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India’s farmer suicides: film indicts US corporate greed

New York: India is stirring after many decades of torpor, but award-winning San Francisco film-maker Micha X Peled reports on cotton farmers in India who have been left behind by India’s economic miracle. Peled has rounded out his "Globalization Trilogy" with an emotional documentary examining the rash of suicides among farmers in India, and how it's all tied to the world’s largest seed company Monsanto, in Bitter Seeds, which opens in theatres on the West Coast on Friday.

Peled has previously taken on Wal-Mart (Store Wars) and overseas sweatshops (China Blue) by profiling the people most affected by mega-companies' profit-driven agendas. In Bitter Seeds, he implicates US-based Monsanto, the world's largest seed company and a developer of genetically engineered cotton, corn, soybeans, and other crops in the Indian farmers' deaths.

A still from Micha X. Peled's "Bitter Seeds" which puts a human face on rural distress and implicates Monsanto in Indian famers' deaths.

"Thematically, they're very nicely connected," Peled told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The first was about us — the American consumers. The second was about how the cheap goods that we buy get made, and the third is about the raw materials — the farmers who grow the cotton that gets exported to China's factories to make the jeans that we buy."

Peled’s film suggests that impoverished cotton farmers in India have it especially tough because Monsanto has taken over the seed market with a genetically modified seed with hybrid technology that produces high yields but cannot renew itself.

At the heart of Peled’s documentary is an amazingly strong girl, Manjusha Amberwar, whose farmer father committed suicide. She dreams of being a journalist. So, Peled gives her a camera and follows her on her inquisitive journey. Through Manjusha’s uncle Ram Krishna Kopulnar we learn that farmers in the village earlier pared expenses to a minimum, using cow dung to fertilize their fields and saving seeds from year to year.

The film gets to the crux of the problem: today, farmers like Kopulnar are in debt up to their ears because Monsanto sells genetically modified, non-renewable seeds in order to produce higher yields of pest-resistant crops. However, these “special seeds” are sterile by design, so farmers like Kopulnar have to renew their seed supply each year in addition to buying expensive fertilizers and insecticides to protect the water-hungry plants.

Thanks to Monsanto blasting through and taking over the seed market, other cotton seed varieties have died on the vine and are hardly available anymore in cotton growing regions like Vidarbha, Maharashtra and other parts of India.

"Keep in mind that these farmers have been growing cotton for centuries, and were always able to eke out a living," Peled said. "That was with conventional seeds, which are suited to the region and don't need much water, because there isn't any."

Peled told the San Francisco Chronicle that he believes globalisation can be a force for good, but that there should be a “balanced approach” that respects local communities.

"I'm just a dumb filmmaker," Peled said. "I don't have all the answers. But I wanted American viewers to spend a little time living with the experience of what it's like for other people in other parts of the world to deal with what globalization brought them mostly as a result of what our multinational conglomerates are able to do.

"Hey, we like the cheap prices of shirts, and like the fact that the price of cotton is low. We're benefiting from it, but what does that mean for the millions of other people?"

Films like Bitter Seeds are pure exasperation for the entire pro-Bt lobby which claims that things have improved for the Indian farmer since the government allowed the introduction of GM cotton by Monsanto in 2002. They say it is simply wrong to blame the use of Bt cotton as the primary cause of farmer suicides in India.

A report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington said India’s adoption of pest-resistant Bt cotton varieties had led to massive increases in yield and a 40 percent decrease in pesticide use. It is true that yields of cotton have nearly doubled since Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton varieties were introduced. India is now the world's second biggest cotton maker and produced a record 35.3 million bales of the crop in the year ending on 30 June, 2012.

"What we argue is that it's far more complex than simply adopting a technology," the report’s lead author Guillaume Gruère told New Scientist magazine.

The report identifies a lack of financial support for farmers as a key problem leading many to borrow money from loan sharks at crippling interest rates. It said economically strapped farmers took loans from the local banks or, in many cases, turned to high-interest private lenders as collateral. If fate is unkind and drought or infestation strikes, it can spell ruin for Indian farmers who have no safety net.

It is interesting to compare the transformation of the Indian economy with what happened in the US during the 1980s where there was a massive transformation of its farm economy.

“So many farmers went out of business, so many farmers found themselves terribly indebted and so many farmers indeed in Minnesota and Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, committed suicide as well. That's happening in India on an Indian scale,” award-winning film director Fred de Sam Lazaro who made the film The Dying Fields, once told me.

“A lot of the farmers who are killing themselves are not people who have lost everything. They are people who have something but are losing it. They are humiliated socially. That is why they are committing suicide. That is something that killed a number of farmers in the US. But of course, in a wealthy country you have systems that provide a safety net. There is crop insurance. If you just squeal loud enough you will get government assistance. Farmers in India cannot squeal loud enough to get government attention and it is not clear what the government can do,” said Lazaro.

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