CHURCHVILLE, VA—The world’s farm pesticide death toll has been cut radically with biotech seeds that carry their own internal pesticide. A new study in India has found that biotech cotton has reduced pesticide spraying by 50 percent, and spraying of the most toxic poisons by 70 percent. The reduced spraying is helping avoid “several million cases of pesticide poisoning in India every year.”
This is important progress—which should be enough by itself to embarrass Greenpeace and the other anti-technology groups opposing biotech. But the big news on the biotech crops is that they’re slashing the toll from farmer suicides, perhaps by a million deaths per year. Suicides have been the primary cause of the WHO’s estimated 10 million annual deaths from pesticides. The most frequent cause of rural suicides is debt, often because the farmer’s rice or cotton crop has failed and he has no way to pay back loans or feed his family. All he has is his ruined fields, which lie there mocking his attempts at success.
Even though the vast majorities of accidental farmer pesticide “poisonings” are mild, and pass quickly, they are unpleasant and some have lasting effects. Some professionals say about two-thirds of the acute pesticide poisoning deaths in the developing countries are intentional. The World health Organization tells us that in Sri Lanka, 70 percent of the farmers who commit suicide choose pesticide poisoning. In China, the percentage of farmer suicides by poison is 60 percent, in India 30 percent. And these are only the victims treated in hospitals. We have poor statistics on the number of farmer suicides because the farmers are rural, often far from medical care; and, there is always family reluctance to admit the shame of suicide.
Bollworm losses in India typically take half the farmer’s crop and often 90 percent. When Bt cotton was introduced, the insects were showing resistance to parathyroid, organophosphates, carbomates and cycledienes. India seemed likely to lose not just its cotton farmers, but the millions of textile jobs for its urban workers too. The suicide potential was vast.
A study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry reported that pesticide self-poisoning had “become a fashion in the entire Sunderabad region [in the center of India], and is fast replacing hanging and immolation [setting oneself on fire].”
The Bt cotton contains a natural pesticide found in soils around the world. The bollworms are more likely to be killed by the biotech application because it’s not just sprayed in their general direction, they swallow it. That sharply reduces the development of resistance. Ultimately, if Bt resistance does develop, other pesticides could be delivered through similar biotech seeds.
Crop failures have always been a widely recognized problem for all farmers, but in the old days, farmers diversified their crops and spread their risk the low-yield way. Mostly, they could barely feed their own families, but family food security was the top priority. Today’s high-tech farming requires special seeds and purchased inputs to deliver the higher per-acre yields—but that feeds more people, saves more land for wildlife, and provides a better life for the families in the farming community.
The new problem is the concentrated financial risk for the farmers. This risk became intolerable for many when insects began to develop resistance to the more common pesticides. Indian cotton farmers found themselves spraying a dozen times per season, spending far more for the chemicals—and still losing their crops. Chinese rice farmers were faced with similar epidemic problems of such insects as stem borers and leafhoppers.
Will the quadruple benefits of fewer crop sprayings; lower costs, higher yields, and more financial security—plus reduced misery that leads to suicide—finally soften the hearts of anti-technology activists? Stay tuned.
1. Shagad Kouser and Matin Qain, “Impact of Bt cotton pesticide poisoning in smallholder agriculture: a palen data analysis,” Ecological Economics (in press).
2. Chowdhary, Banerjee, Brahma and Biswas, 2007, “Pesticide poisoning in nonfatal, deliberate self-harm: a public health issue,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 49: 117-120.
3. J. Jayaratnam, 1990, “Acute Pesticide Poisoning: a Major Global Health Problem,” World Health Statistics Quarterly 43: 139-144.