Recently Truthout reposted an article by Belén Fernández that reported on “Monsanto, Rural Debt and the Suicide Epidemic in India” to focus on just one of the stories featured in Censored 2014.
Truthout followed up with an interview with Fernández on Monsanto, the corporate mainstream media under-reporting stories such as the suicide epidemic in India and buffoonish commentary on GMOs by the likes of Thomas Friedman.
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MARK KARLIN: What is the role of Monsanto’s patented GMO cotton seeds in the epidemic of small farmer suicides in India?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: Since 1995, nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide after being driven into insurmountable debt courtesy of neoliberal economic policy in India, one component of which was the unleashing of Monsanto’s Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton on the country’s farmland. Although marketed as a sort of miracle crop certain to boost harvests and profits, Bt cotton has contributed to what respected physicist and author Vandana Shiva has termed a “suicide economy” – founded on an exponential increase in the price of cotton seeds and other unhelpful arrangements outlined by Shiva in 2009:
“Indigenous cotton varieties can be intercropped with food crops. Bt-cotton can only be grown as a monoculture. Indigenous cotton is rain fed. Bt-cotton needs irrigation… [F]armers are using 13 times more pesticides then they were using prior to introduction of Bt-cotton. And finally, Monsanto sells its GMO seeds on fraudulent claims of yields of 1500/kg/year when farmers harvest 300-400 kg/year on an average.”
Apparently seeing no other way out of debt-induced hell, many farmers take their own lives.
MARK KARLIN: In your Al Jazeera article, you mention the horrifying irony that many of the cotton farmers who commit suicide drink the toxic Monsanto pesticides that are paired with the Monsanto seeds. These types of pesticides, such as Roundup for corn in the US, have resulted in nature rebelling with new kinds of resistant weeds, haven’t they?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: Indeed, although Monsanto’s PR machine has naturally waged war on the distribution of such information.
A surprisingly straightforward Reuters article from 2011 noted Monsanto’s role in bringing about a situation in which an “estimated 11 million acres [of US farmland] are infested with ‘super weeds,’ some of which grow several inches in a day and defy even multiple dousings of the world’s top-selling herbicide, Roundup.”
Meanwhile, in a 2011 Mother Jones article on Monsanto’s reality-denial campaign – facilitated by none other than the oxymoronic Environmental Protection Agency – Tom Philpott discussed the appearance in the US of “corn rootworms (a ravenous pest that attacks the roots of corn plants) that can happily devour corn plants that were genetically tweaked specifically to kill them.”
Similarly, the introduction of Bt cotton to India has spawned new varieties of pests.
Of course, the creation of new problems also creates new opportunities for corporate profit – to the detriment of human health and the environment.
MARK KARLIN: Although other alternative outlets have discussed the farmer suicides in India in relation to Monsanto, I haven’t seen any coverage in the mainstream corporate media – although it may be out there somewhere. Needless to say, hasn’t the corporate media – in general – adopted the “conventional wisdom” that GMOs are representative of progress in feeding the world?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: The mainstream media has reported extremely sporadically on aspects of the disaster in India but obviously hasn’t offered the sort of relentless coverage that such a phenomenon should merit. A 2006 New York Times article called “On India’s Farms, a Plague of Suicide,” for example, recounts the suicide of one particular farmer in central India and in doing so paints a picture of individual and collective tragedy.
However, in addition to containing inaccuracies such as that Bt cotton is “resistant to bollworm infestation, the cotton farmer’s prime enemy,” the article also refrains from explicitly assigning blame where it is due, instead relying on tame language about how modified seeds have “nudged many farmers toward taking on ever larger loans.”
So why has the suicide epidemic been drastically underreported in the corporate media? Because the corporate media by definition functions as the mouthpiece of the elite, who have nothing to gain from associating neoliberalism with human and environmental catastrophe.
As I note in my article, “the image of desperate peasants killing themselves by the hundreds of thousands does not mesh particularly well with the portrait of India fabricated by free market pundits, who hallucinate rampant upward economic mobility among the country’s citizens thanks to globalization.”
Investigative journalist Christian Parenti, whose book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence includes a section on Bt cotton and Indian farmer suicides, remarked in a recent email to me:
“Part of why the mainstream media is uncritical of GMO crops is because these crops are the property and products of extremely powerful and wealthy corporations which buy ads in the media, endow chairs at universities, and have huge lobbying operations in Washington. The leaders of agribusiness are also integrated with the leaders of other key institutions in the society; they sit on university boards and foundation boards, cycle in and out of government, and generally help influence opinion.”
As for the idea that GMOs are, as you say, “representative of progress in feeding the world”, this relies on the assumption that genetic modification indicates control over nature – something superweeds and other GMO byproducts have demonstrated is dangerously untrue.
It’s also useful to consider Vandana Shiva’s observation that “[o]ne billion people are without food because industrial monocultures robbed them of their livelihoods in agriculture and their food entitlements.”
MARK KARLIN: How is Monsanto representative of neoliberal economic policies at their worst?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: For one thing, messing with genetics in a way that is detrimental to people and the environment indicates a total estrangement from life – the essence of neoliberal capitalism, which teaches us that things that are bad for us are actually good for us, such as neoliberalism itself.
In Argentina, for example, campesinos have been driven off their land to clear space for soya plantations, while soaring rates of birth malformations and cancer have accompanied the introduction of Monsanto’s seeds to the country.
In sanctifying profit at the expense of humanity, meanwhile, Monsanto has benefited hugely from free-trade deals and from US government reluctance to impose regulations on the GMO industry or to require labeling of genetically modified products.
MARK KARLIN: One of the revelations from the WikiLeaks cables that have been revealed thus far is that the US State Department shills for Monsanto overseas. Is the US government then indirectly complicit in the suicides of the farmers in India?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: As Christian Parenti notes, “the State Department’s multimillion-dollar, publicly funded international campaign to promote genetically modified crops involved bringing scientists to Europe, staging pro-GMO conferences and other forms of persistent lobbying and propagandizing on behalf of GMO-pushing US agribusiness firms like Monsanto.”
As WikiLeaks revealed, US embassy personnel abroad have sometimes functioned as veritable representatives of the biotech industry.
The shameless lack of separation between corporation and state means that the US government is without a doubt complicit in the fallout from Monsanto’s machinations in India.
MARK KARLIN: Do we, as consumers of cotton products, bear any responsibility for not focusing more on the human crisis created by Monsanto?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: To some extent, although the lack of focus is in part due to consumer alienation from the supply chain and the origins of the products we use, as well as to the fact that many consumers of cotton products are themselves struggling to survive in a system of neoliberal oppression and can’t spare much empathy for the plight of others – even if this empathy might ease the struggle for all involved.
MARK KARLIN: There’s that old cliché that “kill one person and it’s murder; kill a million and it’s a statistic.” Are these dead farmers just a statistic as Monsanto continues to increase its control of the world’s agricultural output?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: Not if filmmaker Leah Borromeo has anything to say about it.
In her forthcoming film, Dirty White Gold, which aims at forcing legislation that will “make ethics and sustainability the norm in the fashion industry,” Borromeo endeavors to combat the dehumanization of “the Other” – a tradition that has, as I point out in my article, “helped ensure that thousands upon thousands of dead Indian farmers remain nothing more than an emotionally neutral statistic.”
After all, recognition of a common humanity is a vital step if we are to achieve any victories against a system that thrives on the severance of inter-human ties.
MARK KARLIN: Do you draw any hope from the European Community having recently halted any new GMO seeds from being introduced in Europe, at least for the time being?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: Well, judging from Monsanto’s pronouncements earlier this year justifying its decision not to seek approval of new GM seeds in Europe, the corporation doesn’t consider the case closed.
The Wall Street Journal quoted the firm’s German spokeswoman Ursula Luettmer-Ouazane as explaining that “[i]t’s obvious that Europe needs more time, while other regions have embraced our concepts more readily.” Indeed, we should all be thankful that there are plenty of other lands to poison while recalcitrant Europe struggles to adapt to modernity.
Anyway, it’s not as though Monsanto hasn’t already penetrated the European market. The [Wall Street Journal] notes that Europe accounts for “roughly 12% of Monsanto’s global sales.”
I do, however, find some reason for hope in Luettmer-Ouazane’s statement: “As long as there’s not enough demand from farmers for these products and the public at large doesn’t accept the technology, it makes no sense to fight against windmills.” In the very least, it’s a testament to the potential power of a well-informed public, even if said public is written off by Monsanto as windmills.
MARK KARLIN: Shifting the focus a bit, Truthout picked your book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work as its progressive choice of the week awhile back. How does someone like Friedman symbolize the role of the corporate mass media in being boosters for corporate and military empire?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: The question about GMOs in Europe is incidentally an appropriate segue into this matter.
Dining at the Hotel Schweizerhof in Davos, Switzerland, in 2003, Friedman was peeved to find an asterisk on the menu denoting the potential presence of GMOs in meat imported from the US. He found the experience worthy of analysis in an op-ed: “Europeans, out of some romantic rebellion against America and high technology, were shunning U.S.-grown food containing G.M.O.’s – even though there is no scientific evidence that these are harmful.”
He went on to reason that, since Europeans continued to smoke cigarettes while being hysterically opposed to GMOs, this meant that arguments against the Iraq war by the leaders of Germany and France were “deeply unserious” and that these countries were merely “trying to be whatever the Americans are not.” According to Friedman, such behavior is “stupid.”
So this is a pretty transparent example of Friedmanian corporate-military boosting. (Another, of course, is when he announced to Charlie Rose that the nation of Iraq should “suck. On. This.”)
Despite constant travels to India over the years, Friedman has somehow managed not to utter a peep about the suicide epidemic and prefers to swoon over the instructions he received at a golf course in Bangalore: “Aim at either Microsoft or IBM.”
Indeed, anything having to do with the free market or American corporate influence abroad generally sends Friedman into fits of ecstasy, and he casts India as a democratic oasis of interreligious harmony despite the small matter of massacres of Muslims and other such events.
To add to all of this, the former CEO of Monsanto used to star in Friedman’s writings as a humble, principled and environmentally conscious businessman.
MARK KARLIN: Do you think alternative reporting such as yours is breaking through the biased prism of the mainstream media?
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ: I think alternative reporting definitely helps publicize certain issues, especially among certain sectors, and sometimes puts issues on the radar for the general public, but it’s still often difficult to challenge the authority that the mainstream media commands. One can only hope that the media scene will continue to evolve as the process of reconciling reality with mainstream reporting becomes more and more impossible.