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‘Bitter Seeds’: The Effect of GMOs on India’s Farmers

A latex-gloved hand hold wheat seeds in blue light. Credit:

“Every 30 minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” This frightening fact is pointed out in “Bitter Seeds,” the third documentary in “The Globalization Trilogy” directed by Micha Peled. The 12-year project aims to generate debate about public policy and consumer choices in some complex issues relevant to all of us. Peled is the founder of the nonprofit Teddy Bear Films, which he created to make issue-oriented films such as “Will My Mother Go Back to Berlin?” and “Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town.”

“Bitter Seeds” follows a season in a village in India from planting to harvest. There are three important stories in this film, each revolving around the multinational corporate takeover of India’s seed market and the effect it has on farmers and farming all over India and the world.

Like most of his neighbors, the protagonist in the film, Ram Krishna, must engage a money-lender to pay for the mounting costs of modern farming; he puts his land up as collateral.

The only seeds available in India now are GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which require farmers to pay an annual royalty each time they are replanted. The GMOs need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward, more insecticides and pesticides. The soil in which these seeds are planted requires more water. All of which means more and more money for the farmer to lay out.

As Krishna’s story moves forward, his cotton is attacked by mealy worms, which threaten to destroy his entire crop. His daughter has reached marrying age and Krishna must find money for her dowry.

Farmers devastated by GMO seeds

Another story weaving in and out of the film is that of a neighboring girl in college who has recently lost her father to suicide, an end claiming lives all over India’s farmlands. She wants to tell his story, along with the stories of all the other suicide victims in the area. Her research and intuition have shown her that at the root of these suicides are GMO seeds. Her family is not behind her desire to become a journalist or to expose the family story, but this young woman moves ahead, interviewing her neighbors.

In the film we also meet a seed salesman who argues that GMO seeds are better than the seeds the farmers previously used, and Vandana Shiva, an activist who speaks strongly about the damage the GMO seeds have done to the agricultural system throughout India and the world.

“Bitter Seeds,” like “Food, Inc.,” shows how much we don’t know about genetically modified seeds, their hidden costs and health effects. The GMO industry vigorously fights in the United States as well as in other countries to prevent mandatory listing of GMO foods on product ingredient labels. This should at the very least raise our concern.

The recent announcement by BASF (the world’s leading chemical company) that it is abandoning its production of GMO crops in Europe because of a lack of acceptance “from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians” was an acknowledgement of a reality many biotechnology companies have been hesitant to countenance: Europe does not like genetically modified crops.

The GMO labeling debate

Although there is a strong and organized movement pushing for labeling in the United States, why does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration think it’s OK to consider genetically modified seeds harmless until proven otherwise? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why is our health not being protected unless and until GMO seeds can be shown to be totally safe?

Earth Open Source is a nonprofit organization dedicated to assuring the sustainability, security and safety of the global system. In June 2012, it published “GMO Myths and Truths: An Evidence-Based Examination of the Claims Made for the Safety and Efficacy of Genetically Modified Crops” by Michael Antoniou of Kings College London School of Medicine in the U.K.; Claire Robinson, research director of Earth Open Source; and John Fagan, an early voice in the scientific debate on genetic engineering. In the report, the authors explain how genetic engineering poses special risks, claiming that GMO foods can be toxic or allergenic; how GMO feed affects the health of animals; how GMO seeds do not increase crop yield potential; how studies claiming the safety of GMO crops are generally industry-linked and therefore biased. Anyone interested in the “other side of the story” from that fed to citizens by the industry should read this report.

The number of farmers markets in this country has more than doubled in the last three years. Locavorism has become more than a buzzword, it’s an accepted way of eating. People want to know who their farmers are and how they are growing the food. Is it sustainable, organic and/or biodynamic? What seeds were used? People throughout the world are demanding that anything grown with GMO seeds at the very least be labeled. Until there is word that crops grown from GMO seeds are as good for us as their unmodified counterparts, perhaps it is best to avoid them.

Photo: Wheat seeds. Credit: mishooo /

Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, "Digging Out" (Penguin). Her most recent book, "Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists," won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Leiner's next novel is due out this year.

  • molly 9·21·12

    just sponsored a lecture on this very issue. We consumers need to insist on safe food for our children and grandchildren. Thank you Katherine for you good work on this, it essential. It get to the lifeforce- and what we are trying to do it. It is wrong on all levels.

  • Bette Glenn 9·21·12

    Katherine Leiner is a passionate voice for information, freedom & protection. We all benefit from her passion with each bite we take. I really appreciate this article with it’s link to the report and her excellent book “Growing Roots” is a treasure.

  • Sophie 9·21·12

    This article represents one of the most important public health issues (among others) of our time. The first long term study on GMO effects on rats was just released. Not surprisingly—it’s bad news.

  • katherine leiner 9·21·12

    Thank you all for your comments. The conversation around this subject matter needs to be a scream!!!! Why is it that the U.S. always waits until the bad news comes out. Why can’t we research first and then okay a product?

  • Ron Bazar 9·21·12

    Read this article about the proven tests that now show how incredibly harmful GMOs are:

  • Barbara Kubarych 9·21·12

    Great piece Kath! In response to your question posed (rhetorically) above, we have become a society that, in the immortal words of our President describing his Presidential competition, shoots first and aims later. As a vegan who also studies food and health, it doesn’t take much research and reading to understand that our food supply, like everything else we consume, is controlled by corporate interests, and they don’t give a damn about public health, the environment, social justice or much of anything else other than maximizing profitability.
    Keep up the good work!

  • Sue Toigo 9·21·12

    This is a great piece – both vital for nutritional health globally and life altering for farmers in emerging markets who lack a political voice. Thank you, Katherine!

  • nancy kramer 9·21·12

    Thank you for this very informative article and the scientists’ link which clarify so much pertaining to this issue. Katherine Leiner is teaching us how to shop and eat and save the planet! Now we need to raise our voices.

  • katherine leiner 9·21·12

    Once again, I thank all of you for responding. We all need to be shouting this from our rooftops –Monsanto is so powerful and unless we keep at this, the next generation and the one after will be paying for our silence. Thank you!!!!

  • Lynn Small 9·21·12

    Thank you Katherine Leiner for this very important reminder that the only way to challenge
    the chemical companies responsible for GMOs is to demand that we at least be told
    on a label what we are eating. Unlike in Europe, I think most Americans are woefully ignorant about what is going on in the food industry. I will certainly forward this to many friends.

  • Gretta 9·22·12

    A system like this keeps the farmer in a feudal or sharecropper relationship with the seed companies. Those in power have also known how to keep their workers forever in debt and shackled to the “company store.” This abuse of power can lead to pervasive “learned hopelessness” that is passed down through generations. Great article!

  • christina 9·22·12

    As California’s prop 37 is being debated this is the perfect time to present this review of the effects of GMOs. Ms. Leiner, so certainly have strength my resolve to pass on the word.

  • katherine leiner 9·22·12

    Once again, thanks for commenting. Being part of this important conversation is the only real power we have. We can’t be too political about this or anything that has to do with what we eat.

  • Lynn Small 9·22·12

    Love your passion!

  • Doug Capelin 9·22·12

    Thank you for this lucid commentary on this all-so-important message that is slowly, and hopefully surely, surfacing in our collective consciousness. There is a “dark side” to the GMO revolution that is alarming and, ultimately, devastating for all of us.

  • Beverly 9·22·12

    The HOPE FULL piece in this sinister plot of profit/greed/and profane disregard for quality of Life, is that writers like Katherine Leiner are a VOICE for the unseen who suffer the consequences of manipulation-for-profit industries. ANd, well, while we are at it, she speaks for ALL of us. THANK YOU.

    Let us regard our food as if it all were an infant’s first taste of the world. See each morsel as if an infant would be receiving it. Realize that this first rite of passage into what we give from this Earth to each new being be nothing but the purest, and best, and most positively-future oriented product we can possibly gift.

    When we achieve that for all people, THEN people will have integrated themselves responsibly with the profound natural beauty we have on this wondrous Earth.

    KUDOS, Ms. Leiner. What is your next book about????????????????????? I have read Growing Roots and seek your work out.

  • Carla Capalbo 9·26·12

    I’m glad these issues are being aired in the US too. The originator both of this research and the activism to combat the OGM presence in India is Dr. Vandana Shiva who has devoted decades to chronicling and fighting these issues. Her important books include ‘Seeds of Suicide’ which must have been a direct influence on this film (which I have not yet seen). Anyone interested in these issues should definitely check out her website, books, seed charter (drawn up with Slow Food) and articles. She is a giant of an activist and also won the huge battle in India against the multinationals when they patented basmati rice (and herein lies another massive subject)…She is an inspiring and dynamic force in this sector!
    here is one of her sites:

  • Marie Gewirtz 9·27·12

    Thank you Katherine for raising your voice about this critical issue and for encouraging all of us to do the same. It’s truly shocking that in a country where freedom and independence are so highly valued that around this important issue of food labeling, we are not given the information to make informed choices. So many people in America are truly in the dark about the serious and long reaching consequences of GMOs…

  • brian 4·20·13

    I would realy love to contribute to Mr.Ram Krishna’s farming money lender. if anyone can email me wit a way to contact Mr.Krishna i would be very greatfull. thank you so much.

  • brian 4·20·13

    Can anyone tell me how to locate and comunicate eith Mr.Krishna,or maybe a family member? i myself have been in a similar situation,and now its my turn to help someone.all i need is an adress or maybe contact info for him my email is [email protected]. or replyon this coment board please once again,thank you very much and i realy hope somone can help me find him soon.

  • katherine leiner 4·20·13

    Bitter Seeds is directed by Micha Peled and produced by Teddy Bear Films: Here is all the info on them
    Address: 2670 Leavenworth Street #F
    San Francisco, CA 94133
    Phone: 415-348-1796

    email:[email protected]

    Talk to Micha Peled and I am sure he will put you in touch with the farmer.

  • gan 12·4·13

    There is more to breeding than just GMOs. Most of the activists focus on GMOs but ignore radiation induced mutation breeding. Recently some “eminent scientist” squealed in smug satisfaction that half the black gram in India is from seeds developed using radiation, Another one squealed that 90% of the same crop from the Indian state of Maharashtra uses their seeds. Of course, their eminence, and belief in “science” did not let them publish photos of hundreds of distorted plants that were created through irradiation, before they chose the one that they released to the market. Very traditional, medicinal plants are being manipulated and released by these breeders with access to irradiation technologies. GMOs are a small part of a bigger problem. We don’t even know what this uncontrollable radiation breeding entails.

  • katherine leiner 12·4·13

    I’d love to know more about this. And thank you so much for your comments.