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On November 26, 2020, trade unions in India reported that over 250 MILLION people took part in a strike. What could prompt such massive protest? Farming. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at GMOs, which are organisms whose DNA has been modified in a laboratory, and examine the impact of one GMO in particular, Bt Cotton, in the agrarian crisis in India.


Knox and Marston 2016: Human Geography Place and Regions in a Global Context. 7th Edition. Pearson

Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Every Thirty Minutes:
Farmer Suicides, Human Rights, and the Agrarian Crisis in India (New York: NYU School of Law, 2011).
SEEDSShiva, Vandana. 2016. Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. University of Kentucky Press





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I want to note up front that in this episode we will be discussing sensitive topics including suicide. We at Crash Course recognize that this topic may be upsetting for some viewers so please watch at your own discretion.
As we're filming this, we're just about 21 years into the 21st century, but we can already look at our recent history as a period defined by protest. In the past few years, the world has seen more political uprisings than ever before. In fact, in 2019 there were protests on every continent. But it wasn't until November 2020 that we'd experience the largest civil protest in history. 

On November 26, 2020, trade unions in India reported that over 250 million people took part in a strike or Bharat bandh. Tens of thousands of people would march on and blockade New Delhi, which would swell to hundreds of thousands by early December.

So what could prompt such massive protest? Farming. Currently, farmers in many low-income countries are under more and more developmental pressure to change the way they work the land.

Though what a developed country actually looks like and what the complicated word 'development' means is being reevaluated as we think more broadly about the ideals a country should strive for. But economics still play a huge role in the policies countries create or are forced to use to guide their future. 

And any time we talk about changes that affect space, place, and environment, geographers are interested to learn where and why!

I'm Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course Geography. [Intro]

 Agrarian Crisis (1:25)

Farming and agriculture are some of the most geographic activities we can find. How different agriculture systems are distributed globally depends on so much physical geography like climate, soils, and topography. And along with land use, available technology, and social systems, agriculture creates unique cultural landscapes. 

But more fundamentally, agriculture is about the relationship between humans and the environment. And each of us are connected to it by the food choices we make daily. 

In late 2021, farmers in India are still protesting. They're in a standoff with the government which revamped the county's agricultural laws in ways that farmers say will ruin them as well as the food security of the country's poor. 

It's hard to convey the magnitude of what's happening. But it's also important to recognize this isn't the first large-scale crisis for Indian farmers whose experiences encountering development have cost them their lives in the last few decades. 

From 1995 to 2010, a quarter of a million farmers in India committed suicide, which is the largest wave of recorded suicides in world history. And numerous studies and reports have said that the number one cause of the wave is the insurmountable debt the farmers couldn't escape from. 

This human tragedy was part of India's chronic Agrarian Crisis. Which is a set of increasingly difficult interlocking problems that many farmers cannot escape. For the last few decades, the Agrarian Crisis has been tied to the complex web of the wider global economic system which international trade plays a crucial role in. 

In the 1990s, in order to head off financial crisis, India took loans from international financial institutions. This sent India's economy through a restructuring process which changed many economic policies as part of the conditions for getting the loans. And as economic practices altered, so did Indian agriculture.

This is an example of the complexities of development, which we've discussed the last few episodes. These new economic policies were meant to be attractive to foreign investment and bring rapid economic development- which in all fairness, they did.

The gross domestic product per capita increased by more than a factor of 5 from 1990 to 2019. And in 2020, India ranked 3rd in the number of billionaires. But this isn't the whole story.

Because of these new economic priorities, many farmers were urged by the government to shift from growing food crops for their own use to cash crops, which are grown to be sold for profit.  Specifically, they switched to growing cotton that they could export which led to a glut in the global arena for cotton exports and a decrease in cotton prices for farmers. 

Part of becoming more attractive to foreign investment also meant the Indian government removed a lot of barriers like subsidies and tariffs that protect a country from foreign competition. But now Indian cotton farmers faced stiff competition from other countries, who ironically were able to offer even lower prices because of subsidies from their own governments. 

The shift to cotton and foreign investment- which econ people would call liberalizing or the "opening of Indian agriculture to the global market"- caused development. But uneven development. Existing inequalities were deepened and small farmers were forced into massive debt. It also meant multinational agribusiness giants were able to swoop in and dominate the Indian cotton industry. 

 Agribusiness and GMOs (4:19)

Agribusiness is a world that will pop up a lot as we talk about agriculture. It can mean large corporations like Del Monte or Chiquita that produce, store, and move crops. But it can also refer to agriculture patterns more generally and be a system of economic and political relationships that organizes and concentrates food production from developing seeds to selling the crop once it's grown to how it's consumed in its final form. They have a hand in every part of the process, so agribusiness and multinational corporations can wield tons of power. 

For the Indian cotton industry, new agribusiness corporations were able to promote genetically modified seeds- like BT cotton- and had greater control over the cost, quality, and availability of expensive inputs like pesticides, changing how farmers in India operated. 

BT cotton is a genetically modified organism, or GMO, which is an organism whose DNA has been modified in a laboratory. Unlike breeding or other techniques, humans have used to modify food for 1000s of years, GMOs might have genes removed with CRISPR or added from an unrelated organism to create a certain trait using techniques like gene splicing.

So we can have GMOs that do things the unmodified organism never could-like a potato that releases its own pesticide or a soybean that's been engineered to resist fungus. 

BT cotton has been modified to produce Bacillus thuringiensis toxin. An insecticide which is supposed to kill a common cotton pest in India called the American bollworm. So farmers rapidly adopted the genetically modified cotton in the hope of higher yields, lower chances of crop failure, and greater financial security. 

But genetically modified seeds are expensive and they need a lot more water than regular seeds to grow and produce cotton. And then small-time farmers took out loans at high interest rates to buy the seeds and then the seasonal monsoon rains didn't deliver. 

Farmers were unable to recover the cost or pay the exorbitant interest rates. And more loans to buy more seeds meant greater debt resulting in a vicious, overwhelming debt cycle which ended tragically for many.

There are lots of problems in India’s agricultural sector, but the arrival of agribusinesses who aggressively marketed BT cotton, but did not effectively communicate its requirements for irrigation, has created problems unprecedented in scale and complexity.

And farmers who traditionally selected seed types based on personal experience and observation couldn’t revert to growing non-BT cotton seeds. By some accounts, they’d even been banned from government seed banks.

The causes and effects of the farmer suicide crisis in India are complex, but there’s little doubt genetically modified seeds are central to the crisis cotton farmers faced. Suicide rates were highest in the cotton belt where farmers were trying to grow the most cotton.

 GMO Supporters (6:42)

For better or worse, genetically modified seeds are part of a biorevolution taking place in agriculture worldwide. GMO supporters argue that GMOs can increase global agricultural productivity to meet demand and keep up with population growth.
And using biotechnology could be more sustainable because more productive agriculture will reduce the risk forests are turned into farmland. Not to mention reducing how much of the environment is destroyed from chemical fertilizers, soil depletion, and other related problems.
In the 2020s, GMOs are probably the most technological way nature and society come together in the global agricultural system. And agricultural transformations have ripple effects across societies and cultures as food production becomes even more tightly integrated into the global economic system.

All this impacts us as individuals too. What we buy in the supermarket or shopping center connects us to other places and people in ways that are hard to imagine. And these new agricultural geographies also highlight the changing nature of our human-environment interactions.

 GMO Opponents (7:36)

This shift is even more profound in many parts of the world that use more traditional agriculture practices. Like in the Central Andean highlands where the potato was domesticated about 7,000 to
9,000 years ago. After the potato was domesticated, farmers continued to breed seeds, creating and adapting varieties to suit particular ecological niches, growing conditions, nutritional needs, and culinary tastes.

This work over the centuries was collective, and the 2000 to 4000 varieties of potatoes that are found today are due to the ingenuity of farmers. But part of what’s different about the history of the potato compared to BT cotton in India and other modern crop stories, is that no one owned the potato plant.

But with BT cotton, the agribusiness Monsanto originally developed and owned the patent. And farmers were free to save their native seeds to replant the following year and exchange, gift or sell them within and between their communities. But because of agribusiness, this traditional system is now illegal in many parts of the world.

Plants have been patentable for nearly a century, but it was with the introduction of genetically modified seeds that we saw a large shift in who can own, produce, manage, and distribute seeds.
What was once controlled by small business or government run research stations is now controlled by multinational seed companies, which breed and claim new plant varieties
and monopolize who can buy and sell seeds.

The World Trade Organization also requires that all member countries recognize intellectual property rights for plant varieties.
Currently there are 164 members of the WTO but its policies remain complex with many exceptions and conditions.

Many countries are skeptical about GMO foods, but the WTO holds that not allowing GMO products into a country creates an unnecessary obstacle to international trade. Some argue that corporations continue to be granted more privileges while restrictions, sanctions, and harsher forms of punishment are imposed on farmers.

So despite being able to produce more, heartier crops, genetically modified crops could be a serious threat to independent peasant agriculture and ultimately to biodiversity as they reduce
genetic diversity of plants and animals in the environment.

GMO opponents say it’s important to remember that not a single existing crop is the result of modern science, and the original seed from which corporations have patented new plant varieties is stolen, extracted and modified from native seeds. They argue that international seed laws are just tools that advance corporate rights to privatize seeds and crop varieties and restrict how farmers and farming communities access, use and exchange seeds.
As geographers trying to understand how the process of development unfolds and the patterns it creates, we can recognize that whether you’re for or against GMOs, the impact of development policies often hits unevenly within a country.
Even though India is projected to be the world’s second fastest growing economy in 2022, opening the economy up has had mixed and unpredictable consequences. Farmers with access to large amounts of capital fared better and were able to take advantage of lucrative foreign markets. But poor farmers have entered massive debt, lost their land, and either became wage laborers or migrated to already overcrowded cities.

 Future of Food (10:25)

So the protests of the last few decades could be a sign we’re in the middle of significant change. The biorevolution taking place in agriculture is changing our most basic relationship with the environment -- how we obtain food.

And it’s changing the map of agriculture and reshaping the physical, economic and cultural landscape around us, which we’ll talk more about next time when we discuss how agricultural innovations diffuse around the world.

Many maps and borders represent modern geopolitical divisions that have often been decided without the consultation, permission, or recognition of the land's original inhabitants. Many geographical place names also don't reflect the Indigenous or Aboriginal peoples languages.

So we at Crash Course want to acknowledge these peoples’ traditional and ongoing relationship with that land and all the physical and human geographical elements of it. We encourage you to learn about the history of the place you call home through resources like and by engaging with your local Indigenous and Aboriginal nations through
the websites and resources they provide.

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