India’s Farmer Protests Are a Wake-Up Call About the Future

The struggle to save Indian farms has global implications.

More than fifty percent of India’s workforce is in the agricultural industry. From rice to cotton to wheat, it’s one of the most agrarian countries in the world. In 2019, it produced more than 5 million metric tons of crops, the fourth most on the planet. Over the last several months, hundreds of thousands of India’s farmers have engaged in protests over new agricultural laws. But the story could happen anywhere.

India’s New Farm Laws

Last September, the Indian government introduced a slew of new agricultural laws —  the biggest changes to the country’s agricultural system since the 1990s. 

Among the new laws are changes to how farmers can sell their crops. The government says the new laws are necessary to help modernize the country’s agricultural system, but the farmers say it’s a step backward to authoritarian rule. Under the new rules, the country’s farmers sell directly to private corporations in addition to the state-run markets where most sell already. Many of those markets are subsidized to support the farmers, serving to keep many of them in business.

But selling to the corporations spells doom, says the farmers. They argue that they will be at the mercy of corporate interest, who are vested in paying the lowest prices possible, much like the chicken tournament processes common for ranchers contracted to companies like Perdue and Tyson in the U.S. With corporate customers allowed to set their own pricing structures, this leaves the nation’s already largely poverty-stricken farmers without the safety net of market subsidies and minimum price guarantees. This, they insist, will put many of them out of business.

Farmers Protest

Since last September, protests have been centered across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, where hundreds of thousands of farmers have taken to the streets demanding reversal of the laws. 

But the protests have spread out from the North; last November throngs of protestors marched into the outskirts of Delhi, a city of nearly 19 million, setting up camp and vowing not to leave until the government repeals the laws.

The protests forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to begin negotiations — but they’ve not been fruitful. And as the protests linger, the response from authorities is becoming more draconian with frequent raids and arrests. 

Human Rights Watch is now demanding the government drop cases against at least eight journalists arrested while reporting on clashes across India last month.

The negotiations also failed to yield much more than window dressing, says the farmers; Modi says he’s suspending implementation of the laws until 2022. That’s not enough, the farmers argue. And many say they will continue to protest until the new laws are fully repealed.

India's Farmer Protests Are a Wake-Up Call About the Future
Photo by Ron Hansen on Unsplash

Farming In India

India is home to some of the earliest evidence of agriculture on the planet, and it remains a top agricultural hub today. It was at the center of the Spice Trade with the Romans for more than three centuries. And it has long been the world’s top cotton producer.

Eighty-five percent of the nation’s farmers are small operations, most working on fewer than five acres. Poverty is rampant across India, particularly in its agricultural regions. So are the suicide rates. Since the mid-1990s, more than 300,000 Indian farmers have died by suicide.

The high suicide rates were largely thought to be tied to the introduction of genetically modified crops in 2009, mainly cotton. Thousands of farmers every year enter into seed contracts, primarily with biotech giant Monsanto (now Bayer). GMO cotton now makes up more than 90 percent of the country’s cotton production. Organic farming advocate, Vandana Shiva, PhD., took up the cause, bringing attention to underperforming crops that pushed farmers further into debt and despair.

Cotton isn’t new to India. It’s been grown there for thousands of years. But in an effort to modernize, farmers in the 1970s began to favor hybridized seeds that promised higher yields. The only caveat was better-performing seeds brought larger numbers of the cotton-loving bollworm. This pest threatened the livelihood of India’s cotton farmers. 

India's Farmer Protests Are a Wake-Up Call About the Future
Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash

GMO Cotton

By the early 2000s, Monsanto had developed Bt cotton seeds — genetically modified to produce the toxic Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. This turned cotton seeds into insecticides. This was good news for cotton farmers who had been dousing their crops with pesticides for decades as the bollworms thrived on the increased cotton yields. But the pests were becoming resistant to the chemicals; Monsanto promised a seed that could both increase yields and control pests.

And for some farmers, it’s worked. For those with access to irrigation and modern tech tools, GMO cotton has improved yields and reduced pests. But for more than 65 percent of India’s farmers who rely solely on rain, the situation has been much different. That affects more crops than just cotton.

For much of India’s farming community, growth has been volatile in recent years, with yields dropping from 5.8% in 2005-06 to -0.2% in 2014-15, according to recent government data.

This is where Shiva rose to fame. The scholar founded the organization Navdanya, which in Hindi means “nine seeds.” Her goal has been to elevate India’s farmers out of poverty and out of the corporate monocrop culture that destroys land, pollutes water and air, and, in far too many cases, leaves farmers so destitute they see no way out. She’s an advocate for saving seeds and promoting biodiversity through crop rotation and minimal chemical interference.

Shiva’s rise to savior-level status was buoyed by India’s changing farming landscape. The once lush farmlands dried up; and she’s been a master at painting bucolic imagery of what farming should look like in India, and around the world. She rose to prominence in the early 2000s, when organic food was first certified in the U.S. and demand here boomed; that was contrasted by farmers in India signing away their farms in those early seed contracts with Monsanto.

But despite the havoc GMO dependency has wreaked in India, data continue to show that farmer suicides are more complicated than simply pointing the finger at the agrochemical giant spraying in the field. 

Lack of rain water, or, in some seasons, too much of it, have pushed farmers into losses and debt. This of course speaks to the looming climate crisis and its impact on much of the world. Asia, in particular, is at high risk of drought resulting from climate change.

Farmers also generally have higher suicide rates than most of the population. According to a 2020 study, farmers and ranchers in the U.S. died by suicide at rates more than 3.5 times higher than the average population, no matter whether the seeds were organic or not.

“When your farm doesn’t succeed or you have to sell off some property, not only are you letting you and your family down, you’re letting your family legacy down,” Ty Higgins, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau said in an interview last spring. “‘My great-grandpa started this farm, and now I’m the one that’s causing it to cease?’ Boy that’s a tough thought. But a lot of farmers are going through that right now.”

India's Farmer Protests Are a Wake-Up Call About the Future
Photo by Gyan Shahane on Unsplash

Farming the Future

In his forthcoming book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need,” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates shines a light on the smallholder farmers of the world. They’re the ones most impacted by climate change already, he says, and they will be most impacted in the future if we don’t act swiftly.

For India’s farmers, policies that would tether them to corporate price-fixing feel like a death sentence. Especially as India’s farming success depends on keeping global temperatures below the 2 degrees Celsius rise mark of the Paris Accord. A 2019 study found rising temperatures would reduce agricultural productivity across the country.

The farmer uprising is also reverberant opposition to the rising ethno-nationalism — a wake up call about the social and economic divides that still run the country, and, to a large extent, much of the world.

India’s farmers aren’t giving up this time because they can’t. Too much is at stake. And when authoritarianism is the operating system and human rights abuse and oppression its preferred currency, uprising is the only logical response.

Protestors and government officials have already gone through a dozen rounds of negotiations with no resolution. There is no end in sight to the protests. Farmers say they won’t back down, and Modi is pushing back even harder to make them. So who will win? Or will it all linger on like another deadly pandemic we can’t get under control even with vaccines?

As we struggle to hit Paris Climate Accord targets, as we struggle to keep the coronavirus in check, as we struggle to reconcile with inefficient food systems, and even less efficient governments, India’s farmers serve as a stark warning. They’re a window to what lies ahead if we don’t protect and support our most vulnerable. A look at what type of devastation will reign if the people who we rely on to grow our food refuse to plant another seed until they’re guaranteed a fair price for it. India’s farmers are the canary in the coal mine for all of the world’s pressing issues right now. Can we really afford to look away?

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