Genetic engineering is a tough cover for even a well-worn agricultural journalist like me. But for a non-agricultural journalist to spend just four days researching the impact of GE seeds on cotton farmer suicides in India is a bit of a stretch.
It’s like me being qualified to safely land a Boeing 747 after reading “The Life and Times of Orville and Wilbur Wright.”
In some ways, writing and flying a plane are similar — keep it level and balanced and watch for blowing wind. If you encounter a problem you can’t solve, quickly find somebody smart who can help, or you might need to bail out.
You should also be mindful of the details. The lack thereof is why a journalist for Mail Online couldn’t quite get his foot on the rudder of a story he wrote last year, after four days of research.
The reporter describes in explicit detail the deathly convulsions of an Indian cotton farmer who swallowed insecticide after the failure of his cotton crop. He then comes to the conclusion that the farmer’s crop and others around the country failed due to Bt cotton.
He based his conclusions on several fallacies, which a fact-checking wingman might have picked up.
He said that thousands of Indian farmers have taken their own lives “as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops.”
While the farmer suicides in India are a sad comment on Indian society, it’s even sadder to use their deaths to mislead the general public about genetic engineering. An alarming number of farmers in India do take their lives, but according to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, there has not been a resurgence in farmer suicides since the introduction of Bt cotton. According to the IFPRI study, farmers committing suicide in India has a lot to do with a lending system in India that is nothing short of predatory.
The reporter wrote that the GE seeds “require double the amount of water. With rains failing for the past two years, many GE crops have simply withered and died, leaving farmers with crippling debts and no means of paying them off.”
I honestly have no idea how he determined that Bt cotton needs twice the water of non-Bt cotton. But I imagine that even a 10-year-old farm boy knows that it takes water to grow a crop — any crop. To blame a failure of a crop on seed genetics in the midst of a two-year drought is like blaming the crash of a plane that runs out of fuel on its wing design.
He then writes, “When crops failed in the past, farmers could still save seeds and replant them the following year. But with GE seeds they cannot do this. That’s because GE seeds contain so-called terminator technology, meaning that they have been genetically modified so the resulting crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.”
That would be an interesting factor to consider — if it were true. Actually, the holders of the patent for the terminator gene never introduced it to the field. The real reason Indian farmers don’t replant their cotton seed is because they plant hybrids. Replanting isn’t an option with hybrids. Indian farmers know that much.
While I’ve never been to India, I’ve seen enough studies and legitimate articles to know that Bt cotton is responsible for an incredible resurgence in India’s cotton production. Bt cotton is not in big trouble there, it’s in big demand.