One response I receive when discussing genetic engineering is “What about the increasing number of farmers committing suicide in India”. The claim is that Indian farmers are “committing suicide on a mass scale” and that this is primarily the fault of the failure of genetically engineered crops, Bt cotton in particular. So we really have two main claims here to examine. First, are farmer suicides in India on the rise significantly and secondly, if so what is the cause.
According to data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) during 1996-2007 yearly farmers’ suicides increased from 13,622 to 17,060, an annual compound growth rate of 2.5%, suicides among the whole population rose from 95,829 to 118,112 in 1997-2006, a 2.4% increase. Between 1991 and 2001 Indian had an annual population growth rate of 1.93%. From the data we can see that while there has been an increase in farmer suicides it is modest and is not significantly greater than the rise in suicide in the general population. Even as India grows increasingly urbanized, farmer suicides remain around 15% but with a decreasing trend that will hopefully continue. The claim that there has been a dramatic increase in farmer suicides is not supported by the data.
So far the case against Bt cotton has been based largely on a perceived correlation, but simple correlation does not equal causation so we must dig deeper. That is exactly what the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) did in their 2008 study titled Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence. The IFPRI concluded that Bt cotton was not to blame and may have actually lead to a reduction in the expected number of suicides saying, “the reported share of farmer suicides has in fact been decreasing.” I highly recommend you read the full study. In the discussion section they report,
…our analysis is sufficiently well documented to discredit the possibility of a naïve direct causal or reciprocal relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides. First, adopting Bt cotton is not a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides in India. It is estimated that about 1 million farmers have planted Bt cotton, whereas a cumulative total of 90,000 farmers are reported to have committed suicide between 2002 (year of the commercialization of Bt cotton) and 2007. More important, the trend in farmer suicides in India appears to have slowed down since the year when Bt cotton was introduced, which would certainly not have happened if Bt cotton were responsible for increasing farmer suicides. Second, the adoption of Bt cotton is not, nor has it ever been, a necessary condition for farmer suicides in India. Farmer suicides occurred in various states of India long before the introduction of Bt cotton.
One of the oft-pointed to hotspots for farmer suicides in India is the state of Maharashtra, a major cotton producer. Suicide rates there are quite high and this has been blamed on Bt cotton production yet suicide rates in neighboring Gujarat, another major cotton producer, are far lower. One proposed relevant difference is that farmers in Maharashtra must sell their cotton to the Maharashtra State Cotton Monopoly Procurement Scheme and are barred from selling it out of state even when they can get better prices and often must pay bribes to receive favorable grading of their cotton and thus get a good price. Farmers in Gujarat on the other hand have access to more open markets and have been able to achieve bountiful yields and profits.
An investigation titled Farmers Suicide: Facts and Possible Policy Interventions, published in 2006, found that the suicides are not “confined to one district, One state or one particular crop” and “while indebtedness was rampant, there was little clarity” pointing out that each suicide was a unique occurrence with complex confounding factors such as lack of personal and institutional support, mental illness, family problems, medical issues, and other financial expenses.
Now that we have examined the alleged connection between Bt cotton and farmer suicides lets turn our eye to Bt cotton itself. Developed using genes from a common soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt cotton produces Cry proteins which affects certain insects, though not humans or most non-target insects. Its mechanism of action is explained fairly simply here. Even before genetically engineered crops B. thuringiensis was used to make insecticides and is still commonly used as a topical spray in conventional and organic agriculture, but topical spraying can have disadvantages, it can increase input cost and must be applied in large amount. Some other issues with topical application include reduced effectiveness from rapid degradation in the presence of UV radiation and lack of protection for the roots and interior of the plant. Modern Bt cotton is more targeted, can reduce input cost, increase yields, and reduce environmental and human health impact from chemical insecticides. There is good evidence that growing Bt cotton might be saving many lives through reduced incidences of pesticide poisoning. Is pest resistance an issue we need to worry about? Yes, but it an not just an issue related to GMOs but to all agriculture. Use of topically sprayed Bt preparations in non-GM agriculture has led to the Diamondback Moth being the first insect to evolve Bt resistance in the field. Abandoning genetic engineering will not solve agricultural problems with resistant insects. What is needed is better management schemes, one such method is to provide refuges for susceptible insects.
There are also claims that Bt cotton is poisoning livestock in India. The most oft-cited sources I see are reports of sheep and cattle that allegedly died after consuming Bt cotton. It should be noted that the reports are anecdotal and toxicologists haven’t pointed the finger at the Bt cotton itself, instead nitrate, gossypol, or pesticide poisoning were ruled the most likely culprits. Such deaths are also not isolated to GM fields and livestock poisonings have occurred before the introduction of GM crops.
Cotton is important to India both as a source of fiber for their massive textile industry and as a source of edible oil. Even before Bt cotton was legally introduced, engineered seeds were reportedly spreading from farmer to farmer on the black market. Farmer were willing to risk prosecution and are still are willing to pay the much higher price for Bt cotton seed year after year because of the benefits they see. A study from The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India found that 93% of Bt cotton farmers were satisfied with the end result. Individual cases of crop failure may have many causes other than failure of Bt cotton itself, inclement weather, planting of fraudulent seeds, or planting of lower quality second generation mixed Bt seed that is not approved.
Possibly the strangest claim about Bt cotton is that it is the cause of Morgellons disease, a condition characterized by a crawling sensation on the skin and open sores often with fibers protruding. There is no known cause of Morgellon’s but the best evidence* points to it being psychosomatic in nature and that the fibers are from the environment, clothes, furniture, ect. Therapy for stress and in some cases psychiatric medication appears to be the most promising treatment. Adverse reactions to Bt seem quite rare as there appears to have only been 2 reports regarding Bt to the EPA, one person was found to have a previous diagnosed illness and the other was found to have allergies to other constituents of the Bt spray. There just is no good evidence to connect Bt cotton and Morgellons or any widespread allergic reaction, in the end Bt cotton is safer than the inputs used for non-Bt cotton.
Ultimately the focus on genetically engineered crops as the primary cause of suicide in India is overly simplistic and unsupported by the data.
Frankenfood Fears My previous post on the subject
Farmer Suicides in India by Anastasia Bodnar
P. Sainath and Farmers’ Suicides in India by Siddhartha Shome
Persistent Narratives: Why is the “Failure of Bt Cotton in India” Story Still with Us? by Ron Herring
Bt cotton now helps to avoid several million cases of pesticide poisoning in India every year by GMO Pundit
Morgellons by Steven Novella
Morgellons by Sarah
Still more evidence that Morgellons disease is most likely delusional parasitosis, 2012 edition
*UPDATE 1/30/12: The CDC has recently released the most comprehensive study on Morgellons to date. The conclusion states, “No common underlying medical condition or infectious source was identified, similar to more commonly recognized conditions such as delusional infestation.”