14 Mar 2014 at 3:56 pm

    There are so many “celebrities” in the world, I’m sure you can find at least one for every cause, whether mislead or true, conspiracy theorist or real concern…

  8. MaryMon 15 Mar 2014 at 10:22 am

    The other really insidious thing about a false claim like this is that it prevents people from looking into the actual causes and getting to real solutions for the suicide issue. If you think that it’s the GMOs, maybe you ban GMOs. Ok–now what?

    If the cotton was actually a successful crop for farmers and was reducing debt, you could get more suicides. If it was irrelevant, you still haven’t done a damn thing to help with whatever the real issue was.

    There are downstream issues too. If this myth perpetuates the fear of GMOs, you don’t get Bt brinjal approved. Then those farmers are unable to reduce their used of pesticides and you have more health issues, including possibly suicide since access to pesticides does seem to be a contributor.

    I wish NGOs would be held accountable for misinformation. But there’s no mechanisms for that.

  9. Bruceon 15 Mar 2014 at 2:27 pm

    “The other really insidious thing about a false claim like this is that it prevents people from looking into the actual causes and getting to real solutions for the suicide issue.”

    This is the real problem. One of the things I am tasked with looking at is the suicide rates in the area I work in and trying to identify the causes is so very hard. In the end we have to look at each individual case and sometimes it is almost impossible to say what might have been done to prevent it, at least at an “official” level.

    There are way too many variables that go into a decision to commit suicide to be able to really put the blame at any one thing (that is assuming that claim has any validity at all).

  10. BBBlueon 15 Mar 2014 at 5:30 pm

    GM crops: UK scientists call for new trials

    The Council for Science and Technology (CST) wants “public good” GM varieties to be grown and tested in the UK. It says GM crops should be assessed individually – like pharmaceuticals – taking potential benefits into account.

  11. BBBlueon 15 Mar 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Sorry for the blank link.

    GM crops: UK scientists call for new trials

  12. AlisonMon 15 Mar 2014 at 10:19 pm

    IIRC, the Indian government may still offer a payment to the survivors of farmers who commit suicide. If crops fail, that would still be an incentive for farmers to kill themselves whether the crops were genetically modified or not. (If they discontinued this program, there might still be farmers who think it still exists. Word travels slowly to places where electricity and phone service is intermittent at best. . .)

  13. Bill Openthalton 16 Mar 2014 at 6:34 pm

    MaryM –

    I wish NGOs would be held accountable for misinformation. But there’s no mechanisms for that.

    NGOs are considered by many (including many journalist) to be a force for good, as opposed to governments. As with most binary classifications, this is baseless — some governments are good, some NGOs are rather evil (or at least only concerned with feathering their nest).

    It seems humans cannot avoid taking sides.

  14. BuckarooSamuraion 19 Mar 2014 at 7:56 am

    This article from Siddhartha Shome does a far more in depth discussion of this myth than Steve did here and shows how a reporter can (I think not purposefully) make research fit a narrative rather than the other way around. What is truly illuminating is the fact that the increase in suicides is completely inline with the population growth of India and that Farmer suicides have remained stable if not lowered.

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