Bitter Seeds Review

Growing pains
A review of Bitter Seeds by Mark Lyndersay, originally published in the T&T Guardian on November 12, 2013
Ram Krishna Kopulwar and his bullocks in a still from Micha X Peled’s Bitter Seeds.

Micha X Peled’s documentary film, Bitter Seeds is a grim polemic, but unlike such issue-driven fare, this is a surprisingly watchable film with a strong, compassionate heart, calm reasoning and at its core, the guts to acknowledge that the problem isn’t as simple as American industrial imperialism.

Director Peled found Telung Takil; a village at the heart of India in the region of Vidarbha which the documentarian posits is ground zero in a epidemic of farmer suicides occasioned by the shame of poverty.
As the film opens, we are introduced to Manjusha Ambarwar, a sharp witted young woman whose father, Ramdas, is identified as the first farmer to end his life after realising that he could never escape the mountain of debt into which he had inexorably slid.

Then we meet Ram Krishna Kopulwar, a sad-eyed farmer who doggedly ploughs his three acres of land with two bullocks. The man and his two animals guiding a single blade through earth that seems indifferent to their efforts.
Ambarwar is keen to become a journalist, not a favored job option for a young woman in rural India.
Kopulwar's beautiful daughter, Sawpna, is being groomed for the preferred role that of a wife to a suitable husband.

The key players are quickly set in place, set against the harsh beauty of the largely undeveloped landscape of this part of India and the essential conflict of their aspirations and the unyielding reality of their circumstances quickly springs into sharp relief.

Peled’s basic thesis in this film is in harmony with his other documentaries on the consequences of globalisation on communities; Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Blue.
The villain in Bitter Seeds is the multinational chemical giant, Monsanto, whose genetically engineered seeds have commanded the market, sold under license as Jai BT and many other attractive brand names dressed in colourful packaging adorned with photographs of flourishing cotton blossoms.

In Peled’s film, the genetically modified cotton seeds from Monsanto are not delivering the returns that farmers hope for and farmers using the product are experiencing higher than normal crop failure rates.
Ram Krishna Kopulwar already has a loan from the local bank and now must turn to a money lender for the money to pay for the seeds for his next crop.

Monsanto’s BT seeds are not self-regenerating and must be bought for each crop seeding, contributing to the accelerating cycle of debt.
Monsanto’s representatives, though notably not anyone from the company itself, dispute this. From the salesmen to the local company creating the seeds under license from Monsanto, they point instead to poor financial management by farmers and an inability to manage the demands of the new seeds.

In the film, Vandana Shiva, an appealingly passionate environmental activist, argues that industrial agriculture doesn’t translate well to the smaller acreages of India’s cotton farmers. Industrial agriculture, she says, is a business of subsidy and engineered processes, neither of which are available to small scale Indian farmers.

BT cotton, the film notes, requires more water and fertilizer, which must be applied on a very specific schedule. But most of the farmers of Vidarbha have no irrigation and depend on the rains.
In a particularly moving moment in the film, Ram Krishna Kopulwar plays host to three men who have brought their son to formally meet Sawpna with a view to arranging a match.

Kopulwar sits uneasily as the three generations of men detail their demands for a dowry. It’s a price that he is unable to pay and tells them so with a smile that’s a heartbreaking mask of shame and helplessness.
It’s not hard to see how a man put in a position of such absolute humiliation might consider ending a life without any apparent hope.

The film claims that a farmer kills himself in India every thirty minutes. The sheer number and scale of the deaths is undisputed. More than a quarter of a million farmers have committed suicide in the country over the last decade and a half, but while the film struggles admirably to skewer Monsanto, it isn’t clear that the company’s seeds are the only reason for the staggering suicide rate.

Indeed Nature, the respected science journal, while frowning generally on genetically modified seed stock,
disputes the essential theory of the film as part of its evaluation of the scientific manipulation of plant regeneration.

What’s particularly troubling about the situation outlined by Bitter Seeds is the way that GM seeds appear to have completely taken over as the only resource for farmers in India.
Traditional cotton seed stocks, which could be fertilised by cow dung and not expensive chemical regimens while providing fresh seeds for the next crop have disappeared from the shelves of agriculture suppliers.

Kopulwar’s crop falls prey to a mealy bug infestion after being saved by a last minute shower of rain, and he loses half his crop. His three acres of land will remain in the hands of the money lender for another season after he makes a payment his original loan.

After months of work, he can barely meet his debt to the bank, can’t pay the moneylender and has no hope of arranging a match for his daughter. Micha Peled’s film wrestles mightily with all the elements that India brings to bear on his chosen subjects, but it ultimately fails to offer a persuasive conclusion.

Suicide rates in India were increasing before Monsanto introduced its controversial GM seed strains to the market and small crop farmers, scraping by on the lower end of the economy, are particularly vulnerable to the social and financial forces that are pressuring the poor and financially marginal in that country.

Manjusha Ambarwar publishes her first piece of writing for the local agriculture focused paper, winning herself some closure for her father’s death, and perhaps a shot at a career that allows her to chart her own destiny.
We leave Ram Krishna Kopulwar where we found him, walking stoically across a freshly ploughed field, still resolutely determined to wring a solution to his problems from earth that’s equally resolved to fight him all the way.

And India remains India, a beautiful, absolute land of sudden hard rains and dry crumbling earth, of deep spirituality and devotion and hard divisions of class and knowledge into which the unprepared stumble and sometimes, never return.
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