We sometimes lose sight of the fact that Big Ag's influence extends far beyond our own borders. Micha Peled's documentary Bitter Seeds is a stark reminder of that fact.
Bitter Seeds exposes the havoc Monsanto has wreaked on rural farming communities in India, and serves as a fierce rebuttal to the claim that genetically modified seeds can save the developing world.
The film follows Manjusha, whose father was one of the quarter-million farmers who have committed suicide in India in the last 16 years.
Farmers become trapped in a cycle of debt trying to make a living growing Monsanto's genetically engineered Bt cotton. They always live close to the edge, but one season's ruined crop can dash hopes of ever paying back their loans, much less enabling their families to get ahead. Manjusha's father, like many other suicide victims, killed himself by drinking the pesticide he spreads on his crops.
Monsanto began selling Bt cotton in India in 2004, after a U.S. challenge at the WTO forced India to adopt seed patenting, effectively allowing Monsanto to monopolize the market. Bt cotton seeds were - and still are - advertised heavily to illiterate Indian farmers, who have bought the company's promises of high yields and the material wealth they bring.
What the farmers didn't know until it was too late is those seeds require an expensive regimen of pesticides, and must be fertilized and watered according to precise timetables. And since these farmers lack irrigation systems, and must instead depend on not-always-predictable rainfall, it's incredibly difficult to control the success or failure of any year's crops. Now it's virtually impossible to buy anything but Monsanto's seed.
Manjusha, the film's protagonist, goes looking for answers after her father commits suicide.
To pay for seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer, farmers must take out loans, but most banks refuse to deal with them, so instead they turn to moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates. Many farmers have nothing to offer as collateral besides their land. If a crop fails and they can't pay back the loans, they lose everything.