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.

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