Sunday, May 18, 2014

About the anti-GMO petition

CORRECTION: I let a decimal point get adrift and have thus revised the numbers in the post downward to correct them. The conclusion remains robust. (I failed to make the basic reality check of asking if my numbers were in the ballpark. For US suicides, they weren't. Suicides and auto deaths should be roughly the same.)

RtO was not planning to say anything more about GMOs (see "GMOs love you," Feb. 6), but Tricia asked me to revisit it in light of the petition to get a Luddite proposition on the county ballot in November.

Some background: Tricia probably knows more about genetic engineering than I do and she for sure has more field experience with plant breeding, having worked for a time for the NifTAL Project. (Nitrogen fixation in Tropical Agricultural Legumes, an excellent idea whose money was taken away by Bush I and given to Russian mobsters.) On Friday, while she was being a docent at the Makawao Histoy Museum, she was approached by a woman seeking signatures for the petition

Tricia has far more patience with these ignoramuses than I do and spent some time listening to her spiel. The woman knew nothing about farming or genetics, but what alarmed Tricia the most was the claim that Monsanto caused "hundreds of thousands" of farmers in India to commit suicide.

Statistics are very uncertain, but the number of reported farmer suicides in India is under 20,000 a year, in a population of close to 700,000,000 rural people. This is certainly an undercount, as landless rural laborers are not treated as "farmers."

Still, that is not a huge number compared to the United States. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest 37,000 successful suicides a year here, of which farmers' share would be around 750. 

Since there are about 100 times as many farmers in India as in the United States, for there to be an epidemic of suicides (from any or all causes), there would have to be 75,000 farm suicides a year in India.

Whatever the accurate number is, nobody claims it is that high.

'Nuff said about the gullibility and ignorance of the anti-GMO crowd. But a word about the alleged mechanism provoking these deaths, which is debt incurred by farmers using Monsanto seed leading to despair leading to suicide.

Now, the issue of income and debt in India goes way back before there was ever a Monsanto (and if you are interested, the histories of Mike Davis and Eric Hobsbawm are a good place to begin), but the perfervid campaign against Monsanto led some researchers to ask real farmers about debt:

Ron Herring, a professor of government at Cornell University, interviewed Indian farmers in 2006 after 200,000 suicides in 10 years. He called "the media construction baseless," and told the Cornell Chronicle, "Farmers were insulted and incredulous: If farmers committed suicide every time they fell into debt, they said, there would be no farmers."

(If I were to go into more detail, I would link today's anti-GMO drive to the evil anti-Green Revolution propaganda of the '70s. The illustration makes the link graphic.)


  1. Wow, Harry, my heart is warmed that you're actually siding with a corporation for once. I'm rather bemused, however, that you've chosen Monsanto as that corporation, as it is widely acknowledge as one of the most evil corporations that's ever existed in the history of mankind. For example, 'Monsanto Named 2013's 'Most Evil Corporation' In New Poll' at .

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  3. I don't know that I'm siding with Monsanto; I have no particular opinion about Monsanto, which -- compared to the incompetently-run firms I often criticize -- could be called support, I suppose.

    Monsanto really doesn't have a dog in this fight, since the point is, there is no dog.