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?


AA said...

I wonder whether she would blame the increasing food prices also on trade liberalization and corporate globalization...

- On the "so called' Green Revolution: I cannot believe how & why people have a tendency to forget and/or ignore the scale of poverty reduction and prevented starvation owing to the "so called" Green revolution... I guess Borlaug's Nobel prize is also shunned by those people as a meaningless prize controlled by corporate globalization...

- see this paper: http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/dp/ifpridp00808.asp

- If farmers are swallowing pesticides, then maybe GMO crops that do not require pesticides are not such a bad thing? But I doubt that they like this idea either.

Bottom line: I agree that there are both positive and negative sides of the story. No one forces farmers to buy those seeds, but there seems to have been a lack of transparency in advertising new seeds to farmers. The solution is in providing information and education, not curtailing all investments in seed technology -- as David Foster mentioned before.

Mister Kurtz said...

Farmers are voting with their planters, all over the world, and planting GMO seeds when it makes sense to do so. Increased yields, lower costs, and safer production practices speak for themselves. Saving GMO seed for replanting is a very poor practice, and is illegal in the US not because of commercial reasons but because of environmental concerns (gene flow, resistance, etc.)

Will said...

Regarding issue (2), are Indian farmers not bound by the same laws as North American farmers, which might compel them to destroy/surrender their own seeds once their fields have been contaminated by patented GMO seeds/genes, leaving them no seeds of their own to use and forcing them to buy new seeds?


Whether the entity from which they buy the new seeds is incorporated or not is not really relevant, but could be likely if all local farmers were also forced to destroy their seed supply due to potential patent infringement issues.

David Zetland said...

@Will -- I agree with you on principle, but let's keep an eye on "common sense" issues. (That case is controversial b/c it's easily possible that the farmer WAS stealing IP -- so say some folks). The REAL idea here is that farmers would be allowed to use the seeds they've used for hundreds of years.

If the government/courts are SO corrupt that they let some foreign carpetbagging company come in and take over that sector via a spurious IP claim, then those farmers have more to worry about than just seeds!

Aquadoc said...

Excellent post, David. I'll have to reread this next October when Vandana Shiva speaks at Oregon State University. The date is uncertain.

Mister Kurtz said...

The Schmeisser business smells to high heaven. There are many protocols in place, including dying seeds bright colors, to ensure that GMO and conventional seeds do not get mixed accidentally. With all the millions of acres of GMO seed being planted in the US and Canada alone, I find it very odd that only this fellow (who has a lawsuit) somehow made an honest mistake and is being hounded for it.

Anastasia said...

You are one of a very few people criticizing Vandana Shiva and her minions. Great analysis of the economics behind the suicides, thank you, I look forward to reading more of your posts. The situation is certainly bad, but only made worse by blaming the wrong agents.

I've written a debunking of some of Shiva's claims from a crop science perspective over at my blog, Genetic Maize: http://www.geneticmaize.com/2009/06/shameful-shiv

Anyone who wants to learn more about genetic engineering is welcome to check out Genetic Maize and post questions in the comments.

For those who would like more info about the Schmeiser case, check out Clark Wolf's writings on the subject, he's a prof of Bioethics at Iowa State: http://www.bioethics.iastate.edu/Bioethics_in_Brief/may05.html#consuming

Michael said...

The problem is that 250,000 suicides seem, on its face, to be very big problem indeed. Shiva suggests a reason for it, you point hole in her reasoning but don't offer an alternative except that farmer are in debt. Well, 250,000 farmers in so much debt that they kill themselves is a really major problem that cries out for some explanation. Unless and until some alternative explanation is presented for this horrific development, Shiva has the field to herself. Even if her suggested explanation is not compelling, it is preferable to in effect shrugging ones shoulders and saying, well, that's the way it goes.

David Zetland said...

@Michael -- Sorry, your logic is faulty. It's NOT correct to say that someone's explanation is valid because it's the only one (cf., flat earth) and especially if it's demonstrably false.

Anonymous said...

@David Zetland - er, how can you miss Michael's point?? None of you attacking Shiva's argument seem to care that 250 000 suicides IS A VERY BIG PROBLEM and therefore cries out for an explanation. At least Shiva is addressing the issue, even if her argument is debatable. At least she's addressing THE ISSUE!

David Zetland said...

@Anon -- you need to re-read the post, which DOES address the root of the problem: suicides linked to debt which is caused by overspending. Shiva is attacking strawmen with a cheap populism that contradicts both facts and the structure of power and corruption.

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