Every 30 minutes, a farmer commits suicide in India, a phenomenon that has been steadily rising since the 1970s. Documentary filmmaker Micha X. Peled took his cameras to the vibrant farming community of Telung Takli in the state of Maharashtra—which sits at the heart of the crisis— to find out why.
Peled’s 2011 film Bitter Seeds starts out with brief scenes from the funeral of a farmer who has just committed suicide. It swiftly cuts away to follow the story of Ram Krishna Kopulwar, who has been farming cotton on the same three acres since he was seven, as he plants genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton seeds for the first time. The question at the heart of the film is whether or not this gentle family man will join the list of farmers who have given Maharashtra and a handful of neighboring states the nickname of “India’s Suicide Belt.”
For millennia, the film notes, farmers in India had cultivated cotton with seeds they’d saved from their own plants. In the 1970s, hybrid seeds came to market, which had been bred to increase yields. Hybrid seeds, however, cannot be saved, so the farmers had to buy more seeds each year. In time, the hybrids required more costly pesticides, as well. Farmer suicides began in 1997, as many went into debt and couldn’t make ends meet.
In 2002, Bt cotton seeds arrived, and though they promised higher yields and higher earnings, the suicide rate has kept going up, notes the film. These seeds are injected with the Bt soil bacterium so they “naturally” produce an insecticide to fight off the bollworm, a primary pest. Seed salesmen come to Telung Takli with Bt cotton seeds, promising farmers that they “won’t get insects” and that their yields will increase earnings by 4,000 rupees ($80). Truth be told, no other types of seeds are available from local seed stores, so Kopulwar and the other farmers buy the Bt seeds, with hope in their hearts.
Indian farmer Ram Krishna Kopulwar tries to make ends meet
Like the vast majority of the farmers in his region, Kopulwar cannot get a bank loan, so he turns to an illegal moneylender to get the 900 rupees ($18) to pay for his seeds. The moneylender charges seven percent interest and demands Kopulwar’s farm as collateral.
As Kopulwar cultivates his fields, he prays that the cotton will grow, and that he will earn enough to send his two daughters to school alongside his son, and to ensure their good marriages.
To produce the higher yields it promises, Bt cotton needs more water and fertilizer than cotton from heirloom or hybrid seeds, applied according to precise timetables. But 90 percent of farmers in Kopulwar’s region have no irrigation and are rain-dependent. They have no money for extra fertilizer. And so, as the rains fail to come, their cotton plants start to wither.
One day, while tending the waist-high plants, Kopulwar’s wife Sunanda finds that while the plants are free from bollworms, they have now become infested with mealy bugs— which international activist and scientist Dr. Vandana Shiva blames on the Bt cotton seeds.
“Genetic engineering disturbs the physiology and metabolism of the crops,” Shiva tells the cameras. “So we’ve had crop failure in GM cotton in the year of a drought, and we’ve had crop failure in the case of too much rain. All new pests start to occur because the plant has been weakened.”
There is no cure for mealy bugs, Kopulwar says to the filmmakers, as he starts to rip the infested plants out of his fields.
When he finally goes to market, he carries half of the cotton that he has brought in previous years. He’s forced to turn down a marriage proposal for his daughter, by a comparatively wealthy teacher whom his daughter well likes, because he cannot pay the dowry. Worse yet, the moneylender comes calling and reminds Kopulwar that he has signed away his farm. Meanwhile, Sunanda Kopulwar begs her husband not to kill himself to try to prevent the moneylender from taking their land.
While the causes behind the Maharashtra farmers’ crushing debts are complex—ranging from unfair government floor prices for cotton to international trade agreements skewed in favor of other countries—Bitter Seeds poignantly shows how GM cotton seeds contribute to the problem, rather than helping to solve it as the Bt seed salesmen promise.
The vast majority of India’s cotton farmers pay a royalty to Monsanto, a US biotech firm that owns the Bt cotton seed patent, every year. And as the farmer suicide rate continues to climb and Monsanto’s stranglehold on the Indian market grows ever tighter, the film paints an all-too vivid picture of how the company continues to make farmers promises that it cannot keep.