Starting in the 1960s, U.S. agronomists–backed by U.S. foundation cash and blessed by the Indian government–introduced farmers in India’s then-fertile Punjab region to the glories of monoculture, imported petrochemical inputs, and heavy irrigation. The adoption of chemical agriculture in India became known as the “Green Revolution,” and is still hailed today in some circles as a great success. But 40 years after the Green Revolution took root, Zwerdling showed in his reports, the region’s agriculture stands on the verge of collapse: the water table is nearly tapped out, the soil is largely degraded, and farmers face ruin under mounting debt burdens.
This week, Zwerdling reported on the public-health implications of India’s chemical-ag experiment. He takes listeners on board the “cancer train,” which shows up nightly to a Punjab train hub to carry “at least 60 cancer patients who make the overnight journey with their families to the town of Bikaner for treatment at the government’s regional cancer center.” Zwerdling reports:
People say they never used to see so many cancer patients in this farm region. Cancer was considered an urban disease, suffered by people who lived in cities choked with industry and pollution.
But research by one of the most respected medical institutes in India recently found that farming villages using large amounts of pesticides have significantly higher rates of cancer than villages that use less of the chemicals.
Zwerdling makes clear that there’s no definitive “proof” linking agrichemicals to cancer; and stress that more research needs to be done. Agrichemical companies turn out to be much more apt to throw research cash at the next killer ap than study what their potions are doing to people; that’s the task of poorly funded state research institutes. But the little research that has been done points to a link between farm chemicals and not only cancer (PDF) but also impaired brain development among children (PDF).
Anyone interested in the question of agriculture policy in the global south should check out Zwerdling’s reports on India. I often find NPR intolerable: the cooing baby talk of the main presenters, the fixation on trivial stories. Work like Zwerdling’s redeems the whole project.