Sep 22 2014

Vandana Shiva and GMOs

A recent New Yorker article by Michael Specter does an excellent job of putting the activism of anti-GMO campaigner, Vandana Shiva, into perspective. Shiva has since written a very critical response to Specter, and The New Yorker has responded to Shiva. The exchange is very enlightening.

Shiva is a dedicated anti-GMO activist, perhaps the most widely known and successful in the world. Specter paints a picture of Shiva as more than an ideologue – a “demagogue” who has created a dramatic narrative that is meant to frighten the public about GMOs, but has little to do with reality. For Shiva, her anti-GMO stance is part of a broader economic and social ideology. In her vision of the world, local farmers would feed the world with organic farming, without fertilizer or corporate involvement. The actual science about GMOs seems to be irrelevant to her narrative.

Specter illustrates several example. There are definitely religious undertones to her activism. For example, Specter quotes her from a speech earlier this year:

“G.M.O. stands for ‘God, Move Over,’ we are the creators now,”

Shiva’s tweets have often been notorious, such as this one comparing selling GMO seed to rape:

#MarkLynas saying farmers shd be free to grow #GMOs which can contaminate #organic farms is like saying #rapists shd have freedom to rape.”

When criticized for this tweet, Shiva responded:

“We need to move from a patriarchal, anthropocentric worldview to one based on #EarthDemocracy,”

It’s clear she has what most people would consider an extreme political view, mixed with religious sentiments. I actually have no problem with that – people can believe whatever they want. They can advocate for the values and morals that suit them.

I think it’s a strength of an open society that many points of view can be championed. We are all better off if no one has absolute power and if various interests are being championed, keeping an important check on each other. Hopefully a good compromise will emerge.

What I do have a problem with is the other feature of Shiva that Specter discusses – getting the facts wrong. She uses dubious science and questionable claims in order to support her ideological position. As I have pointed out many time, this is a double failure. It puts misinformation out into the public, and it squanders the credibility of her own position (which, even if I disagree with it, has its place in the discussion).

Specter recounts a number of pseudoscientific positions that Shiva has used to defend the purity of her message. I get that this probably makes her more effective as an advocate – reality is a mess, and it complicates communication. Here are some examples of Shiva’s reality-challenged rhetoric:

“Fertilizer should never have been allowed in agriculture,” she said in a 2011 speech. “I think it’s time to ban it. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. Its use is like war, because it came from war.”

With regard to the apparent increase in autism, she wrote:

“That question’s been answered. If you look at the graph of the growth of G.M.O.s, the growth of application of glyphosate and autism, it’s literally a one-to-one correspondence. And you could make that graph for kidney failure, you could make that graph for diabetes, you could make that graph even for Alzheimer’s.”

She also continues to perpetuate the myth that Monsanto is responsible for Indian farmer suicides, even though the evidence is soundly against her. (I discuss this issue further here.)

Even though she selectively quotes from scientific studies as it suits her narrative, she can also be utterly dismissive of any evidence she finds inconvenient:

In a recent speech, Shiva explained why she rejects studies suggesting that genetically engineered products like Pental’s mustard oil are safe. Monsanto, she said, had simply paid for false stories, and “now they control the entire scientific literature of the world.” Nature, Science, and Scientific American, three widely admired publications, “have just become extensions of their propaganda. There is no independent science left in the world.”

This, of course, is the “shill gambit” with which science communicators are all-too-familiar. Mark Lynas is a journalist who started out anti-GMO, but eventually decided to really take a look at the scientific evidence and was convinced to change his mind. He now calls out the anti-GMO community on their conspiracy claims.

In that regard they are no different than the anti-vaccine community or the global warming denial community. All will invoke a grand conspiracy that the entire scientific community is systematically wrong because they are controlled by outside interests (for vaccines and GMO it’s corporate interests, and for AGW it’s government and leftist interests).

Two cases dramatically illustrate the negative effects of Shiva’s extreme ideology trumping even a basic respect for science and reason. The first is the Orissa disaster:

In 1999, ten thousand people were killed and millions were left homeless when a cyclone hit India’s eastern coastal state of Orissa. When the U.S. government dispatched grain and soy to help feed the desperate victims, Shiva held a news conference in New Delhi and said that the donation was proof that “the United States has been using the Orissa victims as guinea pigs” for genetically engineered products.

Essentially, there was an unusual emergency leaving millions of people homeless and potentially starving. Oxfam and the US sent emergency food supplies to relieve the refugees, and Shiva decided that what was most important was that the corn and soy they sent contained GMO. Rather than simply make an exception in extraordinary circumstance, she saw this as an attempt by the US to illegally import GMO into India, and moved to block it. She is a purist of the highest order – not in a good way.

Shiva characterized the move as an attempt to “force feed” GMO to Indians. I wonder if starving refugees offered food would have felt “force fed.” Maybe they could just eat cake?

The second issue that brings the ideology of Shiva and others into view is Golden Rice. I discuss this issue here, but to summarize: Golden Rice is a GMO rice with genes added to produce beta carotene in the rice itself (normally rice only produces it in the leaves). The GMO is in the hands of a non-profit which is making it available openly. There are no environmental issues, no issues of cross contamination, no issues of pesticides. There are no human health risks as beta carotene is a vitamin A precursor and known to be safe.

In other words – all the usual objections of anti-GMO activists are simply not relevant here. There is no legitimate reason to be against the development and deployment of Golden Rice. There are also plenty of reasons to be for it. Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of blindness and death in the developing world. Efforts to provide vitamin A rich foods are underway, but inadequate.

Rice is a staple food in much of the world, but it is nutritionally very poor. Adding beta carotene would make this staple food into an important source of vitamin A. This would likely not entirely solve the problem but can be hugely effective. Shiva opposes Golden Rice on purely ideological grounds. Specter reports:

Two economists, one from Berkeley and the other from Munich, recently examined the impact of that ban. In their study “The Economic Power of the Golden Rice Opposition,” they calculated that the absence of Golden Rice in the past decade has caused the loss of at least 1,424,680 life years in India alone.

She is condemning millions to blindness and death by opposing an effective intervention based only on ideological purity.

At a certain point, good intentions no longer matter. When you are an influential activist on the world stage, you have a responsibility for the positions you take. You have a responsibility to get it right.

Those who oppose Golden Rice have only the weakest of arguments, as they are deprived of any actual objections. They argue that it may not work, or that other interventions may work. That’s really all they have. Meanwhile, other methods are already being used and are not adequate, and the current evidence shows that Golden Rice will be an additional useful tool.


As with many of the politically controversial issues that skeptics and science communicators typically deal with, there are a variety of ideological positions and differing values that people will have. A vigorous discussion on such issues can be highly valuable.

Unfortunately, most people seem to think that being entitled to their own opinion means they are also entitled to their own facts. Motivated reasoning kicks in. We crave the simplicity that occurs when the facts all align with our ideology. However, life is rarely ever so simple.

With regard to agriculture there are actually many difficult issues to contend with, and we are far from implementing optimal solutions. It is a challenge to feed earth’s billions without harming the environment, and in a way that achieves an optimal and fair distribution of food, and meets the demands of everyone involved, from the farmer to the consumer.

We have problems with the overuse of monoculture, the inevitable development of pests and diseases, of resistance to whatever methods we use to fight pests and diseases, of fertilizer runoff, effects on local insect species, maintaining food safety and nutrition, and sustaining the soil and water supply – all while feeding a growing population on finite arable land.

Our best hope is for everything to be on the table, and to use a variety of methods, including availing ourselves of the best our technology has to offer. All of this needs to be strictly evidence-based.

Here, ideology is our collective enemy. Shiva would have her followers believe that we can feed the world with small farms using organic farming without fertilizer. Only the most extreme ideologues think this is anything but utter nonsense, or that following such a plan would result in anything other than the starvation of millions.

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