Socio-political Consequences of Pesticide Treadmill

In this module, we’ll build on what you’ve just learned about the Pesticide Treadmill in two parts.

Part 1 explores the topic using India as a case study. By offering a selection of stories from India, a place heavily impacted by the green revolution’s chemical package and it’s consequences, you will get you a deeper sense of the socio-political impacts that range beyond the ecological impacts of the Pesticide Treadmill.

Part 2 will examine how industrial agriculture’s dependence and heavy-use of pesticides impacts the people working directly with the crops – the farmworkers.

We’ve added an optional Part 3 that explores the Pesticide Treadmill in Latin America, looking more specifically at development models.

Focus: Social Costs of the Pesticide Treadmill in India

In India, the pesticide treadmill has had huge social consequences. Farmers there have largely switched from subsistence farming to growing cotton for the global marketplace, as it gets a higher price.

Cotton growing worldwide demonstrates the key idea of neoliberal capitalism known as Comparative Advantage. A country has a comparative advantage if it can produce a good at a lower opportunity cost than another country. A lower opportunity cost means it has to forego less of other goods in order to produce it. Regulations in the United States require us to pay certain wages to farm workers, although that doesn’t always happen. In countries like India, there are not similar laws for small farmers- therefore, they can produce cotton much cheaper, naturally they dominate cotton production. 80% of cotton is produced by the developing world, and farmers in countries like India have transitioned to cotton growing, as it can get a higher price than vegetable growing. However, cotton is very susceptible to pests, especially the bollworm. Monsanto has produced a cotton variety, known as Bt cotton, which is a genetically modified organism (GMO) cotton variety. The gene coding for Bt toxin has been inserted into cotton as a transgene, causing it to produce this natural insecticide in its tissues. In many regions, the main pests in commercial cotton are lepidopteran larvae, which are killed by the Bt protein in the genetically modified cotton they eat.

A 2006 study done by Cornell researchers, the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy and the Chinese Academy of Science on Bt cotton farming in China found that after seven years these secondary pests that were normally controlled by pesticide had increased, necessitating the use of pesticides at similar levels to non-Bt cotton and causing less profit for farmers because of the extra expense of GM seeds.[2]  In India in 2010, 6 million, or 60 lakh, farmers planted Bt cotton seeds on 90% of India’s total cotton acres. To buy these expensive seeds, as well as fertilizers and pesticides, farmers often need to take out loans. If their crops fails, the farmer ends up in debt to the banks who loaned them the money to buy their seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. In India,  this has lead to devastating social consequences. Farmers deep in debt drink pesticides and commit suicide- the current death toll is 300,000 farmers; the suicide rate for farmers is 47% higher than the national average.

Excerpt adapted from:

From  Vandermeer, John H. The ecology of agroecosystems. Sudbury, Mass: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2011. Print.

“Bt cotton. ” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., date last updated (22 June 2016). Web. Date accessed (22 April 2016). <>

Each of the following videos investigates farmer suicides in India, and portrays the personal stories behind these tragic deaths. Please watch at least one video:

Film 1: A film on Farmer Suicides and Agrarian Crises in India 

Film 2: Indian nightmare: GMO killer-cotton 

Film 3: Yield: Testimonies on the suicides of Indian Farmers

Read the following article to learn more about the complexity of Indian Farmer suicides, and how Bt Cotton plays a role:


Part 2: Farmworker Health and Pesticides

Article 1: “Farmworkers”

from Pesticide Action Network



Farmworkers represent the backbone and marrow of our agricultural economy. Yet this group is one of the least protected from on-the-job harms — including exposure to pesticides.

Decades after Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame documentary and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, farmworkers in this country still face many of the same deplorable conditions.

Pesticide exposures come on top of other widespread workplace problems, including intimidation, harassment and even wage theft. Farmworkers and their families often survive in extreme poverty punctuated by substandard housing and lack of access to clean water, adequate food, healthcare and education. [here it is important to note that the most vulnerable people in every country – for example in the USA, People of Color, specifically Latinxs – suffer disproportionate the impacts of agricultural malpractices and labor abuses]

Laws don’t protect farmworkers

Laws don't protect farmworkers

Farmworkers are regularly exposed to pesticides in many ways.

They can breathe in or absorb harmful chemicals through their skin while they mix or apply pesticides, or during planting, weeding, thinning, irrigating, pruning, harvesting and processing crops.

Many incidents go unreported, but California data on farmworker poisonings highlight the extent of the immediate problem. Studies have also documented elevated risks of chronic diseases linked to pesticides, including cancer, birth defects and learning disabilities.

“I don’t know the risks because I never received a training. I was applying pesticides and I felt many symptoms. I learned that the chemicals are very bad for our health.”

— Mario, excerpted from 2014 Farmworker Association of Florida survey

Farmworkers and their families can also be exposed when living in or near treated fields. And studies show that pesticides carried from field to home on parents’ clothing and skin put farmworker children at risk.

Our regulatory system has failed to protect farmworkers from these on-the-job harms. Farmworkers are some of the only workers in the country not provided protections under the federal health and safety agency, OSHA. Our Fair Harvest campaign tackles this injustice head on.

Heated politics of farm labor

Heated politics of farm labor

Political rhetoric often swirls around the issue of immigration. Meanwhile, little is done to address the on-the-job dangers faced daily by families who cross the border to harvest fruits and vegetables like strawberries, apples or broccoli.

Undocumented workers are less likely to seek medical care when exposed to pesticides, and rarely report poisonings. Under the current system, hundreds of workers — including children — suffer from pesticide-related illnesses every year.

Thoughtful reform of U.S. immigration policies would be a major step toward acknowledging and addressing the shameful working conditions faced by thousands of migrant farmworkers every year.

Safe & healthy fields

Safe & healthy fields

A healthy, safe and fair food system would serve the common economic needs of farmworkers, farmers, rural communities and consumers. Shifting away from reliance on hazardous pesticides — and toward agroecological farming — is a key step toward this goal.

Also essential is bringing decision-making power back to the farm. Currently, corporate giants control everything from seeds and chemical farm inputs to the purchase, processing and marketing of farm products.

Gradually, this needed shift is gaining momentum — from the ground up. “Local food economies” are growing, farmers are demanding more control of inputs and production on their own farms, and farmworkers are beginning to experience (and support) the safer and healthier working conditions resulting from sustainable farming.

OPTIONAL Part 3:  Latin America

Article 2: Conventional agricultural development models and the persistence of the pesticide treadmill in Latin America

by Nicholls, Clara and Altieri, Miguel A. | from The International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology