by Larry Joseph Calloway

The Bitter Seeds film was shown recently at the Telluride Film Festival. courtesy graphic

Bitter Seeds, a new documentary film on the shameful marketing of genetically modified cotton seeds among tradition-minded villagers in India, prompted me to appreciate efforts by groups like Shumei to restore natural agriculture in a hungry world.

The film, not yet released, is the last in Micha Peled’s Globalization Trilogy, which began with Store Wars about Wal-Mart’s devastation of small retail businesses, and continued with China Blue about jeans sweatshops. This third one, premiered last month at the Telluride Film Festival, completes the story of a global trade circuit: Monsanto seeds go from the U.S. to India; Indian cotton goes to China; Chinese garments go to the U.S. for Wal-Mart.

The movie focuses on this indebted farmer shown in his withering cotton field. photo by Anand Pande

Peled told the Telluride audience that he was drawn to the rural Maharashtra region because the Indian state is the location of a dramatic cluster of suicides by thousands of desperate farmers—heads of traditional families facing hopeless debt due to their inexperience with the systematic use of genetically modified (GM) seeds.

The film documents the manipulative and often false marketing by retailers of Monsanto’s globally patented BT Cotton. In one TV ad a proud father drives up on a shiny new motor scooter. He tells his adoring wife and children, “No more bicycle.” And it’s all due to the high yield of BT Cotton(!) The film follows salesmen parading through a village proclaiming the wonders of this new seed and handing out photos and phone numbers of farmers enriched by the product. All but one of the numbers on the handbill are disconnected, and that one belongs to an apparent retailer shill.

GM seeds, among other things, are constructed to resist herbicides like Roundup, but the cotton farmers in the film weed their several-acres plots by hand. The merchandising promises resistance to certain pests like the boll weevil, but expensive pesticides are required for others like the mealy worm. True, GM seeds are engineered for high yields, but the Monsanto system requires costly chemical fertilizers. And it requires a strict schedule of irrigation, but farmers depend upon rain.

For thousands of years, a very old man explains, villagers saved seeds at each harvest, planted them in the spring and fertilized with manure from livestock. They did not need to buy anything. But now the old seeds are gone, and there are fewer farm animals. Trusting the wonders of Western science, the farmers take loans to buy the GM seeds, the pesticides and the nitrates. And when the monsoon is late (as is happening more and more due to climate change), or new pests arrive, the farmers go into a debt spiral that ends with a usurious money lender owning their land. (It’s not emphasized in the film, but by taking his own life the debtor often stops the outlawed money lenders from enforcing his thumb-printed mortgage.)

A very old man talks in the film about the traditional ways of farming with natural seeds and animal fertilizer. photo by Anand Pande

Any story needs a heart, a protagonist. It took months of searching and tryouts until Peled found her: a college-age journalism student whose father drank the poisonous pesticide for which he had gone into debt in a bad year. The camera follows her as she talks to people on both sides of the problem: farmers, retailers, family, orphaned survivors and the farmers’ rights advocate Vandana Shiva. Monsanto as usual would not consent to any interviews.

In the screening I attended at Telluride, Peled was joined by Alice Walters, the famous Berkeley restaurateur, who was in Telluride to sign advance copies of her new book, 40 years of Chez Panisse. She made an impassioned plea for natural food as opposed to the “manufacturing” represented by Monsanto. She argued, as she did in a Telluride publication, “On a local level, we simply have to go to the farmers’ market. We have to get to know the farmers, get out and understand what is happening in the fields, because if we don’t champion the farmers and the land, we’re doomed.”

Farmers in rural India are caught in transition from transportation by oxcart to industrialized farming. photo by Anand Pande

Which brings me back home. From time to time at Shumei’s monthly sampais Alan Imai has given slide-show reports on the progress of a natural agriculture project in the landlocked African nation of Zambia. Shumei is trying to restore the principles of saving seeds at harvest for spring planting and using compost instead of chemical fertilizers. (The international group, headquartered in Japan, demonstrates its principles in many other places, including Crestone. Imai is both executive director of the Shumei International Institute here and international director of all natural agriculture programs outside of Japan.)

Sterile GM seeds and chemicals were the business of men in Zambia. The women, Shumei found, were more amenable to trying natural agriculture. The Zambia project involved communal and even tribal gatherings full of good food, singing and dancing. Alan came up with the idea of promoting natural agriculture in a song, which became a village hit.

The proof was in the pocketbooks of the farm families and in the fields. One year there was a drought. The men’s corn fields withered. But in the small plots of the women, the corn grew tall and green as always. The natural seeds were adapted to drought, the GM seeds were not.

The natural agriculture movement, whether expressed in joyful demonstration projects like Shumei’s or in the flourishing of farmers’ markets in the U.S., is a worthy gesture, but is it the answer to the global crisis (famine, grain shortages, spiraling retail costs, competition between food and fuel)?

In the Q & A at the Telluride showing, a hesitant voice rose from the enthused audience that had been pitching supportive questions to Peled. It was a blonde woman with a Midwest accent who identified herself as a mother of three young children and a former employee of Monsanto. She stood and said that the problems brought up by the movie were a source of constant discussion among executives at the St. Louis-headquartered company.

Peled offered to give her a copy of his movie to show to her former colleagues. He invited her to the microphone, where she continued with arguments based on the needs to feed the rapidly accelerating population of the planet and to reduce pesticides. “Agriculture is going through the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution,” she said, and with reference to early fears of automation she added: “You can’t stop robots.” (Afterwards I asked her name—Katherine Kassim—and judged that she was not a Monsanto plant—so to speak).

You can stop robots, but is that the right thing to do? I wondered what the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz (who is on one of Barack Obama’s favorite readings lists) would have added to the debate if he were interviewed in this film. He did field work among rice growers in several villages in Indonesia and marveled at the way they worked their flooded paddies like greenhouse tanks, doing everything by hand with simple tools. “Hordes of laborers drawn from the enormous rural population work with extreme care and thoroughness,” he wrote.

Modernization, however, could enable 10 per cent of the workers to produce as much rice as those who did things the old way. But then: what of the other 90 per cent? Work elsewhere? There is no elsewhere. They would starve, Geertz observed. “The twin aims of agrarian reform—technological progress and improved social welfare—pull very strongly against one another; and the more deeply one goes into the problem, the more apparent this unpleasant fact becomes.” he wrote.

Widows show pictures of their husbands that committed suicide when GM cotton crops failed. photo by Anand Pande