Yesterday was the first day of the annual Movies that Matter Festival in the Hague, the Netherlands. It was the beginning of a week-long programme of films and debates on human rights issues. I attended Micha Peled‘s new film Bitter Seeds. It is the third installation of his globalization trilogy, also featuring Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town (2001) and China Blue (2005).
The new film focuses on the suicide wave among Indian farmers. The challenge of keeping their families alive is immense. As a result of this, one farmer ends his life every 30 minutes. One while reading this blog, three while watching Bitter Seeds.
As in his previous films, Peled succeeds in presenting a compelling, personal story. The film follows Manjusha, a college student, in her efforts of providing journalistic coverage of the circumstances of the villagers in her surroundings. Peled is there at every step of the way, following the entire process from planting cotton seeds to selling the produce on the local market. It feels as if you could smell the soil, and feel the softness of the cotton on your skin.
A story of immunity?
The film unfolds the connection between the suicides and the introduction of genetically modified (GM) seeds, by the US-based corporation Monsanto.
This story reminded me of the work of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (1947-). The notion of immunity is important in his latest books, as I noted in earlier posts. Monsanto claims that its genetically modified seeds make cotton ‘immune’ for attacks by certain insects. This is achieved by modifying the seeds with the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium. Nevertheless, such Bt cotton is not resistant against the mealybug. This requires additional treatment with chemical pesticides, which are typically applied without any safety precautions. The film shows how the spray is dripping down on the farmer’s bare feet. Despite all this hard labour, many crops get infected and fail to produce. The pesticide market in the Indian village is also dominated by Monsanto products, as the film shows. Before the invasion of Bt seeds, cow dung was used for pest control, a much cheaper and organic alternative.
Immunity and destruction
The problem is bigger than that, however. Cotton production as envisaged by corporations like Monsanto seems to be only viable in an industrialised setup. It would require much larger farms, mechanisation of work and crop rotation. This implies the complete modernisation, and effectively, the ‘creative destruction‘ of traditional cotton production as a way of life (for a similar example see my earlier post on the documentary Garbage Dreams). Whatever your opinion on such developments, it seems that such a choice should not be made by American corporations.
The immunity of communities?
The suicide wave is also related to India’s prevailing social system. The film focuses on one aspect: the dowry that is traditionally paid at weddings by the father of the bride. This system has existed for centuries. According to the film, it is no longer sustainable now that the costs of cotton production have increased with the introduction of genetically modified seeds. Fathers can no longer ‘afford’ to have daughters. Despair over outstanding debts is the main cause of suicide. It seems that the introduction of a seed that is not as ‘immune’ as it was supposed to be, is also messing with the ‘immunity’ of families and the social system as a whole.
Due to the complete take-over of the cotton seed market by Monsanto, farmers can no longer protect themselves. Attempts to bring back the seeds that preceded genetic modification fail, as the film shows. There are small scale initiatives to introduce organic farming to a few Indian villages, however, by people like Vandana Shiva. This requires major subsidies, however, which are hard to find. So far, there is often no way out.
After the film, I had a drink with mr. Peled and a manager of a company that focuses on organic fruits and vegetables. I asked a question, which seemed to be perceived as impertinent by the manager. I wonder if it was. I invite you to leave your thoughts below.
Earlier, the issue had been raised that a film ought to be made that portrays ‘the consumer’. I would surely welcome such a film. Over the past weeks, I watched about 15 documentaries dealing with the ethics of trade. I was surprised to find that the position of the consumer received hardly any attention at all. I suggested that such a film, if it were made, ought to portray the challenges that consumers face. Increasingly, individuals are made responsible for the working conditions at the other end of the world. Many have suggested that fairtrade consumption is a ‘fix’ that stems from a neoliberal mindset, even though we tend to think of it as an alternative. In one of his lectures, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that fairtrade is an example of ‘cultural capitalism’: by consuming, you do good while sustaining the system of global capitalism. There is a short video of the lecture, with wonderful animations, which I would recommend to anyone.
This was considered a ‘boring topic’ by the manager. I asked if they happened to have seen the documentary The Bitter Taste of Tea: A Journey Into the World of Fairtrade (Borgen & Heinemann, 2008). This controversial film suggests that working conditions on fairtrade tea plantations are often not much better than on non-certified plantations. Assuming this is true, what does this mean for consumers? Can we trust the certificates that are presented to us, or do we need to open every ‘black box‘ ourselves, to speak with the French philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-)? My comments seemed to offend the manager at our table. He replied, rightly I think, that improving working conditions needs to happen step by step. He suggested that we shouldn’t criticise those who try.
Was he right? I partly agree. We cannot expect the world to change at once. However, I would argue we need to have fair but critical investigations of the attempts we make. This does not need to result in criticism, but in a discussion nonetheless. To what extent is certification possible as a guarantee, as the logo promises? Is it perhaps partly a utopia, given the current governance of global trade? What does it mean for me, as a consumer? Can I rely on the fairtrade logo, or do I need to do more?