Technological “fixes” aren’t making us happier

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not causing farmers in India to kill themselves. No data supports that conclusion, and anyway suicide is far too complex of a social act to be reduced to any singular cause. The spate of farmer suicides in India gained national attention in the 1990s as the Indian economy liberalized, and peaked in many places in 1998 – four years before a single GM cotton seed would be legally planted in a farmer’s field.

And yet.

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Since 1995, more the three-hundred thousand Indian farmers have killed themselves. These deaths are a blow to the agrarian identity of a nation with hundreds of millions of people, nearly half the country, who primarily make their living through agriculture. In the United States, we debate farm bills and trot out growers for political gain when we battle for the soul of our nation – here, fewer than 1% of our population, about two million households, earn their living as farmers.

I set out to write a book describing the complex lives of people testing out the future of the farming in a place where the stakes are high: GM and organic cotton in India. Despite my intention to confine my research to seed choices, I could not separate these choices from the larger context of farmer suicide. I want to understand how farmers manage an agricultural landscape given new tools. This alone has been fertile ground to explore family dramas and development anxieties. Seed decisions, far from rational economic calculations, are infused with social and cultural value. Still, farmer suicide is the most dramatic outcome of the agrarian crisis that spurred GM seeds and organic agriculture to reach out to cotton farmers. All nine villages where I met with farmers 2012–2016 to talk about agricultural technologies had stories of suicide because both Telangana and the Warangal district where I conduct most of my research were hit especially hard by farmer suicides.

Both GM and organic cotton agriculture claim to provide the solution to suicide, a phenomenon far too complex to be reduced to a simple bad harvest or rash decision. Emile Durkheim, one of contemporary anthropology’s foundational thinkers, explained suicide not as an individual act but as socially embedded and inextricable from cultural context. In this tradition, I disagree that Indian farmer suicides are a direct result of the spread of GM cotton, as argued by the most vociferous Bt cotton critics. (Bt cotton is genetically modified to contain an insecticidal toxin naturally produced by Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium.) Neither would I say that GM cotton is a cure for farmer distress and suicide, as would the strongest proponents of that technology.

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Farmer suicides and rural distress rose in tandem with Indian neoliberal economic reforms, as they did with the rise of neoliberal policies around the world. Neoliberal means different things to different people, but I’m using it to describe policies that loosened state oversight over the agrarian economy. As state extension pulled back services aimed at small and marginal farmers, new private companies promoted technology that farmers purchased rather than produced themselves. The expansion of commercial agribusiness since the 1990s allowed seeds, long produced by public breeders or local farmers, to become choices in a private marketplace – choices that Indian farmers made as individual consumers who bore the full responsibility for their own success or failure. The pressure to choose the right seeds and maximize profits amid rising costs and stagnant yields has led farmers to increase pesticide applications, plant their cotton more densely, or seek out new technologies like herbicides to try to close the gap.

Indian farmers are not unique in experiencing a crisis in the new normal of agriculture – farmers in settings spanning the United States, India, the UK, Australia, Brazil, tend to carry this burden. Agricultural failure isn’t just the loss of a profit. It can mean the loss of family land, or the crushing disappointment of generations of struggle to own and care for heritage — and some male farmers see farm losses as a blow to their masculinity.

The United States has seen several waves of crisis too. Following the American Dust Bowl, American agriculture was transformed through mechanization and new industries: purchased seeds, an explosion in hired labor, fertilizer, pesticides, and expertise from a growing agribusiness industry. Faced with the industrial image of farms as factories, rural communities found decreasing profits and dwindling opportunities as public resources, blue-collar jobs, and political capital moved away. When agricultural markets grew in India during the ‘90s, so too did demand for credit to fill the gaps in seasonal agricultural work between sowing and harvest. Simultaneously, India’s profoundly rural identity experienced new pushes and pulls from urban centers offering prestige not through land ownership but university education, technology, brand consciousness, and urban living. Rural socioeconomic life, always in flux, was experiencing a seismic shift in the ways that communities related to each other and to the land. It is rarely easy to be a farmer.

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GM seeds continue this modern agrarian problem. They do not, as some critics charge, cause it. Yet GM seeds are often fertilizer- and water-intensive, and the seeds themselves are slightly more expensive. Farmers rapidly switch between seed brands in a desperate search for the best and most popular brand, with little understanding of what this means or how to judge it. The seeds are not, in this sense, innocent. More damning than increased costs are the increasingly narrow possibilities for living well as a cotton farmer.

Debt is a way of life in farming communities, where seasonal harvests repay seasonal loans. But new expectations of how to live in India cut deeper than rising costs banked against rising returns. In the mid-1990s, local newspapers, government officials, and NGO workers realized that cotton farmers were drinking pesticide to kill themselves in shocking numbers. Large-scale analyses of cotton farmer suicide note that wealth and the lack of local safety nets are more to blame for spikes in suicide than cotton agriculture itself, and this instability proved to be the biggest problem. Across the central cotton belt, especially in Telangana and Maharashtra, at-risk farmers were particularly impoverished and often lacked irrigation infrastructure that would stabilize cotton farming. Farmers described themselves as desperate, squeezed by social and economic pressures and cut adrift from government assistance that they had come to expect.

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The conclusion is as sad as it is obvious. The poorest and most indebted cotton farmers, those with small holdings who lack irrigation and economic opportunities outside of cash-cropping, remain the most at risk for suicide today because they remain the most vulnerable population. Of course they are. It is complicated but correct to note that (1) farmers as a whole are not at a greater risk for suicide than others in India, (2) more marginal farmers are at greater risk for suicide than others, and (3) that the GM and organic cotton solutions to this crisis can only address some aspects of this economic and ecological insecurity. To really help rural communities interventions must go beyond technological fixes and address political and social insecurities of neoliberal life.

Suicide is not the only possible response to agrarian crisis. In India’s past, agrarian crisis and extreme indebtedness led to riots and demonstrations against zamindar landlords who controlled rural wealth. Yet the new framings of neoliberal life seemed to lead farmers to internalize this failure as personal and desperate. This crisis was deemed to be worthy of suicide but not collective political action, because the precariousness of rural life had been recast as an individual, not systemic failure.

Agronomic analyses continue to show that the most historically disenfranchised farmers on poor quality, rainfed land are at greater risk for suicide. Such farmers find themselves in what anthropologist A.R. Vasavi calls shadow spaces: an existential place of shame and neglect in rural areas that is swept under the rug so as not to challenge India’s national success story. Farmers who commit suicide are often trying to capture a piece of that success story for themselves. As Vasavi describes, new farmers take over land vacated by larger, higher caste farmers who benefitted from a wave of agricultural development during the 1960s and 70s called the green revolution and leveraged their profits to pursue opportunities in urban areas. Unlike those early successful farmers, farmers left behind to pursue agricultural gains had none of the socioeconomic advantages and fewer of the political connections to university extension groups, shops, or development programs. Given the success of agricultural technologies in the past, Vasavi writes, this new generation of farmers was expected to flourish and overcome their generational poverty. Farmers themselves aspired to reap high yields and the class mobility that comes with them. Lacking shared bodies of knowledge, excluded from social networks in which to share labor and expertise, unable to repay debts, secure credit, or chase the status symbols of neoliberal life, they have come to live these structural and historical barriers as individual failures.

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Telangana newspapers profile deaths as the result of debts and crop failures, the final stakes in agricultural gambles. They become what anthropologist Daniel Münster calls public deaths, made visible through the state category of farmer suicide. Farmers hang themselves from trees on their farms or drink pesticides to escape financial burdens. They attempt suicide on police station steps to protest fake seeds. Some buy pesticides to kill themselves after selling crops at a loss or finding themselves unable to deal with new pests like the GM-resistant pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella). The staging of farmers who attempt suicide on police station steps is a blatant protest against a perceived police apathy, but each of these is a performance of sorts. Paradoxically, while success and failure in neoliberal India is an increasingly individual process, farmers have found a public visibility and political capital through collective self-destruction. Public deaths call attention to the failure of a market or a government policy to address unmitigated structural violence in rural areas. What word other than crisis exists to describe the deaths of over 300,000 people?

GM technology or organic regulations in and of themselves, for example, cannot address the nebulous concerns of debt, stewardship, masculinity, or aspiration that Indian farmers feel. These are at the core of contemporary India, caught between fabulous wealth and extreme rural precarity. Debts and desperation come from agricultural work, but they also come from extravagant weddings, conspicuous consumption, school and university fees, or the failure to succeed in a new and urban environment when one’s family depends on you to succeed. Like urban students facing new pressures in India, farmers face existential questions. What happens when the aspiration to lead a good life amid the promises of global change is confronted by the internalized, individual senses of failure and shame when those aspirations fail to materialize? This is the intolerable uncertainty around what it means to live well in neoliberal Telangana.

If the goal of development is to alleviate this structural poverty, then knowledge, practice, and performance are the mechanisms by which farmers engage global change. Interventions, then, cannot focus on technologies as though the problem were yields or profits alone, but on ways that farmers learn, the institutions that provide safety nets for new practices, and the alternative possibilities to live well. To imagine this, we need to think more creatively, more cooperatively, and more structurally about our worlds.

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