29 May 2009

Slandering Your Competition

A few weeks ago, I criticized Tara Lohan's post on suicides by Indian farmers, GMOs, agribusiness and globalization as "hack journalism" because she elided from fact (suicides < debt < crop failure < drought) to fiction (debt < GMO seeds < evil Monsanto). That theme was popular with Alternet readers, who never miss an opportunity to criticize capitalism, globalization or corporations. (I believe they give a waiver to those making "useful" things like ipods, Priuses, solar panels, etc... :)

In this follow-up post, Lohan gets straight to "facts" -- by quoting from an interview with Vandana Shiva, PhD. Here you go:
Shiva explains that the suicide epidemic in India is a lot more complicated and far-reaching.

"Rapid increase in indebtedness is at the root of farmers' taking their lives," she wrote recently. "Debt is a reflection of a negative economy. Two factors have transformed agriculture from a positive economy into a negative economy for peasants: the rising of costs of production and the falling prices of farm commodities. Both these factors are rooted in the policies of trade liberalization and corporate globalization." [1]

At the heart of this is a circle of indebtedness that has resulted from the so-called Green Revolution, which exported industrial agricultural practices to places like India and in doing so, made seeds, a once-renewable resource for farmers, into something that had be bought from corporations [2].


Tara Lohan: Farmer suicides in India recently made the news when stories broke last month about 1,500 farmers taking their own lives, what do you attribute these deaths to?


Vandana Shiva: Squeezed between high costs and negative incomes, farmers commit suicide when their land is being appropriated by the money lenders who are the agents of the agrichemical and seed corporations. The suicides are thus a direct result of industrial globalized agriculture and corporate monopoly on seeds. [3]


The first suicide that we studied took place in Warrangal in Andhra Pradesh in 1997. This region is a rain-fed dry region and used to grow dry land crops such as millets, pigeon pea etc. In 1997, the seed corporations converted the region from biodiverse agriculture to monocultures of cotton hybrid. The farmers were not told they would need irrigation. They were not told that they would need fertilizers and pesticides. They were not told they could not save the seeds. The cotton seeds were sold as "White Gold," with a false promise that farmers would become millionaires. Instead, the farmers landed in severe unpayable debt. This is how the suicides began.[4]


TL: How has the Green Revolution changed things for farmers? Is the most significant change in the ownership of seeds by corporations?

VS: The Green Revolution was the name given to the introduction of chemical/industrial farming in India in 1965-66 under the pressure of the U.S. government and World Bank.[5]


TL: What should the government of India be doing, and what can the world community do?

VS: The government of India should be playing a major role in public seed supply. Before Monsanto's entry, 80 percent of the seed used to come from farmers' own fields, and 20 percent came from government seed farms. Under privatization, government seed breeding has been wiped out. Seed is a public and common good, and hence seeds should stay in the hands of farming communities and public-sector institutions.[6]


At the international level, the world community needs to defend seed as a common good and build a strong movement against seed patents and seed monopolies. People can also contribute to Navdanya's Seeds of Hope Campaign.[7]
Got that? Now, let's address these claims (by the numbers in brackets):*
  1. Trade liberalization -- through competition -- lowers BOTH the cost of inputs and price of outputs. Although agribusiness corporations do their best to exert market power both upstream and downstream of farmers (as with US corn farmers), this squeeze can be averted by switching crops (something Shiva advocates). Why don't the farmers switch? Because they can make more money with industrial methods. So are they committing suicide because of low profit margins? No, they are in trouble because they are spending more money than they are making, i.e., debt. Besides this obvious reason to commit suicide, there are other causes of their low income. For example, Government of India policies -- price controls on output and poor ground water management (no rights, subsidized pumping, etc.) -- that make it harder to make profits.
  2. This claim is ridiculous. Farmers are NOT required to buy their seeds from Monsanto. They can use their traditional seeds.
  3. This claim ("money lenders are agents...) is not only silly but slanderous of those corporations. The money lenders are in the business of making money. If anything, they do not want farmers to get into so much debt that they lose their land/lives -- they want their MONEY back. Shiva's connection of money lenders with globalization is laughable. I am "subject to the forces of globalization," but I am not committing suicide. Why not? Because I am NOT IN DEBT.
  4. This claim implies that farmers are stupid. After all, why would they keep doing something that was "proven" stupid in 1997? If the new seeds were a bad idea, they would have been abandoned in 1998 -- 10 years ago!
  5. I will let National Geographic answer this one:
    In the mid-1960s, as India was struggling to feed its people during yet another crippling drought, an American plant breeder named Norman Borlaug was working with Indian researchers to bring his high-yielding wheat varieties to Punjab. The new seeds were a godsend, says Kal­kat, who was deputy director of agriculture for Punjab at the time. By 1970, farmers had nearly tripled their production with the same amount of work. "We had a big problem with what to do with the surplus," says Kalkat. "We closed schools one month early to store the wheat crop in the buildings."

    Borlaug was born in Iowa and saw his mission as spreading the high-yield farming methods that had turned the American Midwest into the world's breadbasket to impoverished places throughout the world. His new dwarf wheat varieties, with their short, stocky stems supporting full, fat seed heads, were a startling breakthrough. They could produce grain like no other wheat ever seen—as long as there was plenty of water and synthetic fertilizer and little competition from weeds or insects. To that end, the Indian government subsidized canals, fertilizer, and the drilling of tube wells for irrigation and gave farmers free electricity to pump the water. The new wheat varieties quickly spread throughout Asia, changing the traditional farming practices of millions of farmers, and were soon followed by new strains of "miracle" rice. The new crops matured faster and enabled farmers to grow two crops a year instead of one.
    Seems like there were others involved, huh? (Also note that the Green Revolution contributed to further population growth and strain on land and water resources -- perhaps merely delaying the Day of Reckoning; read more in that NG article.)
  6. Seeds are private goods. Although seed genomes are "club goods" -- non-rival but excludable -- the genomes can be maintained and distributed from seed banks. I support that idea, but I do NOT support government control of ALL seeds.
  7. This is Shiva's organization. Although it probably does good work, I can see why she would want to run down her competition: Global GMOs, Inc.
Bottom Line: Once again, I find this storytelling to be partial, biased and illogical. All I ask is that Shiva et al. consider ALL possible factors -- not just those that suit their ideological (and perhaps financial) narrative.
* DF suggests that Shiva fans consider this scenario:
Yes, there is a loss of village self sufficiency when farmers find that they can purchase certain inputs from outside the community at lower costs but should we limit the farmers' rights to obtain more productive seeds and equipment just to preserve that idealized vision of village self sufficiency?

Yes, hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers and adoption of GM varieties used in order to increase production per hectare and per farmer will lead to major changes in traditional agriculture practices and even long established patterns of social interaction but who among us would prefer the alternative of lower production per hectare and the consequent necessity of having to increase the number of hectares under cultivation by further draining of wetlands, cutting of woodlands, encroachment of tribal areas, and short lived cultivation of arid lands by mining of groundwater?

Yes, increases in productivity per farmer will inevitably lead to fewer on-farm jobs for the growing rural population thus forcing many in the next generation to seek off-farm employment either in villages or cities. Would the average person in India really be better off if we sought to ban all equipment that increased productivity (sewing machines, power looms, etc.)?

Yes, there are well documented horror stories describing what happened when the Imperial British forced Indian farmers to abandon subsistence agriculture in order to plant indigo and sell it to the East Indian Company at monopsony prices.

And yes, it is undoubtedly true that there are unscrupulous salesmen out there that exaggerate the benefits (and underestimate the costs) of their goods and services.

Is it your recommendation that because of these past sins that we forever limit farmer's rights to adopt new technologies and learn new skills or should we provide better education for the farmers and their children so that they can make better choices for themselves?