Blood money (11/9/2006)

"A vice president pulled me aside. He told me something like, 'Wait a second. What Robert Shapiro [Monsanto's CEO at the time] says is one thing. But what we do is something else. We are here to make money. He is the front man who tells a story. We don't even understand what he is saying.'" - Kirk Azevedo, former Monsanto employee

Business is booming for Monsanto, judging by the recent pay outs to its board of directors and top executives. Take Monsanto's Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Hugh Grant. Although Grant's annual salary is $1.04 million, he's made more than double that in the past year in bonuses ($2.2 million), quite apart from another $12.5 million in stock option profits.

Then there's what's termed "miscellaneous pay", which includes, for instance, over $80,000 for personal use of company aircraft. In addition, Monsanto paid a $50,000 initiation fee for Grant to join the Bogey Club, plus reimbursement for $26,358 in income tax related to the company's payment of the initiation fee.

All in all, taken together with all the other miscellaneous pay, the company's shelled out $16.1 million in total pay to Grant in the last year.

Clearly, Grant must have been doing a remarkable job for the company. Despite all the opposition to GMOs and all the onerous regulatory hurdles the company complains so much about, Monsanto under Grant has been very effectively maximising its returns on the GM seeds and traits that it's managed to gain commercial approval for.

And nowhere have those seeds and traits proved more popular than in the Indian state of Maharashtra, where farmers have bought into a bigger acreage of Bt cotton than anywhere else in India. And that is saying something - India has the largest area under cotton cultivation of any country in the world.

Given its massive seed sale potential, it's perhaps not surprising that Maharashtra is somewhere that Monsanto, via its Indian partner Mahyco, has really pushed the boat out. In 2005 Mahyco-Monsanto even brought in Bollywood star, Nana Patekar, to promote its sales. Patekar put in appearances not only in TV ads but even went around the state addressing farmers' meetings in person. The company also seems to have got Maharashtra's state government onside, actively promoting and endorsing Bt cotton.

The price paid for the hyping of Bt cotton has been a high one. In straight economic terms, a comparative study of cotton growing in Maharashtra shows 68% lower incomes for Bt cotton farmers.

But that doesn't begin to capture the real human cost. Since summer 2005 Maharashtra has had India's biggest crop of farm suicides. According to the latest figures from Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), an NGO working to help small farmers, in north east Maharashtra they're dying at the rate of one farmer every five hours.

Many of the deaths, in what is one of Maharashtra's main cotton growing regions, involve indebted Bt cotton farmers, unable to repay the loans they took out on the expensive seeds. And, as appalling as what's happening there is, Vidarbha is merely the highly visible tip of an agrarian crisis devastating homes across India.

A key component in that crisis is spiralling farmer debt due to expensive inputs. Don't forget that those heavily hyped Bt cotton seeds cost India's farmers about 3 times as much as non-Bt seeds.

The award-winning Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu newspaper, P. Sainath, was asked recently "about the presence of multinationals in agricultural inputs." This is what he said:

"A handful of them control the trade across the world. One of the big headaches in Vidarbha is the state propagandised and favoured the promotion of Bt Cotton. Firstly, Bt Cotton technologies are themselves suspect in a number of ways. However, promoting them in a dry and un-irrigated area like Vidarbha was murderous. It was stupid, it was killing. The Bt Cotton packet was costing Rs 1800 to 1850 for a packet of 450 grams. On each packet of Rs 1850, Monsanto was making a royalty of Rs 1250. Coming back to the MNC's, their role in the crisis has been devastating. One, they have been able to corrupt and lobby government policy very significantly changing it in their favour and against the farmers."

In another recent press article, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav was also said to hold, "multinational companies... responsible for debt-ridden farmers' ruin in Maharashtra and Vidarbha."

As indebted Bt cotton farmers continue to take their lives, unable to repay the loans they took out to buy the expensive seeds, it's sobering to consider how much of the fat-cat pay outs in St Louis are the result of aggressive marketing aimed at squeezing every last rupee out of farmers in places like Maharashtra.


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