Should a U.S. consumer care about a cotton farmer in India?

My senior year I took a class at Sarah Lawrence College called “Performing Identities: Class, Ethnicity, Gender, and Race.” It was a sociology class that looked at performance art and how it can make statements about identity issues. Every one in the class spent the semester examining his or her own identity and coming up with a ten minute performance piece that addressed an issue related to his or her own identity. Like the rest of the classes that I took my senior year, I chose that class because I wanted to take the experiences that I had had while studying abroad (see my post “Why India?”) and continue to explore my connection to the issues that I had learned about.

As my research picks up here in India I am thinking a lot about how to share this information with people who have never been to India and don’t know much about this issue. I spent the evening brainstorming like a maniac, and once again running into this feeling of hopelessness. How can you make people who feel so far removed from an issue like cotton farmer suicides in India care about what’s happening enough for them to
a. acknowledge that their consumer demand is part of the crisis and
b. want to do something to change?

I know the answer to my own question. I can’t make anyone care. I care because I’ve met some of the people on the other end of the spectrum. I’ve experienced my connection to these issues in a hands on way and because of that something within me changed. I can’t make people feel inspired or force feed them the desire to acknowledge these systems and be a part of changing them. But I do believe that I can do my part to expose these issues to people. And maybe I can do it in a creative and inspiring enough way that people will experience a connection without having to go on a study abroad to India. Maybe.

I still don’t know exactly which direction I will steer my project or what I will produce during my time in India. But in the mean time, I thought I’d post my final project for my Performing Identities class, the first of many attempts to produce something that inspires my audience to consider issues that are broader than their day to day experiences but so closely intertwined with them. Enjoy.

Why India?

When I tell people that I am going to live in India for a year responses range from “Wow! How exciting” to “Dirty, poor, over-populated India? Why?” Because…

As I mentioned in my previous post “The Backstory…” I studied abroad on a program called “Rethinking Globalization: Nature, Culture, Justice” (now called “Beyond Globalization: Reclaiming Nature, Culture, and Justice”). One of the things I most appreciated about my experience abroad was how I was encouraged to examine how I was a part of processes that seemed so far removed from my day-to-day life in the United States. As a western consumer, I am privileged to have grown up with countless luxuries. I was conditioned to value these products based on the dollar amount on their price tag. I had never considered where the ingredients in my toothpaste came from or how they had ended up mixed together and bottled up in my little tube…until I was in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania.

Carrageenan is a gelling and thickening agent used in everything from toothpaste to ice cream. In Tanzania I learned that carrageenan is extracted from seaweed. I met several women who spent most of their days bent over harvesting seaweed. They sold it to multinational corporations, earning a mere 20 cents per pound of dried seaweed.

So why India? Well, I had a similar realization about my consumer habits while I was on a farm in Wardha, located in Maharashtra, India.

Cotton. My t-shirt tag read “100% cotton.” We’ve all heard the Cotton inc. jingle “the fabric of our lives.” And I learned all about it when I studied slavery and the civil war in fifth grade. But in Wardha I sat under a white canopy and looked up at Kishore Tiwari, our guest lecturer for the morning. He wore an angry look on his face and he spoke with sweat pooling between his eyebrows. His voice shook with emotion. He spoke to us about the detrimental effect that U.S. farm subsidies had on Indian cotton farmers who struggled to compete in the global market. He even blamed us, American consumers, for the suicides of thousands of cotton farmers throughout India. “We look at you as ambassadors to the people to convey that mass genocide is going on,” Tiwari pleaded.

I was embarrassed and felt a mix of guilt and defensiveness. This was the first I was hearing of cotton farmer suicides yet I had been wearing cotton my whole life. India is the world’s third largest producer of cotton…I had to have worn cotton from India before. Was it cotton grown by a farmer who later, out of desperation, took his life?

The day after Tiwari’s lecture, my classmates and I went into the fields and had the opportunity to speak with cotton farmers in Wardha. Prior to our field trip we had read several articles examining the effects of Bt cotton, a genetically modified cotton plant originally created by Monsanto and introduced in India in the late 1990s. The articles and Tiwari’s lecture led me to believe that the cotton farmers we were going to talk with would express a discontent with Bt cotton and its high production cost. Surprisingly, the first farmer that I spoke with praised Bt cotton, even though he had not seen an increase in productivity or profit, as was promised by Monsanto’s advertising. The contradiction that lies at the kernel of this encounter is the question that has led me to return to India: Why do farmers promote the modernization of agriculture when it does not always serve their interests?

Speaking to cotton farmers in their fields and to my program coordinators over rice and dahl, I began to see the thin wisps of a vast web of exploitation that ran from the fields in India through a host of actors and institutions and clung tenaciously to my clothing. These fine strands were invisible to me. A whole industry was dedicated to keeping me from seeing them. Nearly a year later I took the stories I had heard in the cotton fields in India and tried to reconcile them with mountains of articles and reports on cotton, agriculture, and trade. The web is tangled. This is no accident. This is why it is so important to trace the strands, to pull on the threads and see what is sitting at the center of the web.

With population increasing and the limits of our natural resources becoming more apparent every day, the pressure is rising for farmers to produce more of our most basic needs in an efficient and sustainable way. New technologies like genetically modified seeds have been developed to aid farmers in this task. Farmers all over the world have altered their agricultural practices to incorporate these new technologies.

There is great debate among scholars, politicians, economists, agronomists, and ecologists as to whether or not these technological changes in agriculture have led to higher yield, stronger ecosystems, and better lifestyles. But what do the farmers think? As people who are daily informed by this agricultural discourse in various ways, it is imperative that farmers’ perspectives be included and considered in the debate.

So I am going back to India. After spending 3 months in a language immersion program in Pune, I will begin my research project. This will take me back to Wardha, back to the cotton fields. Over the course of about 6-9 months I will speak with farmers and ask them what they think about Bt cotton and Monsanto. I will find out if they feel like the advances in agriculture have truly led to higher yield, stronger ecosystems, and better lifestyles. And I’ll let you guys know what I find out…