Saturday, June 6, 2009

more on the downside of GMO cotton

Cotton, Inc. has been happily touting cotton as "environmentally friendly", thanks to the supposed pest-resistant genetically modified varieties now available. Tara Lohan of Alternet interviewed science policy advocate Vananda Shiva, about the suicides of 1,500 farmers in India and tells another side of the story:

When Monsanto's Bt cotton was introduced, the seed costs jumped from 7 rupees per kilo to 17,000 rupees per kilo. Our survey shows a thirteenfold increase in pesticide use in cotton in Vidharbha. Meantime, the $4 billion subsidy given to U.S. agribusiness for cotton has led to dumping and depression of international prices.

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.

The next time you are tempted to buy that inexpensive cotton T-shirt, add this information to your calculation of the true cost. I am finding more and more organic cotton clothing every week, and am willing to buy one organic T,  instead of two regular ones.

ETA: In response to Abraham's comment, I located the Guardian (UK) article and the report on which it was based. The gist of the report is that this is a more complex issue than the Alternet interview suggests. However, it is also more complex than the Guardian article implies. The original report (pdf) argues that the role of Bt cotton in farmer suicides is overstated, but that "Bt cotton may have played a role in specific cases and seasons". The phenomenon may also be a thing of the past: "The initial high price of Bt cotton seeds and the limited number of initial varieties available due to the lack of competition are becoming less problematic, with more varieties approved and a second, non-Monsanto trait commercially available since 2006." And they seem to lay the blame not so much on the characteristics of Bt cotton itself as the marketing approaches used by the company:

"At the same time, our analysis suggests the need for a better extension system, more controlled seed marketing system, anti-fraud enforcement, and better information dissemination among farmers in all regions, before the introduction of any costly new technologies like Bt cotton. Information should not come from seed dealers, whose job it is to promote and sell their technologies without explaining their proper use."

 The upside of Bt cotton is that it reduces the need for pesticides, a major problem with conventional cotton culture. As a consumer, I have grown wary of innovations that may come with hidden, perhaps long-term price tags. Insects were the problem, pesticides were the solution. Now pesticides are the problem; are GMO the best solution?


Abraham said...

This information is a bit dishonest. The argument seems to be more with capitalism than with cotton. I believe that there was an academic study on the Indian pesticide suicides that found there was no connection between seed prices and the unfortunate gentleman's death. Even The Guardian in the UK said as much.

Also, if the US cotton industry is actually depressing global cotton prices, how is that beneficial in any way to it; especially since the US has gone from being #1 to #3 or 4 in global production?

I have hear and read that the US cotton industry manipulates global prices many times, yet no one can explain how or why they do it.

If you can explain it, I would very much appreciate it.

So, basically I find one aspect of your article to be untrue and the other is unclear.

Jo said...

I am not the reporter, but I will see if I can find answers to your questions. Can you post a link to the Guardian article?

Abraham said...

Hi! Sorry I didn't check back sooner, but you all seem to found the links and supporting documents. I really appreciate the open forum and free discussion here, and with that in mind, can anyone explain the latter part of my ciriticism -- if US subsidies control the global price of cotton, how do the current depressed prices benefit the US cotton industry and its place in the global arena?

Many thanks!


Jo said...

There's no "you all here" -- just me! That answer may take a bit longer. My guess is that subsidies to U.S. growers help them compete. Now I wish I had paid more attention in my econ classes!