Monday 26 November 2012

Part 1: GMOs, Chapter 2: The “Bitter Seeds”

A cotton farmer rides a brand new motorcycle home. His children are thrilled: “Dad, Dad, is it ours?” Their excitement, however, dissipates almost instantaneously. “Will it still be around next year?” they glumly add. The farmer proudly declares: “Next year, it’ll be a car!”

That’s a scene from a real Indian TV ad. To us, motorcycles and automobiles aren't a big deal—they’re everywhere. But things are different in rural India. In that part of the world, they’re luxuries. Which means the farmer in the ad has made it. And he’s confident he’ll make it big time the following year.

If you’re poor and desperate and you see that ad or something similar, chances are you’d want to try whatever the ad’s offering. That’s exactly the outcome—thousands upon thousands of farmers have bought genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, the subject of the advertisement. In fact, the marketing of GM seeds has been so effective that today, a multinational biotechnology company is said to control 95% of India’s cotton seed market, and more than 80% of the country’s cotton-growing areas are grown with GM cotton. But do the seeds really work?

A bag of cotton seeds
Photo courtesy of Thamizhpparithi Maari

Seeds are seeds. They alone can’t guarantee a good harvest. Other success factors, such as water and soil fertility, are essential. Indeed, the product literature states that the seeds can deliver the desired results only if they are protected by expensive pesticides and watered and fertilized according to precise timetables. But many of the GM seed customers can’t afford to do that. They’re smallholders with rain-fed fields (i.e. no irrigation). Furthermore, GM seeds are non-renewable. They are sterile by design. Which means the farmers must renew their supply every year. An old-timer tells Manjusha Amberwar, the aspiring journalist in the previous chapter: “We saved seeds in our farms. There was never a question of paying for the seeds.”

The reality is this: India’s big, wealthy farms can succeed with GM seeds; the resource-poor majority can’t.

But nobody told the impoverished and illiterate farmers that. They’re only told a dream. They’re not told its true cost. And in the pursuit of their dreams, many smallholders go heavily into debt. And when dreams and reality collide, casualties are inevitable. The farmer-suicide crisis in the previous chapter is a case in point.

Can the farmers return to traditional farming, using non-GM seeds? It’ll be difficult. Because of the predominance of GM seeds, the public and private sectors have mostly withdrawn from the production of non-GM seeds. As a result, there is now a critical shortage of conventional seeds. Today, in communities like Manjusha’s, it’s practically impossible to buy anything but GM seeds.

Is the situation then completely hopeless? No, it isn't. Stay tuned to find out where hope can come from.

Monday 19 November 2012

Part 1: GMOs, Chapter 1: Manjusha

Manjusha Amberwar is an 18-year-old girl. She’s from Telung Takli, a tiny and remote village in Vidarbha. Known as the “White Gold Belt of [the Indian state of] Maharashtra,” Vidarbha is a key cotton production area.

Manjusha’s dream is to become a journalist. Her family are, however, against it. They say she’s not following tradition. But Manjusha’s mind is made up. She believes she has a mission, which is to tell the world about the farmers’ predicament. She adds: “Three farmers in my village killed themselves…I’m investigating why they did it.”

The suicides are part of a larger crisis. In August 2012, the Indian Parliament was told that there were 290,740 farmer suicides during 1995 – 2011. That translates into 17,102 suicides per year. At one point during that time, it got as bad as one suicide in every 30 minutes.

The situation is simply tragic. Which is why Manjusha feels compelled to tell the farmers’ stories. But something else is also driving her—her father was one of the many Indian cotton farmers who have committed suicide.

Manjusha (left) and her family

The suicides are, however, a rather recent phenomenon. An old-timer informs Manjusha: “In my time, there were no suicides. Even poor people could survive by working hard.”

So something must have changed. What is it?

In the course of her investigation, Manjusha discovers that her village no longer employs traditional agricultural practices. One big change is the cotton seeds. Specifically, the villagers are now using genetically modified cotton seeds.

But why did they change? And are the seeds linked to the suicides?

Stay tuned to find out.

Note: You can learn more about Manjusha by viewing the award-winning documentary, Bitter Seeds. The trailer is available at

Monday 12 November 2012

Welcome to

Hello. Thank you for visiting

Although it’s called “The Cotton Story”, our blog is really about people. Real people. People whose lives have been impacted by cotton production. The impacts can be deadly. And you should know about them.

But first, you should know that cotton is the world's most important natural fibre. Nearly 60% is used as yarn and threads in a wide range of clothing, including underwear and undershirts. This translates into an industry that is worth many billions of dollars. Without a doubt, you and I love to wear cotton, pure or blended.

Second, you should know that 99% of the world’s cotton is produced conventionally. Conventional cotton production allows the use of toxic and persistent synthetic agrochemicals (e.g. insecticides and herbicides) and genetically modified cotton seeds. It is the use of those things that is producing the harmful impacts, whether directly or indirectly.

Through our posts, you will find out what those impacts are. You will also discover what people on and off the farms are doing to address them. Finally, you will learn what you can do to help minimize or eliminate them.

We hope you will continue with us on this journey.

Team Nukleus