Aug 20 2015

The Myths of Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is one of the loudest voices speaking out against GM (genetic modification) technology and modern agriculture. She is an ideologue and a crusader, which unfortunately means that she feels free to play loose with the facts and the science as long as it serves her narrative. Michael Specter did an excellent article about Shiva a year ago for The New Yorker. This quote puts much of Shiva’s propaganda into perspective:

“There are two trends,” she told the crowd that had gathered in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, in Florence, for the seed fair. “One: a trend of diversity, democracy, freedom, joy, culture—people celebrating their lives.” She paused to let silence fill the square. “And the other: monocultures, deadness. Everyone depressed. Everyone on Prozac. More and more young people unemployed. We don’t want that world of death.”

To her, GMOs are part of a world of death, while opposing GMOs is all about joy and freedom. She is anti-corporate, anti-West, anti-globalization, and anti-technology. Her campaign is largely one of lies and misinformation. She would also apparently rather have people starve than eat GMOs.

As reports:

Ten thousand people were killed and 10 to 15 million left homeless when a cyclone slammed into India’s eastern coastal state of Orissa in October 1999. In the aftermath, CARE and the Catholic Relief Society distributed a high-nutrition mixture of corn and soy meal provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development to thousands of hungry storm victims. Oddly, this humanitarian act elicited cries of outrage.

Shiva called on India to reject the donated food. She wanted to take food away from the hungry and homeless cyclone victims, rather than have them “poisoned” with GMOs. This motivated Ronald Bailey from to call Shiva, “One of the World’s Worst People.”

By the way, this anti-corporate crusader for the poor makes $40,000 per speaking engagement. 

Recently Shiva wrote an article titled: 5 GMO Myths Debunked by Vandana Shiva. What she is actually doing is “rebunking” her own myths. Here we can see a huge red flag for an ideologue – they need to have every fact align with their narrative, rather than admitting that complex topics are complex. For example, anti-vaxers could admit that vaccines work but still oppose them because of alleged side effects. Global warming deniers could admit humans are warming the planet but oppose certain proposed solutions, and Shiva could admit that industrial farming is efficient, even if she opposes the methods for other reasons.

Myth #1: The Green Revolution

Right off, however, with myth #1 she makes the extraordinary claim that the green revolution actually decreased crop yields in India.

The Green Revolution did not save India from famine, as the proponents of Industrial Agriculture and GMO technology would argue, in fact the Green Revolution reduced India’s production. For more information about the Green Revolution read, Nothing Green in the Green Revolution in India Today.

Even looking at the data she cites, however, reveals her shenanigans. She writes:

His study comparing pre and post Green Revolution performance showed that the rate of growth of aggregate crop production was higher in the years before the Green Revolution was introduced (1967-68) than after it.

The comparison is not between yield but the rate of increase in yield. Yield still increased after the Green Revolution, but (she claims) for some crops not as fast. However if you look at the table on her article you will notice a couple of things. The period before the Green Revolution is 15 years, while after is 10 years. I don’t see that an adjustment was made for this difference. Further, you can see that the land area increased more before the Green revolution than after – so yield increases prior to the Green Revolution were due to planting more land.

Land scarcity and increasing land costs, however, were a major limiting factor – increasing food production by increasing land use was simply not keeping up with population growth. As a recent review of the actual evidence claims, the Green Revolution had a dramatic impact.

Although populations had more than doubled, the production of cereal crops tripled during this period, with only a 30% increase in land area cultivated.

Myth #2: Golden Rice 

Anti-GMO activists hate golden rice, a GMO rice with added beta carotene, because it breaks just about every aspect of their narrative. The rice is not owned by any corporation, but is a humanitarian project. It has nothing to do with pesticides. There is no issue with cross-contamination. The crop is not for the benefit of western corporations. The sole purpose of golden rice is to reduce vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, which currently causes 80,000 deaths a year and half a million children to go blind.

Here is Shiva’s pathetic attempt to oppose this potentially very useful technology:

Here is our analysis establishing that our indigenous biodiversity and knowledge is far superior than Golden Rice to address malnutrition. Syngenta owns Golden Rice. It’s promotion as the fruits of public sector research are a blatant lie and an attempt to mislead people across the world.

Further, the Golden Rice paper had to be retracted, any fabricated claims made based on the paper do not stand.

First, vitamin A deficiency is a problem for more than just India. Further, the idea that planting gardens is going to solve the problem is ridiculous. There are plenty of poor people in developing regions of the world who do not have the land for even a small garden. Attempts to address vitamin A deficiency by providing fruits and vegetable and distributing vitamin A supplements have been ongoing. While they are helpful, they are nowhere near addressing the problem. Vitamin A enriched rice would be another tool to address this issue.

This type of argument is similar to the anti-fluoride crowd arguing that we don’t need fluoride in water because people can just brush their teeth.

Regarding Syngenta and golden rice, Syngenta has this to say:

Although Syngenta has a significant interest in seeing the humanitarian benefits from this technology become reality, we have no commercial interest in Golden Rice whatsoever. Golden Rice is an exclusively humanitarian project.

And the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board confirms:

Seed from these plants and performance data were donated to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.

Shiva has absolutely no information to contradict these facts – Syngenta donated their expertise and has no commercial stake. If she did have evidence she would have linked to it.

Finally, she repeats the claim of the anti-GMO crowd that the recent study showing that golden rice has the potential to provide clinically relevant amounts of vitamin A is not valid because of ethical concerns. This is nonsense, however. Ethical concerns were raised by anti-GMO activists in an attempt to discredit the study because they did not like the results. A thorough review found, however:

The reviews found no evidence of health or safety problems in the children fed golden rice; they also concluded that the study’s data were scientifically accurate and valid. Indeed, Souvaine’s letter to the USDA stresses that the results “have important public health and nutrition implications, for China and other parts of the world.”

There were issues with the consent form, which is unfortunate, but they don’t invalidate the results.

Myth #3: Cancer and Suicide

She next writes:

The epidemic of cancer has affected the farmers of Punjab because of pesticides. It has affected farmers of West UP. In a single village, our recent field survey revealed that there were 100 cancer victims. The farmers are getting into debt and committing suicide buying the pesticides and the citizens are dying of cancer because of the same poisons.

The issue of cancer and pesticides is a complex one, but there is no evidence for an “epidemic of cancer.” Animal data shows that some pesticides are potentially carcinogenic, but this does not prove that they actually cause cancer in people. Causing cancer in rats in high doses is a pretty low threshold.

Epidemiological data is mixed but mostly negative. There are now five pesticides classified as possibly or probably carcinogenic. However, experts disagree about the evidence and some are highly critical of these designations.

If we take a very cautious approach, which is what the industry does, it is prudent to protect farm workers from exposure to pesticides with protective gear and good practice. The amounts that consumers are exposed to in food is negligible and there is no evidence of any negative health effects (and if you’re worried, just thoroughly wash your food).

Further, organic farming allows for pesticide use, just “natural” pesticides with the completely unwarranted assumption that natural pesticides are safe. In fact, organic pesticides may be more toxic and worse for the environment than synthetic ones, but they are given a regulatory pass because they are “natural.”

The claim that GMOs are linked to increased farmer indebtedness and suicide is a complete myth manufactured by Vandana Shiva. I address the claim here.

Myth #4: Safety

She writes:

While the literature on biosafety is vast and I was appointed as a member of the expert group on biosafety by UNEP to create the framework for the International Law on Biosafety, two recent publications show that the assumption of safety and “substantial equivalence” is false.

One study is from the Norwegian Government, another by an Indian scientist from MIT who invented email.

We have been using GMOs for over 20 years now and no health issues have arisen. There is also no reason to suspect that the many different types of genetic changes broadly contained under GMO have any inherent health risk. GMOs are actually the most studied and regulated foods we have. Science and health organizations from the AAAS to the WHO have reviewed the evidence and found current GMOs and GM technology to be safe. 

Further, we have a 19 year GMO animal feeding study, looking at data from literally billions of animals, showing no negative health effects from consuming GMOs.

Against this mountain of safety data, Shiva cherry picks two studies. One is from Shiva Ayyadurai, the “Indian Scientist from MIT” who, it turns out, didn’t invent e-mail (but that’s another story). His “study” was actually a computer model which he says predicts GMO soy will contain high levels of formaldehyde. This claim has already been thoroughly debunked as utter nonsense.  I would also point out that genetic scientist Kevin Folta has offered to actually test Ayyadurai’s model by measuring formaldehyde levels in GMO soy, and the response from the MIT scientist has been deafening silence.

The review (not new research) commissioned by the Norwegian government is interesting. First, it is not a review of GMOs in general or GM technology but specifically of herbicide tolerant GMOs. It also does not conclude that they are not safe, only that we currently do not have sufficient evidence. Of course, what is “sufficient” evidence is completely subjective. Norway, to put it bluntly, is toward the extreme anti-GMO end of the spectrum. Their policy is:

Norway is one of the most restrictive countries with regard to the importation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and does not allow for GMO production. It has yet to approve an application for the import of foodstuffs that include GMOs. Norway applies the precautionary principle when vetting GMOs and in addition requires any user or importer of a GMO to show that the use is ethically and socially justifiable, requiring proof both that the GMO is not harmful and that its use will benefit society.

So they set the bar very high. There are many flaws with their review. For example, they cite as a criticism the fact that GMO studies often compare GMOs to standard farming practice, and not to organic farming or other methods. This is not an actual criticism, in my opinion. If you are trying to control for the GM trait as an isolated variable then that is the exact comparison you want to make. You don’t want to compare it to farming practices that differ in a variety of ways.

The report also relies upon discredited research, such as the infamous Seralini study.

The Norwegian review is therefore an outlier from an anti-GMO country with serious flaws, and is also limited in scope, and really can only cite the precautionary principle for justification in the end. This is the best that Shiva can do.

Myth #5: GMO and Science

Here we get a short naked assertion from Shiva:

The GMO story is not one of science, but of an unscientific and illegal takeover of our seeds and food.

She links only to her own documentary, not any actual evidence. She is not even making an argument here, just an assertion – restating her narrative.


The facts do not paint a flattering picture of Vandana Shiva. She is a fanatical ideologue who appears to have no problem spreading misinformation, making up stories to suit her needs, cherry picking data, and weaving conspiracy theories.

Her latest article is clearly nothing but sloppy propaganda. She makes no attempt to look fairly at the evidence and the arguments. She fails to cite evidence that substantiates her claims. And yet she remains the darling of the anti-GMO movement, which speaks volumes about that movement.

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