A young man in India has a small piece of land that has been passed down in his family for generations. He lives on the land with his wife, parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and his own young family. He has a small herd of goats, a cow and chickens, and he grows a wide variety of crops. He waters his crops with fresh, clean water that he gets from a community well and fertilizes his crops with dung from his livestock. Every week, he takes some of his harvest to the market to sell. He also saves the best seeds from his harvest every season to plant the following season. He trades and barters his seeds and produce with his friends. He makes very little money, but he doesn’t need much because the land provides him and his extended family with everything they need to survive.
The Indian farmer’s life is not easy but neither is it impoverished. He and his family have healthy, nutritious food to eat and the love and support of an extended family and larger community. To the World Trade Organization, that measures human welfare in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), our farmer is a failure. His income is low enough that his is classed as living in abject poverty, and he is not a productive contributor to the wider, global economy.
The ironically entitled “Green Revolution” is a movement to bring industrial agriculture to rural areas that practice traditional subsistence farming. Companies like Monsanto hold workshops in rural areas where they promote the benefits of industrial, “modern” agriculture. Landowning subsistence farmers are told that they can greatly increase the profitability and productivity of their lands by replacing their old fashioned traditional farming methods with new technologies. The new hybrid and genetically-modified crops promise increased yields and ease of maintenance. Add a modern irrigation system and a farmer no longer needs to engage in the daily drudgery of planting, hauling water and pulling weeds. With a Roundup Ready crop of corn or soy, he simply sprays the land with Roundup, plants his seeds, uses his new irrigation system to water his plants and then harvests a crop that will fetch dollars on the international market. Voila, our subsistence farmer has entered the modern age and the WTO is very happy, as he is now engaging in monetary trading.
The above scenario is taking place across the globe in developing communities, and the WTO says that free market globalization is helping to improve the lives of people everywhere. Per capita incomes are increasing and global trade is exploding. All is well with the world, but a nagging issue of the skyrocketing suicide rates among Indian and other farmers around the world belies the WTO’s measurements of success.
The Indian farmer was persuaded by his government and corporate agribusiness that switching from the traditional farming methods that had served his family well for generations to modern methodologies would provide him with an economic windfall. By growing a monoculture of a commodity crop like corn, soy or cotton, the farmer would be able to sell his produce on the international market for top dollar. Unfortunately, most subsistence farmers lacked the startup capital to invest in the hybrid and GMO seeds, irrigation systems, herbicides, pesticides and machinery required to begin such an enterprise. So, farmers take out loans against their family farms with hopes for a better future.
When subsistence farmers switched from diverse subsistence crops and livestock to monoculture commodity crops, they indeed joined the global economy. They also forfeited a sustainable, self-sufficient life for one in which they must now pursue making money in order to survive. By mortgaging their farms to cover start up costs, they entered into a vicious cycle of borrowing money each year to cover expenses and then hoping they will earn enough when the crops come in to pay back the loans. American farmers were driven off the land and into the cities decades ago when they lost their farms to foreclosure under similar circumstances, and now farmers in the developing world are staring at the same fate. Sadly, once the vicious cycle is set in motion, the indebted farmer cannot turn back to his old ways, as he is now obliged to pay off his debt with cash that he can only procure by selling a commodity crop, or he loses his ancestral lands to foreclosure.
Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against the farmers from the beginning. Commodity crops are heavily subsidized by governments in developed countries, driving down prices and making it impossible for farmers that are not similarly subsidized to compete on the global market. Added to the mix are the inevitable risks inherent with farming. Drought, pestilence and other factors may result in crop failure. When the farmer ends up losing his land, large agribusinesses are ready to swoop in and take it up. Often the farmer ends up working for meager wages on the lands his family once owned, or the reality of losing the farm his family has owned for generations drives him to suicide. The United Nations reports that more than 100,000 farmers in Indian have taken their lives due to indebtedness in the decade since 1997 (1).
The winners and losers in the Green Revolution are obvious. The environment is a big loser. The introduction of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides has resulted in toxic contamination of land and water supplies. Long tern use of the same chemicals has rendered many lands infertile. Planting of monoculture crops has reduced biodiversity and resulted in the extinction of many heritage seed varieties. Farmers are losing independent, sustainable livelihoods, their farms, their cultural heritage and their lives. Multinational agricultural corporations are winning. They have succeeded in expanding their markets on a massive scale, and their profits continue to climb.
The World Trade Organization sees the Green Revolution as a unanimous success, and governmental and international policy continues to strive towards spreading the revolution to yet unspoiled regions of the globe in the name of “development.”