The GM Debt Cycle

Genetically modified crops will save the world, we’re often told. They provide improved nutrition, better resistance to pests, and the ability to spray indiscriminately to keep back weeds, fungal infections, and insects because they’ve been bred to resist the chemicals involved. They’ve been heavily marketed by the West to the Global South, with a pushy insistence on replacing traditional crops and modes of farming with GM crops because they’re ‘better.’ But how much better are they? Substantial analysis has explored claims made about GM crops, and one issue that often falls off the radar is the cycle of debt it can create for farmers and their families.

It starts with the seeds. GM seeds are expensive, but farmers are assured that the extra cost is worth it because of higher yields, better quality, and other benefits. Seed salespeople insist that they won’t be able to keep up with a changing market where everyone is growing GM crops, thus making it necessary to buy GM seeds in order to be competitive. The same argument, incidentally, is used in the States and other Western countries, forcing farmers to grow GM crops if they want to stay in the market — because the alternative is taking a risk on traditional crops, which might fail, not produce enough, or be subject to other problems.

Then, farmers are pushed to buy the coordinating fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals designed to work specifically with those seeds in order to get the best results. The companies that make the seeds make the chemicals, creating a market for both products that feeds into itself. If farmers try to use other agricultural chemicals or natural methods of crop problem management, their crops won’t turn out as well. Thus, they’re locked into using specific products and brands on specific schedules if they want to get the best crop possible from their GMO seeds.

At harvest time, farmers can find themselves thrown into a pricing slump as a glut hits the market. Those high yields don’t necessary result in less hunger, just more product on the market, which allows companies to set their own pricing at will. Farmers may operate at a loss, or be forced to hold their crop back and hope it doesn’t spoil. Farmers can tweak and stagger their growing schedules to try to avoid becoming part of the tsunami of ripe crop that needs to be processed and sold in days, but this can be difficult, especially in sensitive environments with limited growing seasons.

After operating at a loss, the farmer has nothing. No food crops for personal use. Not enough money to pay off debts from the growing season, including loans taken out to buy GM seeds and associated agricultural chemicals. Not enough to send children to school, keep up with a mortgage, and manage other tasks of life. Worse yet, the farmer has no seeds, because GM seeds are specifically developed to be sterile. Ostensibly, that’s so they don’t mix with conventional crops, but it also provides an advantage to manufacturers, because it forces farmers to return year after year to buy seeds, since they can’t save seeds and grow on their own.

Farmers may be forced to sell off part of their land, while family members may be pushed into other lines of work to support the family farm. Children may transition to the city in the hopes of a better life, but also to work jobs that provide enough funds so they can send money home. These jobs aren’t necessarily providing education, room for advancement, and new possibilities — and children may have to quit school or give up on higher education to pursue more basic employment. Though they and their parents may regret this, the alternative can mean losing the entire family farm and still having nothing.

Each year, farmers go deeper and deeper in debt as they struggle to recoup their losses from previous years. They’re trapped in a debt cycle that is extremely difficult to escape, and benefits only one person: The international corporations selling them their seed, farming equipment, and agricultural chemicals. Such firms post huge profits for their shareholders and board members through actively exploiting communities in the Global South, and care little for the effects of their actions. In addition to living in debt, many family farms are also experiencing hunger as crops are funneled elsewhere, and as they turn away from traditional crops to meet the desire of Western palates.

This is a consequence of GM foods and marketing. While there are numerous complex issues to discuss in the ongoing, and heated, debate over GMOs, this is an important one. It’s a very real human cost to an industry that claims to be helping humans; many firms actively tout the ways in which their crops help communities in the Global South, arguing that without their crops, communities would starve or suffer nutritional deficiencies. The actual facts of the matter are quite different, and that’s something that should be taken seriously. Creating an exploitative debt cycle is a problem, and subjecting family farms to difficult choices like selling off land, pushing children out of school and into the workforce, and giving up on farming in the hopes of finding something better, is actively harmful to communities in the Global South.

Not all advances in agricultural technology are good ones, and in addition to the very real questions that are being raised about the widespread use of GMOs in farming, it’s also critical to discuss the critical impact GMO pricing, funding, and sales structures have on the farmers pushed into growing GM crops.

Image: Corn, bark, Flickr