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The tragedy in India's cotton: Surely there's a better way

Nearly 9,000 miles away, in a place almost no one has ever heard of, and probably couldn't locate on a map, an ongoing tragedy, born of poverty and desperation, is taking place.

Unlike the widespread media and WTO attention focused on another little-known nation, Burkina Faso, and claims its cotton farmers are being ruined by U.S. government farm subsidies, this far more tragic story of farmer misfortune has had scant attention by the mainstream media.

In the middle of India, the world's second most populous country, over 4,000 farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra state have committed suicide in the past four years — more than 1,000 in 2006 alone. Even now, the deaths continue, often several a day.

A great number of the dead were cotton farmers, many who drank fatal doses of pesticide.

They were driven to take their lives, we are told, because of crop failures (made worse by ongoing drought), declining world cotton prices and inability to compete in the global market, huge debts related to the boring of wells and the higher costs of GMO seeds (now widely used), and the failure of India's government to make good on promises of relief.

In this case, huge debt is a relative term — most of the dead farmers owed less than $1,000 to money lenders. Even the largest debts were less than $10,000.

America's Public Broadcasting System recently showed a documentary, “The Dying Fields,” focusing on the farmer suicides, and noting the irony that, while India, led by Maharashtra state, is enjoying a soaring economic boom, two-thirds of its rural area population remains impoverished.

The sadness in this story is not that these farmers, trying to make a living in the meanest of circumstances, are unable to compete in the world market against unfairly subsidized U.S. cotton, as is alleged in the mainstream media. Rather, the greater sadness is that they are growing cotton at all.

To see women and children stooping and scratching holes by hand in fields that look to be little more than rocks with a bit of soil in between, dropping seeds into those holes and covering them, is absolutely heart-wrenching. Whatever crop survives the drought or other weather calamities is, of course, hand-harvested.

That the government, in effect, encourages this futile effort is even more disturbing.

It is one thing to rail against the U.S. and “corporate agriculture,” big farms, government subsidies, etc. It is another to encourage people to grow cotton — or any crop — under conditions totally unsuited to its production. No farmer in the U.S. would consider for a moment growing cotton in such soils.

Surely, there is something better. Surely, there is in the world agricultural community enough resources and brainpower to send knowledgeable people to assist them in finding other, more effective ways to support their families.

If a Norman Borlaug can save millions from poverty and death by teaching more effective grain production techniques, is it not possible to find ways to help these people earn a living other than trying to grow cotton where cotton shouldn't be grown?

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