5 May 2009

Indian Suicides and the Blame Game

[Sorry that this post is so long. The good news is that it's thorough.]

This article reports the bad news:
Over 1,500 farmers in an Indian state committed suicide after being driven to debt by crop failure, it was reported today.

The agricultural state of Chattisgarh was hit by falling water levels.

"The water level has gone down below 250 feet here. It used to be at 40 feet a few years ago," Shatrughan Sahu, a villager in one of the districts, told Down To Earth magazine

"Most of the farmers here are indebted and only God can save the ones who do not have a bore well."
Tara Lohan at Alternet takes this news and spins it to say:
Crop failure may have pushed farmers over the edge, but American companies have been leading them to the cliff for years.
How does she reach that conclusion? Simple:
  1. Farmers committed suicide because they were in debt.
  2. They were in debt because there was no water for their crops, and the crops failed
  3. [leap of faith] The crops failed because they "were" GMOs, and they "were" in debt because they had to buy the GMOs. (Neither Monsanto nor GMOs are mentioned in the original story.)
  4. American companies (like Monsanto) sell GMOs.
  5. Monsanto killed the farmers. QED.
This "analysis" is accompanied by an outpouring of comments (166 as of now) by Alternet readers, most of them flames against Monsanto. One commentator did have the right idea:
Monsanto is blameless! Given equal conditions, Monsanto seeds will out-perform traditional seeds. If they don't, no farmers will buy them. Farmers (everywhere) need increased yield or lower per-unit costs in order to justify the additional investment. It is as simple as that.
That's my comment on the GMO question.

Now let's get to the real reasons behind the suicide, using the facts mentioned in the original story:
  1. The crop failed because there was too little water.*
  2. The farmers were in debt, and failure left them without a means of repaying it.**
  3. They committed suicide because they could not repay the debt.
If anything, we have to keep in mind (as the original article does) that the problem is a LACK of water, not GMO seeds.

Put differently, some farmers committed suicide because of debt brought on by crop failure. Crop failure did not result from the type of seeds, but the lack of water from either the monsoon and depleted groundwater.***

So, this week's hack journalism award goes to Tara. That's a pity, since we've met, and I have every reason to respect her skills and her goal of explaining the cause and effect behind the news.

Bottom Line: Indian farmers -- especially the poorest ones -- will continue to suffer for as long as they have poor water supplies. The best way to improve their water supplies is by enforcing strong property rights and sustainable groundwater pumping.
* This 2003 article [$] from the Economist sums up the problem:
Many farmers get their irrigation water free. Many also benefit from free electricity, which sets up a noxious interconnection between free water and free power. As much as 60-70% of mostly free rural electricity is used to power hundreds of millions of inefficient pumps, which are being used to deplete India's already scarce groundwater. Water and electricity are both the responsibility of the states, not the central government, and bear a large share of the blame for India's huge fiscal deficits. And the main beneficiaries of this largesse, inevitably, are richer farmers, not poor peasants.
Anyone wanting a more recent confirmation of the connection between free-electricity and depleted groundwater should check out this 2006 presentation [PDF] by an Indian academic. He says that most of the subsidies are going to RICH farmers, not the poor who are supposed to benefit. (For an interesting example of where groundwater is UNDER-exploited -- in West Bengal -- read this.)

** Why were they in debt? Was it because "money lenders... lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death?" No, I am not going to go for that. First, because dead farmers do not repay loans. Second, because of what J. David Foster told me the last time the farmer-suicide story came up:
While these suicides [after failed monsoons] were tragic, close examination often revealed that they were more likely the consequence of poor health insurance, excessive spending on lavish weddings, usurious interest rates, and alcoholism.
I agree that salesmen (for ANY type of seed) are likely to promise the moon, but lying has long been a part of the sales pitch. Likewise for high interest rates.

*** This post looks at the relationship between poor groundwater resources and suicides in India.
Addendum: J. David Foster added these comments after I sent him this post:

"While I have little experience in Chattisgarh, I believe the lessons from other states in India are applicable there as well:
  1. Provision of free power for the purpose of pumping water exacerbates an already serious problem, leading to excessive pumping of water, planting of water intensive crops unsuited to local conditions, and rapidly falling water tables. In addition this "free power" rarely benefits the poor and often harms them because they have neither the pumps nor the deep wells to take advantage of free power but they do have shallow wells, the first to run dry when the water table falls.

  2. While farmers can sometimes spend excessively on new seeds or farm equipment, just as they can over spend on housing or weddings or alcohol; the more serious and more widespread problems stem primarily from poor strategic policy and planning for water management.

  3. While there is always the chance that some over zealous salesman for Monsanto did cause some farmers to borrow and invest too much in new technology, I believe that this played a relatively small role in the overall problem. Check out page 27 on this report [PDF], which plots farmer suicide rates vs. the adoption of Monsanto's "Bt Cotton".

  4. Indian suicides and poverty are a complex issue that will benefit more from careful research than from mindless name calling and political grandstanding. Solutions to these problems will require, among other things:
    • Better education and more off-farm employment opportunities, particularly in drought prone areas,
    • Incentives to conserve water and in some cases to recharge the groundwater (including pricing policies and disincentives for water intensive crops such as paddy rice and sugar cane),
    • Better regulation of groundwater pumping,
    • Agricultural techniques that enable greater sustainable production per hectare, and
    • Better better financing that will enable access to timely and critical loans while protecting uneducated farmers from unprincipled money lenders.
Unfortunately, as in many Democracies, the election season in India often brings forth a bumper crop of shortsighted policies. Remember how politicians in Iowa all sought to jump on the "gasohol" bandwagon and some even claimed that the solution to rising gasoline prices was to lower the gasoline tax."
Addendum 2: Tara added these comments after I sent her this post:

"Over 200k farmers have committed suicide in India in the last 10 years and there are mostly concentrated in a particular region and most happen to grow bt cotton. I was not saying in my blog that Monsanto killed these 1,500 farmers, what I was pointing out was an historical trend that is incredibly frightening. This isn't spin: "Crop failure may have pushed farmers over the edge, but American companies have been leading them to the cliff for years." People from India have been saying this for years. Quite simply: The green revolution pushed by big agribiz is not sustainable and an epidemic of farmers swallowing pesticides is a pretty good indication -- but there are others as well."


Philip said...

Cotton yields in India have soared in the past 3 years as a result of using GM seed. They have saved a huge amount of money formerly spent on pesticides. The farmers there view GM cotton as a godsend (although some of their competitors, like me, are not quite as pleased...). The suicide business is very old news.

Ben said...

"Over 200k farmers have committed suicide in India in the last 10 years and there are mostly concentrated in a particular region and most happen to grow bt cotton."

That's an amortized rate of 20,000 per year. In 2008 India had a workforce of 523M [1]; 60% are in agriculture [1]; and a suicide rate of 10.5 per 100k [2]. That means we'd expect 32,981 farmers to commit suicide every year (18,000 based on 1991 info), and that's based on the average suicide rate across the country. Imagine the rate in offshored services.

The number is no less sad, but it's hardly weighty evidence.

[1] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/in.html

JWT said...

The point that everyone seems to overlook completely is that Mother Nature (or perhaps Krishna in the case of India) has been genetically modifying plants since the beginning of time.

Eric said...

Thanks for the biological reference. Mankind has been genetically modifying plants and animals for about 10,000 years by selecting the ones that man liked and killing or uprooting the rest.

Fischer-Tropsch process (industrial, bad, ;-) ) supplies much of the fertilizer for the planet. Without this commercial way of fixing nitrogen their would be a lot fewer humans.

Also, thanks for the post.

Philip said...

And actually viruses (and some bacteria) have been helping themselves to bits of other organisms' DNA, and injecting their own DNA into other species since Our Goddess made them all 8,532 years ago or whatever it is supposed to be. What is even more shocking is that they did not ask Jeremy Rifkin or anyone else for permission, either.

David Zetland said...

@Eric -- I agree that N-fixation takes energy. I don't agree about the *requirement* that we use artificial fertilizer. It's more a question of cost to me. (Unfortunately, cheap food seems to have increased demand -- population -- to the point where we *need* fertilizer/industrial ag.) I could be wrong. OTOH, we may face future constraints from WATER, not energy fertilizer. See this: http://www.kysq.org/docs/Falkenmark.pdf

Eric said...

What is the appropriate population for the planet, minus nitrogen fixation chemistry? If this population is less than the current population, how do you propose that we get from the current population to a sustainable one?

Fixed Carbon said...

Vaclav Smil has written a great deal about how industrial nitrogen fixation, the Haber-Bosch process, ignited the human population bomb in the early 20th century. A summary can be had at this website.


Philip said...

+1 on Smil. His "Enriching the Earth" is a real eye opener. The man is quite a polymath, and not some hired crank that the oil companies invented.

Carlos Ferreira said...


The issue of "what's the sustainable number of people" is not acceptable. Too many ethic questions there, I'm afraid. Education and development tend to diminish birth rates, a trend seen in most Southeastern Asia.

This example is mostly about inefficient of a scarce resource, which is arguably more difficult to substitute than Fischer-Tropsch-generated fertilizers.

David Zetland said...

@Eric -- I agree with Carlos. As an economist, all I'll say is that there will be more kids when it's cheaper (e.g., green Revolution) and that "too many" happens when consumption is unsustainable. Note that we'd all be dead if 6.5 billion consumed like Americans!

Philip said...

Eeeww, I hope nobody is suggesting we'd be better off with all those silly little brown people dead of starvation, or miscarried from their mother's lack of nutrition. Following that line of thought, vaccinations, mosquito nets, and antibiotics are Bad Things. Of course, the Earth could give a good God-damn about how many humans there are and what follies we perform. When we say "Save the Earth" we mean "Save the Humans".

Carlos Ferreira said...

Found this snip in an article on copyright rights and laws in The Economist; I'm posting it here as an example of farmers' preference for higher-yielding GMO:

"Another example, from agriculture, shows how piracy can literally seed a new market. Farmers in Brazil wanted to use genetically modified (GM) soyabean seeds that had been engineered by Monsanto to be herbicide-tolerant. The government, under pressure from green groups opposed to GM technology, held back. Unable to obtain the GM seeds legitimately, the farmers turned to pirated versions, many of them “Maradona” seeds brought in from Argentina. Eventually the pirated seeds accounted for over a third of Brazil’s soyabean plantings, and in 2005 the government relented and granted approval for the use of GM seeds. Monsanto could then start selling its seeds legitimately in Brazil."


Alex Basilevsky said...


Overall I agree with your critique of the article. I do have to admit however to being disturbed by the practice of large multinationals "testing" new GM crops in parts of the world that lack the legal and economic safeguards of more developed countries.

Eric said...

@ Carlos and everyone else.

I agree on the ethics part and thanks for the comment. My point is that ignoring the ethics and refusing to think about it or plan for it does not make the current path sustainable.

In the past, humanity has gotten back towards a sustainable path by four effective mechanisms.


These are the Book of Revelation's four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I would rather that humanity chose a more ethical plan this time than leaving sustainability to the whims of the Horsemen. To me, to avoid the four Horsemen, we all have to start creating an ethical framework, probably now, that will forestall them.

For my small part, I am developing and commercializing engines that will bring us more energy cheaper and with a smaller carbon footprint. These engines should increase prosperity in the developing world.

I hope that readers of this blog will add to my small efforts or point me to sources that help.


Carlos Ferreira said...


Please understand my comment was not directed specifically at you, but the result of my own strong reaction against some comments you often read online. I still think some things cannot be regulated by mandate, and sustainability is one of them. Even if we could somehow forget for a minute the ethical issues surrounding it, imperfect information regarding present and future paths of consumption, discount rates, etc., would lead to any mandated society outcome to be sub-optimal. We can't predict the future, try as we might.

On a different note, if you read Terry Pratchett's and Nial Gaiman's "Good Omens", you will realize Pestilence retired during the 1920's and was replaced in the band by Pollution. It's a joke, I know! They're all important. We have more problems against us now.

@Alex: I though a lot of the testing and usage of GM crops occurred in the US. Remember, if there's no demand, there's no supply.
I'll be honest with you, I am as scared of GMOs as everyone else, but the fact is Nature has been doing it itself for a while, and has allowed us to domesticate lots of plants thanks to that. "Bad" mutations mostly wither and die; non-useful ones aren't used the following year; only the ones that bring some advantage are re-used.

Eric said...


I took no offense. I am just trying to get us to talk about the big questions.

I am a biochemist and geneticist by training and have worked on mechanisms of DNA transposition,DNA sequencing and chromosome mapping in the Human Genome Project, nuclear transfer in cells (precursors to Dolly the sheep and related ideas) and predicting toxicity in humans from microarray data. I have also won an R&D 100 for creating a much faster way to separate DNA molecules. I like to solve problems.


May I suggest changes in your Bottom Line:
..... The best way to improve their water supplies is by enforcing strong property rights and sustainable groundwater pumping.

.....The best way to improve their water supplies is to treat both demand and supply side of groundwater on sustainable basis. This implies that farmers should focus also on, on farm groundwater recharge, recharging the borewell / tubewell on the farm in the rainy season. This will enable them to reduce the probability of initial and premature failure of wells. Property rights exist for pumping as well as for recharge. When a farmer feels s/he has right to pump, s/he should also realize that she has right to recharge also! This awareness needs to be created by creation of irrigation management service akin to the US.

MG Chandrakanth, Dept of Agri Economics, Univ of Agri Sciences, Bangalore mgchandrakanth@gmail.com

Dhananjaya said...

The long regime of free water and free power supply by populist policies of state government have killed many small holding farmers. Educating political leaders and policy makers on these ill effects of fee water and power supply is very much necessary. 20

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