He leverages his land to buy seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. Bugs infest his crops. His harvest is meager. He can’t pay enough dowry for his daughter’s marriage. Suicide peeks out as a pretty popular response.
Every 30 minutes, a farmer in India kills himself. More than 25 million Indian farmers have committed suicide in the past 16 years.
Don’t be thinking it doesn’t also happen in the U.S., Canada, England and Australia. Studies in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry reveal that “agriculture has the highest rates of mortality and that suicide among farmers is now a universal phenomenon.”
Micha X. Peled, the director of this award-winning film, has done his research and then woven a story around Manjusha Ambarwar, a high school student who wants to be a journalist. She lives in one of the most dramatically affected farming villages called Telung Takli, which is the Vidarbha cotton growing area in central India. Her assignment is to find out why the area’s farmers are killing themselves.
Manjusha interviews a family after the suicide of their father to ascertain the true cause of his death. They show her the notes of debt, then she decides to follow a neighbor farmer, Ram Krishna, to help explain each step that may lead to a farmer’s eventual demise.
Ram purchases genetically modified seeds because the sellers promise disease resistance with a higher yield. He must take out a loan for these seeds, the fertilizer and the pesticide. He has no collateral so he must put up the land he owns. The entire family carefully prepares his meager 3 acres. The rains make it just in time. But then mealy bugs arrive and the crop has no natural defense.
Ram harvests the dwindled cotton crop and sells it. The amount earned cannot repay the debt.
In the meantime, his daughter is of a marrying age. He cannot raise the dowry money needed for his daughter to be accepted.
As a capitalistic, enterprising culture, U.S. agribusiness has developed practices that not only involve government crop subsidies, skewing world competition, but US companies have also marketed genetically modified sterile seeds that prohibit reproduction – thus assuring farmers a new expense – buying new seeds each year instead of producing their own.
As “Bitter Seeds” shows, the original indigenous seeds that farmers used for centuries are no longer available. New fertilizers are now required, instead of the cow dung they used to use, and the pesticides they spray dangerously get all over themselves as well.
Like Robert Kenner’s “Food, Inc.,” Peled indicts most strongly Monsanto, the major Indian (and world) agri-supplier. Perhaps thinking their genetically modified seeds could really help solve a food supply problem, Monsanto is the central figure in a worldwide backfire. Maybe because of the rules of supply and demand and nature’s own bias for evolved indigenous seeds and planting practices, instead of a more prosperous international farming community we are witnessing a destructive implosion that threatens the very heart of farming — the farmers themselves.
Towards the end of the film, we learn why Manjusha was really interested in this investigation. In the epilogue, we learn what happens to her dream to become a journalist. We also learn what happened to Ram Krishna and his family after his disappointing harvest.
But the part that isn’t revealed, the part that is undecided, is how agribusiness, with perhaps its altruistic pursuit of food-for all, and ever-increasing competitive drive for financial power and control, can transform to responsibly treat its clients with dignity, respect and support and still afford to provide the world a nutritiously healthy supply of food.
2012 Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Bitter Seeds: June 21 and 22 with discussion following
Film Society of Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater
Director: Micha X. Peled
Cast: Manjusha Ambarwar and Ram Krishna
Year: 2012 (NYC Premiere)
Runtime: 87 minutes
Awards: “Bitter Seeds” won the Jury Award at the Green Film Festival in Seoul, the Green Screen competition Award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, and the Oxfam Global Justice Award.
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