That Indian farmers have been committing suicide at depressingly shocking rates, due most often to high debts incurred when the industrial agriculture techniques and/or GM crop seeds they've been told will make them wealthy don't quite pan out as promised, is a long-running issue at the intersection of environmental and social justice — but this latest news is particularly stark.
The Times of India reports that in the past 48 hours five farmers in just one district of the state of Maharashtra have killed themselves, all over high debts. For the year, just five months and two days old, 332 farmers have chosen to end their lives because of debt.
In other words, in one state in India (albeit a big state) nearly 3 farmers each day are killing themselves because the debts they have incurred.
About this time of year, looking back at 2010 and for the whole of India, the number of farmer suicides divided out to one every 30 minutes (!!!).
Of course, the suicides bring about their own sets of problems: the widow and/or family may not be able to afford a burial; the widow is left alone to support the children; the debt in some cases will be passed on to the widow; what is left of the family may lose their land and/or their homes - the list is endless.
What's going on? Drought reducing crop yields and reducing the amount of water available (and required) for the Bt cotton they've invested in.
"As per official admission of Maharashtra agriculture minister Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, this year cotton cultivation has jumped to more than 44 lakh hectares in dry land region of Mahrashtra covering Vidarbha, Marathwada, Khandesh and North Maharashtra, but due to drought the yield has dropped to 45 lakh bales in comparison to last year's yield of 86 lakh bales," Tiwari said. "Moreover, cost of cultivation has jumped to almost double, not to mention lack of proper irrigation facilities for rain-sensitive Bt cotton crop," he added.
The latest farmer to kill himself owed Rs300,000 ($5663) — which gives you some additional insight into the precarious financial situation these farmers are in, in the first place.
All of this becomes additionally poignant today, as a new report commissioned by Greenpeace International finds that Bt brinjal (eggplant or aubergine, depending on your nationality)—currently banned from commercial cultivation in India, but there's a push to change that — poses an environmental risk.
The gist of it is this: Much like has been the case with other genetically-modified crops designed to be resistant to a particular pest or to a specific pesticide, but which are also designed so that they won't interbreed with non-GM varieties of the plant, nature always finds a way and manages to bypass the GM tinkering.
The Hindu provides more detail, saying the study finds that:
Brinjal relatives do occur in the regions where cultivation of GE Bt brinjal is proposed, and that GE Bt brinjal may mate with these relatives to spread the GE Bt gene. Spread of the GE Bt gene would have considerable ecological implications, as well as implications for future crop contamination and farmers' rights. Importantly, the spread of the GE Bt gene could result in the brinjal becoming an aggressive and problematic weed, the Greenpeace report suggests, while impressing upon the governments the need to employ the precautionary principle and not permit any authorization of the outdoor cultivation of GE Bt brinjal, including field trials.
Outdoor field trials are currently underway in the Philippines, the report notes.