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As many as 10,000 dead: that’s the calculation of several media outlets, although it will be some time before we have typhoon “Yolanda’s” final horrific tally. But there are man-made disasters where the toll, over time, is even higher, and there is one in particular that the Philippines should make every effort to avoid. I refer to the trail of human devastation that typhoon genetically modified organisms (GMO) has left in its wake in India.

There are various estimates of the number of Indian farmers who have committed suicide since they began using (GMOs). According to one, almost 300,000 have ended their lives due to debt since 1995 (see projectcensored.org, “Monsanto and India’s Suicide Economy”).

Physicist-turned-activist Vandana Shiva cites the huge increase in the cost of seeds, and false but largely unrealized promises of bumper cotton crops, along with claims, also unrealized, that pesticide costs would be reduced. These charges were explored in a US film entitled Bitter Seeds released a year ago.
GMO supporters challenge the claims. The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute counter-claims that pesticide use in India is down by 40 percent and that cotton yields have almost doubled, making India the world’s second largest producer. Moreover, the institute argues that farmers fall into the hands of loan sharks, and that debt is the real reason for the suicides — a rather shallow argument.

Certainly, seed-costs are a major item, because GM seeds are designed to be sterile — they call it the “terminator technology” — and thus new seeds must be purchased for every planting.

Vandana Shiva challenges claims of reduced pesticide use, asserting that Bt cotton produces more pests and that Indian cotton farmers now use 13 times more pesticides than before the introduction of Bt seeds. (Belen Fernandez, “Dirty white gold,”Aljazeera.com, Dec. 8, 2012.) Ironically, many of the suicides have been committed by drinking these pesticides.

Monsanto itself says that “significant research” has disproved the claim that GMOs are the leading cause of the suicides, adding that suicides have been a problem for nearly three decades, since before it introduced its GM seeds in 2002. However, a CNN piece from January 2010 uses an interesting formulation, saying that there were 200,000 suicides since 1997, when “corporate seed control” began.

The most balanced view I have come across can be found on the pbs.org site, where a piece entitled “Seeds of Suicide” from July 2005 explains that 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.”
According to this account, in recent times in Andhra Pradesh state “crop failure can often be traced to Bt cotton … some farmers who plant more expensive Bt seeds often wind up worse off than those who don’t.”

In an online comment, a Pakistani immigrant to Canada says that the same problem exists in Pakistan, with good first and second crops followed by complaints about the bad soil.

Don’t run away with the impression that the anti-GMO reports are all found on activist-dominated or “liberal” sites. Just as damning is the report in Britain’s reactionary Daily Mail of Nov. 3, 2008 which details a suicide case where the victim had been promised wonderful harvests and then borrowed to purchase the GM seeds — but the harvests failed. According to this account, the amount it takes to buy 100 grams of GMO seed could purchase a thousand times that amount of traditional seeds. Moreover, GM seeds need double the amount of water required by traditional seeds — another fact of GMO life that farmers are sometimes not told. And, yes, loans with extortionate interest-rates are also a factor in the suicides a — but debt is surely a consequence of the initial decision to take the GMO route.

The “corporate seed control” mentioned in the CNN piece is a global, not just Indian, problem. The top three corporations control almost half of the world’s seed supply while, according to Nation of Change, the top 10 “own more than 75 percent of all seeds planted on the earth right now.” Here are the top 10, in descending order of dominance:

1.    Monsanto (US) owns “approximately 27 percent of all seeds currently used in mono-crop, modern agricultural farming.” In 2007, its seeds and traits extended to 87 percent of the world area devoted to GMO seeds. Last year it spent $6 billion on lobbying.
2. Dupont (US) controls 17 percent of the market in seeds. Along with Monsanto and Cargill, it spent $25 million to scupper a US bill on the labeling of GMO products.
3. The Swiss company Syngenta controls 9 percent of the seed market and recently spent $15.4 million on lobbying.
4. Groupe Limagrain (French) controls 5 percent of the market.
5. Land O’ Lakes (US) controls 4 percent.
6. KWS AG (German) controls 3 percent of the market.
7. Bayer Crop Science (German) — 2 percent.
8-9. Sakata and Takii (Japanese) — less than 2 percent each.
10 DLF-Trifolium (Denmark) — less than 2 percent.

We see from the above that some of these corporations have huge treasure-chests with which to sway governments and bend public opinion. Moreover, Monsanto and Bayer are funders of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications Center, which was involved in the field testing of genetically modified eggplant at Los Baños that the Court of Appeals stamped on.

Given the disaster than has ruined so many lives in India, those who argue that Greenpeace, which has campaigned against GMOs in the Philippines, is “against Filipino scientists” (despite the fact that Filipino scientists joined the campaign against the GMO experiment at Los Baños) or “against Filipino farmers” (despite the fact that these have the most to lose if the Indian experience were ever repeated here) should think again.
Typhoon GMO can be prevented.
Ken Fuller is a former TGWU passenger transport leader who writes for the Daily Tribune in the Philippines
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