Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images Despite sensationalist headlines, genetically modified crops have been a great boon to Indian farmers. Too often, we let emotion crowd out the facts of a news story. We base our opinions on the most attention-generating headlines, and deeply held convictions are shaped by only a few highly publicized stories. Recently, I was at a major New England university discussing the state of the world when we touched on nutrition. I made the point that the Green Revolution from the 1970s was a technological solution which has reaped huge benefits for both mankind and the environment. First a bit of history: Spearheaded by Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution found ways to make the yield of staple crops much higher, so we could grow much more food on the same agricultural land. The Green Revolution made food cheaper, and allowed countries like India to shift from imminent starvation to surplus food production. Higher yields also reaped environmental benefits, as there was less need to cut down forests and intrude on nature. For his work, Borlaug earned the nickname “The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives” and was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet, at this discussion, a college professor remarked that is was debatable whether the Green Revolution had been an overall good for India, since “there are so many suicides.” The Indian farmer suicides the professor alluded to tie into the controversy around genetically modified (GM) crops. While not part of the original Green Revolution, the advent of GM crops became possible because of the legacy of agricultural technological innovation. In recent years these stories have generated numerous headlines and follow a now-familiar pattern. Opponents claim that the proliferation of GM crops like Bt cotton has placed enormous financial strain on India’s smallholder farmers, driving them to suicide. A popular proponent of this narrative is Vandana Shiva, a prominent Indian environmentalist. Shiva and others argue that “corporate seeds” were foisted upon Indian farmers during India’s liberalization in the 1990s. Whereas farmers had once saved seeds from season to season, the need to buy new seeds every year, plus the additional costs of fertilizers and pesticides, drove impoverished Indian farmers into a spiral of debt. This eventually has led to an epidemic in which a quarter million of them have taken their own lives since the mid-1990s. No one wants to trivialize the tragedy of families who have lost loved ones, but this narrative doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Several academics have undertaken studies to get to the heart of the suicide “epidemic,” and their findings paint a far different picture. It’s best two dissect two separate strains of the argument: first, that there is a wave of farmer suicides and second that GM cotton has been a failure for India. Perhaps the most comprehensive study on Indian suicides was published by the medical journal The Lancet. It found that although most suicide deaths do occur in rural areas, the prevalence of suicide is not any higher among agricultural workers than any other sector of Indian society. And in fact, the researchers found that more suicide deaths occurred in richer areas and among more highly educated individuals than among those with only a basic education. These needlessly provocative stories make us lose sight of the fact that better crops both give more food and higher incomes while using less land Meanwhile political economist Anoop Sadanadan shows that new banking practices implemented in the same period of reforms, rather than a GMO crop failure, was a far greater contributor to suicides. And indeed, The New York Times cites part of the problem as greater reliance on village money lenders, who can charge upwards of 24% interest on their loans. The Lancet piece supports this notion, citing a combination of social factors including family problems and financial difficulties as the most common triggers of suicide in India. As for Bt cotton, detailed studies on the ground indicate that, far from failure, it has been a boon for Indian farmers, raising yields per acre by nearly one-quarter and raising smallholder profits by one-half, and lowering health-care costs by helping avoid millions of cases of pesticide poisoning. And other GM crops like golden rice, also opposed by Shiva, have potential to help millions more in India, giving poor citizens better nutrition and staving off the effects of hunger and vitamin A deficiencies. Two recent studies show that just 50g (2oz) golden rice can provide 60% of daily vitamin A. Golden rice would cost just $100 for every life saved from vitamin A deficiency compared to over $4,000 for supplementation programs. ‘Bt’ cotton has raised yields by nearly one-quarter and small farm profits by one-half. Millions of cases of pesticide poisoning have been prevented Although it’s brought sustainable social and economic benefits to India, Bt cotton, or any other GM crop, is not a panacea. None of this should detract from the very real problems facing India’s smallholder farmers, nor does it suggest that green technologies can’t lead to their own set of problems. But we need to look at the hard evidence and decouple the stories of farmer suicides and GM crops. These needlessly provocative stories make us lose sight of the fact that better crops both give more food and higher incomes while using less land. Before the Green Revolution, India faced the very real prospect of mass famine. Today, millions have been pulled back from the brink of starvation and generational cycles of poverty through the advent and spread of green technologies. Let’s not let sensational headlines cloud this reality. National Post
Bjørn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School.