When we think of farmers we tend to reflect on a time when farmers grew their own crops in their own land and used those crops in turn to exchange for seeds. Due to this capacity for exchange many farmers were able to trade and grow varieties of the same crop. Unfortunately, because of big seed monopolies like Monsanto and their seed manipulation technology it has been made illegal for farmers to exchange and trade seeds with one another. As Vandana Shiva states in Stolen Harvest “The perverse intellectual-property-rights system that treats plants and seeds as corporate inventions is transforming farmers’ highest duties-to save seed and exchange with seed with neighbors-into crimes. Further, seed legislation forces farmers to use only “registered” varieties” (Shiva, p.90).
As Monsanto and other seed monopolies keep growing and gaining control over the agricultural industry it is becoming almost impossible for farmers to make a living off farming alone. As a result, many farmers end up feeling disconnected from their labor, their land, and their cultural livelihood. This has led to increasingly disturbing rates of depression and suicide amongst these communities. Suicide rates amongst farmers has been exponentially increasing over the years as many of them have been drowning in debt.
Monsanto and similar agriculture companies take advantage of their power, increase their prices on planting seeds, and make it necessary to invest in pesticides. Forcing farmers into the uncomfortable position of being between a rock and a hard place, they subsequently price gauge the pesticides their activities forced farmers to invest in. While knowing their seeds do not always bear offspring reliably (since some of the seeds are modified to be sterile), they nonetheless force these upon farmers who find that, since the seeds usually do not reproduce, in the case of a harvest failure they lack enough crops to provide for their means of subsistence. When this difficulty presents itself, the usual thing farmers are forced to do is take out loans. However, because of this same instability, if the following season the same thing happens, not only do farmers find themselves in a position unable to pay for the necessaries of life, but also unable to pay for the debts that were accumulated thanks to debt acquired in prior, sterile seeds caused failed harvests.
This seed manipulation, and the effects it brings about, are at the core of the aforementioned increase in farming communities’ rates of depression and suicides. However, it is not merely the lives of the farmers which are affected by these profit-driven practices; the effects these seeds have on the soil, on the life forms that live off this soil, and on the general, natural metabolisms of a given place are extraordinarily destructive. As stated by Vandana Shiva in Stolen Harvest “The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet” (Shiva, p.83). Unfortunately, the melancholic news we encounter when we look into the lives of farming communities seems to be just the tip of the iceberg if these practices continue.
With the climatic instability being brought about through climate change, the prices of farming tools and equipment on the rise, and the amount of debt that these farmers have been forced to accumulate, it is only natural that their lives exist in a constant state of desperation, anxiety, and ultimately, despair. The options this systematic cornering leaves farmers to choose amongst are 1) either sell their farm, and in so doing, say goodbye to the forms of life they have generationally participated in, the forms of life that have brought meaning, tranquility, and happiness to them, their parents, grandparents, etc.; or 2) say goodbye to life altogether. Their options, in essence, are reduced to this – live a life in which what you found meaningful has been anihilated from your everyday existence or live no life at all.
As stated in an article titled ‘Midwest farmers face a crisis. Hundreds are dying by suicide,’ “Farmers [in the United States] are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared with other occupations, according to a January study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also found that suicide rates overall had increased by 40% in the last two decades. This alarming suicide rate is not just in the United States but in other parts of the world too. In 2014 it was reported by People's Archive of Rural India in an article entitled ‘Maharashtra crosses 60,000 farm suicides’ that “a total of 296,438 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995”. In the less than 20 years from 1995 to 2014, India saw an average of 40 or so deaths by suicide a day. In a rich state such as Maharashtra there are “over ten farmers’ suicides every single day [over] these past ten years in a row”. In sum, as Vandana Shiva says, “these increased cost can push farmers into bankruptcy and even suicide” (Shiva, p.101).
Shiva states in an article for Countercurrents entitled ‘Farmers Suicides: What Is Causing Them, And What Can Be Done To Stop The Tragedy’ that “Our food system needs to change. Ecological agriculture, seed sovereignty, and climate resilient strategies form the roadmap for this change”. To do this, however, requires a radical shift away from neoliberal capitalism, a shift away from “corporate control and corporate profits, which are made possible by the corporate written rules of ‘free’ trade, trade liberalization, and globalization”. Seed sovereignty is incompatible with a system premised on expanding profits. As anthropologist Samantha Fox argued, “Climate change is an outcome of our current social organization. It threatens all of humanity. Altering our current social organization offers the possibility of creating a society-in-nature where all life is valued”.
Although the facts present a stark reality, it is, nonetheless, as a human-created reality, changeable. At the end of last year more than 250 million Indian farmers participated in the “biggest organized strike in human history”. Workers joined with farmers in collectively fighting back a system which prioritizes profits over people and planet. These protests, of course, saw the repression of the tyrannical hand of capital – the state and its police forces. However, it showed that people are no longer willing to accept the existing conditions. Further, it showed that this dissatisfaction has reached a point where activity and protests become inevitable. The result? After a year of struggling, the farmer won! For similar movements the question will now be, how well can protesters be organized, how well can spontaneous activity be used to conduce actual change, and not simply dissipate within a few weeks?
In conclusion, the seed monopolization and the disastrous effects it has on farming communities is necessarily interlinked with the struggle against imperialism, capitalism, and climate change. One cannot expect people and planet friendly results from a system which prioritizes profits over people and the planet. A radical transformation is necessary, of this, ecologists almost all uniformly agree. The extraordinary examples of food sovereignty seen in socialist Nicaragua, Cuba, and others show that when a government is controlled by workers and peasants it can fight climate change in a manner which balances sustainability with increased standards of living which facilitate human growth and flourishing. A change for the better is possible, but only because moving beyond a capitalist mode of production and state is too.
Shiva, V. (2016). Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. University Press of Kentucky .
Leslie A. Gomez is a senior philosophy major in Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is interested in Marxist feminism and ecology.
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