Saving lives through rethinking seed

Agriculture is as much about the social, political, cultural, and economic systems
as it is about the agronomic. Yet whether it’s a choice within government policy or which seed to use, there are powers at play far greater than the average farmer. Nowhere is this more obvious right now than in India where farmers feel they have no choice – but to take their own lives. And whilst the reasons behind the suicides vary, there is no doubt the deaths are a message of helplessness and powerlessness that we must react to.

It’s estimated that there is one farmer suicide in India every 30 minutes. Suicides in the cotton belts of India are not new. Farmer suicide has been reported on for many years now. According to Vandana Shiva, a well-known scientist-turned-activist, the problem of farmer suicides started in 1997 when the Indian government removed cotton subsidies and genetically modified varieties of cotton were also introduced.

Yet addressing this extreme demonstration of rural despair is proving impossible under the current government policies (which encourage cash cropping) and industry endorsed GM-centric farming systems. And whilst export and multinational companies make worthy contributions to society, removing choice at a grassroots level is partly to blame for the entrenched poverty which still dominates India’s small scale farmer population.

A Report by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at NYU School of Law came out in May this year. It calculates that since 1995, more than a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide, and the numbers only continue to rise; the current rate is estimated at one farmer suicide every thirty minutes. The Report focuses on cotton, claiming that the government has long been alerted to the cotton farmer suicide crisis, yet has done little to adequately respond. The recent increase in suicides in Wayanad has led local government to stop acquiring land owned by debt-ridden farmers for the time being. (Land is used as collateral; farmers often sign away the title to their land).

The CHRGJ Report draws on a number of studies which reveal that indebtedness is a major cause of farmer suicides in India. The cotton industry, like other cash crops in India, has also been dominated by foreign multinationals that promote genetically modified seeds and exert increasing control over the cost, quality, and availability of agricultural inputs.

The CHRGJ Report goes on to say that with such high capital outlays and interest rates, farmers are then under tremendous pressure to generate higher yields just to recoup costs. Generating high yields with Bt cotton seeds also requires much higher amounts of water than other cotton cultivars. For farmers who lack access to proper irrigation and whose farms are primarily rain-fed, the crop often fails. In fact, 65 percent of India’s cotton farms are rain-fed. This lack of free access to water is often an insurmountable hurdle for smallholder farmers.

One of the issues in India for small scale farmers (and other cotton growers in developing countries) is a lack of alternatives to the dominant farm systems which focus almost entirely on producing a sole crop for cash under high input conditions. Textile Exchange promotes the production of cotton organically which offers one alternative. Organic agriculture is based on a diverse farm system where inputs are farm-based, requiring skill and local materials but not commercial products such as agrichemicals. There needs to be a big commitment by farmers to go organic, and strong support is needed especially in the beginning during the ‘conversion’ years (usually 3-5 to get established). After this, good organic systems bring good returns: soil fertility, water conservation, and in-built food security. Arun Ambatipudi of Chetna Organic, says that farmers are more likely to cooperate; grouping together to share resources, tasks, and supporting each other. Women are also more likely to want to farm organically where they don’t run the risk of exposing themselves or their babies to pesticides. An Agri Impact Assessment Study for Organic Cotton Farmers carried out by Mott Macdonald, for the Agrocel organic-Fairtrade cotton producers in Kutch and Surendranagar, India reported that there were no farmer suicides reported on organic farms. If anything, organic farmers, were often appointed as village leaders, and given status within their communities.

What is needed however is more investment in low input alternatives such as organic. Cotton seed is increasing genetically modified which is not allowed on organic (or Fairtrade) cotton farms. Non-GM seeds (preferably non-hybrid but that’s an even deeper level of complexity) allows farmers to save seed and multiply themselves or within networks of breeder-farmer initiatives. It is illegal to save GM seed and farmers can be sued for doing so. Hardly pro-poor especially when unintentional contamination is a very real risk for organic cotton farmers. With the increasingly reported failure of GM seed to deliver profits to farmers, the urgency to improve non-GM seed is growing. In part, suicide rates reflect this need. One answer, proposed by seed companies, is more research and more technology. The other is seed choice and viable alternatives.

Action on improving low input seed has started. In India, (and other parts of the world) there is an increasing number of programs in place, attempting to improve availability of non-GM/low input seed. Programs range from institution-led research (specialising in improving non-GM seed breeds, and also working on non-hybrids) through to seed banking (preserving local varieties or rare and endangered indigenous cotton) and early seed multiplication projects (producer groups working to build supply capacity and commercially viable distribution).

FiBL (a private organic research institute) is working with Indian cotton farmers and breeders to improve non-GM cotton options. The close collaboration of farmers with breeders and extension agents in seed variety development allows the identification of cultivars that suit the actual circumstances of resource-poor farmers where marginal production systems prevail. This is extremely exciting for all of us interested in addressing rural poverty through farmer-centric solutions. And there are others... the Child Labour Free Seed Project is another inspiring project in India, and forms part of an organic and fair trade cotton program. This initiative has been established and supported by the Pi Foundation - a charity set up by Pants to Poverty to develop social businesses in textile value chains. Cotton Connect has partnered European retailer C&A, and two organic farm groups: EcoFarms and Pratibha, to develop a three year organic cotton seed programme.

And what's even better is that these groups of people are starting to talk to each other within India and beyond. The recent signing of the ‘Dharwad Declaration’ reflects the growing cohesion amongst farmers and other stakeholders wishing to develop alternatives to GM seed in India, which continued in a special meeting of the Global Organic Cotton Community at the Textile Exchange Global Conference in Barcelona . 

So whilst most of the problems with agriculture are as much about the social, political, cultural, and economic systems as they are about the agronomic. So too are the solutions. And just like the growth of a seed – we need to nurture the right social, political and economic conditions to ensure lives thrive. Increased technology may hold part of the answer to ‘modern day’ farming challenges but without integrating into the context of the farmer’s existence the chances are they will fail. Organic systems offer alternatives, if not sustainable solutions, which are farmer-centric. Organic holds an essential place in the future of farming – and it starts with rethinking seed and saving lives.

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