Turning out the lights

cover of The Ecologist

The Ecologist has just run a story that I penned last month, about farmer suicides, drawing the line between those in the UK, those in India and, most recently, those in Australia.

Turning out the lights

As the Bluetongue virus sinks its teeth into British livestock, there is one appalling certainty: like the Mad Cow Disease and Foot and Mouth outbreaks before it, some farmers will see no way out, and take their own lives. Farmers in Britain are the profession second most likely to commit suicide (after, bizarrely, dentistry).

Before the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, British farming, especially livestock farming, was in a parlous state. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and swine fever had already taken their toll on the industry. The prices of agricultural products, especially meat and dairy, had dropped markedly. Incomes were therefore very low, and many farmers also had large debts. Bureaucratic procedures, especially the requirement to complete numerous official forms, added to the stress.

Given all this it is hardly surprising that studies show that British farmers are more than twice as likely as the general population to contemplate suicide. But the higher rate of depression and suicide in British farmers is not unique and indeed mirrors that of farmers everywhere. And as climate change, dwindling oil supplies and disease press harder on the world’s farmers the problem is likely to get worse.

Across the planet, the world’s poorest people are struggling to keep their heads above water. Farmers who are lucky enough to have access land find themselves caught between rising costs of inputs, and a crop price that, in the main, has been downward. Prompted by the need to squeeze more out of their land, farmers do as they always have – they innovate.

In a field outside Bangalore, this is what one farmer in Tamil Nadu, India, let’s call him Kistaiah Masaya, did. To innovate, he needed money. The only place he could get some was from the local money lender (and at exorbitant rates). He borrowed the money certain that he would be able to repay. He used the cash to hire a drill to bore a well, so that he could irrigate his crops. The well was dry. So he borrowed more and sunk another well. And another. And another. All were dry.

One night, late in August, when the rains had failed to come, Kistaiah reached for a packet of phorate, a pesticide used in developing countries despite its being listed as unsafe by the Food and Agriculture Organization. He mixed a little with water, and drank it.

The poison ran through his skin before it went through his stomach, paralysing his nervous system, choking his lungs, and stopping his heart. He can’t have convulsed very hard. Kistaiah died without waking his wife and two sons.

Kistaiah’s death is one among many – indeed, it is hard to open a newspaper in India and not find some reference to a farmer suicide. Full figures are hard to come by – no national database is kept. But summing over a series of studies, it’s safe to put the death toll at tens of thousands every year.

It has been suggested that the high risk of suicide in farmers may be related to their ease of access to the means of suicide, pesticides and firearms for example. But it is the why’s of farmer suicides is arguably more important that the hows.

Invariably, these suicides correlate with high levels of debt. S.S. Gill, an academic at the Punjabi Agricultural University has studied the issue, and offers this rule:

‘Show me a farmer with 150,000 rupees (about GBP1800) in debt; I will say to you he is sure to commit suicide in the future.’