Suicide by pesticide: It’s an epidemic in India, where farmers try to keep up with the latest pest-resistant seeds only to find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of pesticides that don’t work, drought and debt. Since 1997, more than 25,000 farmers have committed suicide, many drinking the chemical that was supposed to make their crops more, not less, productive.
This week on Rough Cut, you’ll join FRONTLINE/World correspondent Chad Heeter in verdant Andhra Pradesh, an agricultural state in eastern India where last summer an average of seven farmers killed themselves every day. In this part of the world, machinery, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and hybrid seeds — all of which originated in the West — often spell disaster rather than prosperity. “This is the other side of globalization,” says Heeter, a student at U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
The tragedy unfolds from crop failure. Drought, pests, and spurious pesticides are expensive problems that small farmers don’t have the means to rectify. In recent years, as Heeter finds in the fields of Andhra Pradesh, crop failure can often be traced to Bt cotton, a genetically modified breed that contains a pesticide that naturally occurs in soil rather than plants. Bt technology should, in theory, repel bollworm — cotton’s worst enemy — but some farmers who plant more expensive Bt seeds often wind up worse off than those who don’t. One farmer, Pariki, confides that after he fell into debt, his wife killed herself, leaving him to care for their three small children.
In the last seven years, bad seeds, costly pesticide and drought have triggered debt, then suicide for 4,500 farmers in Andhra Pradesh alone, but no one is taking responsibility — not the government, whose policies encouraged cash crops like cotton; not the developers of genetically modified crops; and not the dealers, who insist that farmers don’t follow instructions for their seed. Amazingly, Pariki harbors no grudges. “I’m not angry with anyone because the moneylender has the right to ask for repayment,” he says.
Heeter discovers that less expensive, lower-risk organic farming methods might offer a solution for the cotton-growing crisis in India. But without a sea change in agriculture policy and practices, thousands more Indian farmers are likely to take their own lives.