Case: Indian “suicide zone”

In much of India, the economy is still largely agricultural, which means that the economic growth of the nation is still strongly dependent on the environment. There is much poverty in India, and farmers struggle to produce both enough food and enough income to continue farming. This is not really a moral problem, since the conflict is between farmers and the environment itself. Low rainfall, slow growing crops, weak yields—these troubles are between the farmers and the land. However, when multinational corporations that originate in countries with advanced economies, the opportunity for exploitation arises.

Monsanto, an American corporation well established as the leading producer of genetically modified strains of common crops, has begun selling genetically modified cotton seeds to Indian farmers, offering much larger yields for the same number of cotton plants. This seems like a good deal for the farmers, since they will be able to increase the amount of cotton they can produce in the same amount of land.

The problem is that Monsanto's seeds are different from the native cotton seeds in a few key ways. First, they require more water than the native varieties of cotton, so the farmers' yields are not better if they do not have adequate irrigation for the new seeds. (And why would they, since they are used to the cotton plants that don't require the extra water?) Second, Monsanto's seeds require specific fertilizers and pesticides that are also produced by Monsanto. Third, the Monsanto seeds are what are called "terminator" seeds, which means that the plants grown from these seeds do not, at the end of their life cycle, produce their own seeds, as plants usually do. This means that farmers who use these seeds have to buy new seeds every year.

This is obviously a good deal for Monsanto. If they can entice farmers with larger yields, they end up with customers for life who can only buy Monsanto products. If these were American farmers, we might say that this is a good deal for everyone. Farmers buy seeds, grow the crops, and sell the cotton, then return next year to buy more seeds. Everything might be fine. But these Indian farmers are different from American farmers in two important ways: they are very poor, and usually illiterate. This means that the Indian farmers can't just buy seeds. They have to trade on credit. They have to sign a contract that obligates them to pay Monsanto for the seeds after they harvest the cotton, becoming indebted to Monsanto in the meantime. These contracts probably explain the requirements for growing the genetically modified cotton, including clauses about the fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation. But the Indian farmers don't know any of this, because they can't read the contracts. So they sign blindly, desperate to escape from poverty with the bigger harvests from the new seeds.

When the farmers have to go into further debt when they learn that the special seeds require special fertilizers and they don't improve their yields because they don't have the necessary irrigation, they cannot pay their debts to Monsanto, and cannot buy more seeds the next year (which they wouldn't have to if the seeds were not "terminators"). The farmers are effectively out of business, and many, in their desperation, commit suicide.

One effort to counteract the causes of the widespread economic distress and suicide is the formation of community seed banks, which aim to distribute non-patented seeds to farmers so they will not be dependent on Monsanto's products.

You might say that the farmers shouldn't sign contracts they can't read, or that they shouldn't assume debts they can't pay, or that the government of India is responsible for educating the farmers, or for regulating the seed trade. But India's government doesn't have the resources or the infrastructure to do those things, and the farmers' desperation is likely to be more powerful than any amount of education on the risks they assume when dealing with Monsanto. The American corporation might be operating well within its moral responsibilities if its customers were Americans, but the company knows exactly what it is doing, and human lives are the cost of its business practices in India.