Vandana Shiva, anti-GMO celebrity: 'Eco goddess' or dangerous fabulist?

Reuters

Vandana Shiva touches a tree before a news conference for the first International Meeting for Friends of Trees in Barcelona June 22, 2007.

Vandana Shiva is a prominent Indian-born environmentalist who has emerged as one of the world’s most prominent critics of conventional agriculture and biotechnology. In the most recent sign of her iconic status, earlier this month, Beloit College in Wisconsin conferred on her a prestigious honor as the Weissberg Chair in International Studies, calling her a “one-woman movement for peace, sustainability and social justice.”

Whether that accurately describes Shiva is debatable—there appears to be a sizable gap between her self-representations and the subjects she claims to be an expert on. However her status as a celebrity activist is not in question. Shiva’s unbridled opposition to GMOs has made her a favorite in liberal and environmental circles. She hopscotches the globe, making frequent appearances at anti-GMO rallies, on college campuses and on lecture tours, most recently last week in Costa Rica.

Shiva has been referred to as a an “eco warrior goddess” by the e-Zine Punk Rock Permaculture, a “rock star in the global battle over genetically modified seeds” by journalist Bill Moyers and a “global sustainability expert” by the University of Kentucky. Time Magazine called her an “environmental hero” in 2003 and Forbes  identified her as one of the Seven Most Powerful Feminists on the Globe in 2010. She has more than 23,000 followers on Twitter and 43,000 on Facebook.

Shiva is perhaps best known for claiming that the introduction of genetically modified cotton seeds in India has led to mass genocide by poor farmers seduced by the ‘false promise’ of GMOs.

“270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she has said. “It’s genocide.”

That’s a remarkable claim, and if true it is a tragedy of staggering proportions. If it’s not, it’s demagogic. What are the facts?

Shiva’s celebrity and her claims

Vandana Shiva was born in the valley of Dehradun in India in 1952. Educated in her homeland, she eventually pursued graduate studies in Canada, receiving an MA at Guelph and a PhD at the University of Western Ontario. A dedicated activist, she founded Navdanya – meaning “Nine Seeds” – more than two decades ago. According to its website, its organizational mandate is “to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, and to promote organic farming and fair trade.” Under her guidance Navdanya has evolved into a national movement.

Shiva is an energetic campaigner against globalization and a vocal critic of agricultural genetic engineering—GMOs. She has written more than 20 books. In Biopiracy, Stolen Harvest and Water Wars, she examined the social, economic and ecological costs of corporate-led globalization. The Violence of Green Revolution and Monocultures of the Mind challenged what she referred to as the dominant paradigm of non-sustainable, reductionist Green Revolution agriculture.

Many prominent intellectuals herald her as a forward-thinking scientist and expert in genetic engineering. When Beloit conferred its honorarium upon her, and in accompanying news releases and the website announcement touting her selection, it prominently noted her “PhD in nuclear physics,” calling her “a recognized expert on agriculture and biotechnology.”shiva

Are those claims accurate?

Shiva believes so. “ I am also a scientist… a Quantum Physicist”, she writes on her Navdanya website. The speakers bureau that represents her identifies her as “a trained physicist.” Hundreds of organizations and prominent journalists, from universities to Bill Moyers to National Geographic (which referred to her as a “nuclear physicist turned agro-ecologist”), have represented her that way.

But those representations are incorrect. According to the University of Western Ontario, where she received her PhD, her doctorate is not in the discipline of physics, as she claims, but in philosophy. It focused on the highly technical and often politicized debate over a central notion in physics known as Bells’ Theorem, which has been called the “most profound” theory in science.

Perhaps foreshadowing her current contentious views about modern agriculture, Shiva concluded that quantum mechanics in physics was philosophically invalid and factually doubtful. The main thesis of quantum mechanics that she challenged has since been confirmed by experimental physics, meaning that her thesis stands at odds with factual reality. Independent of the quality of her philosophical research, it is a substantive leap to go from earning a PhD in the Philosophy of Science to self-identifying as a “scientist,” “nuclear physicist” or “quantum physicist”—the various ways she refers to herself.

Shiva also claims to have written more than 300 papers—a factoid echoed in almost every article or news release about her, including on Beloit’s site.  A query of Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science (research platform for information in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities) returns only 42 records of peer reviewed papers or publications authored by Shiva since 1980.

Shiva subsequently abandoned her formal pursuit of philosophy, switching her focus to agriculture, plant breeding, genetics, biology, toxicology, microbiology, nutrition, social sciences and economics—subject areas about which she has no academic training and has not done any formal research.

Some argue that advances often come from those outside the mainstream of science and therefore she deserves to be heard regardless of her credentials or how they may be represented by her or others. Fair enough, let us consider a few of Shiva’s most prominent arguments.

Failed ‘Green Revolution’?

Golden Rice is rice genetically engineered with higher levels of provitamin A. It was developed by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg. Shiva calls Golden Rice a hoax, a myth and a false solution referring to it as “a blind approach to blindness prevention…..”

“By focusing on only one crop, rice, which by itself does not provide all the nutrients, including higher quantities of Vitamin A than Golden Rice, the Golden Rice pushers are in fact worsening the crisis of hunger and malnutrition,” she writes on Navdanya. “Promoters of Golden Rice are blind to diversity, and hence are promoters of blindness, both metaphorically and nutritionally.”

Is Golden Rice a “hoax,” as Shiva claims?

Almost 700,000 children under the age of 5 die every year from Vitamin A deficiency disease. Golden Rice has been genetically engineered with enhanced production and accumulation of β-carotene in the grains. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that Golden rice contains up to 35 micrograms of β-carotene per gram of rice. A bowl of ~100-150 grams of cooked Golden Rice can provide as much as 60% of the recommended nutrient intake of vitamin A for 6-8 year old children. As little as 20% of the recommended daily allowance can mitigate or eliminate clinical symptoms such as blindness. Golden Rice also has a better conversion ratio for Provitamin A (which is turned into Vitamin A in our bodies) than leafy vegetables, carrots and other crops.

Shiva’s alternate proposed solution for promoting a ‘diversity of diet’ has not worked for the very poor who cannot afford to buy vegetables or fruits, or cannot devote the land on their subsistence farm to grow more of them.

Golden Rice is a product of the public sector with the realistic hope of saving the lives and sight of millions of children in the developing world. Despite its promise to help alleviate hunger, blindness and malnutrition, the vitamin enhanced rice has been met with significant opposition from environmental and anti-globalization activists, including Shiva. In August of 2013, activists converged on an experimental field trial of Golden Rice in the Philippines and violently ripped up the plants.

Shiva is equally dismissive of the Green Revolution. That’s the term given to a series of initiatives pioneered by Norman Borlaug beginning in the late 1940s and blossoming in the 1960s that increased agriculture production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, by promoting high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds and making available advanced synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers.

By 1991, Shiva was publicly calling the Green Revolution “a failure.” More recently, she suggested that it has caused hunger. Industrially produced crops, she writes, are “…nutritionally empty but loaded with chemicals and toxins ….” She claims that “The Green Revolution is chemical-intensive, capital-intensive and fossil fuel-intensive. It must, by its very structure, push farmers into debt and indebted farmers off the land.”

The disjunction between the success of the Green Revolution and Shiva’s disparaging characterization of it is startling, turning reality on its head. Focusing on her native country of India, she has gone so far as to assert that it has caused problems rather than solved them, repeatedly claiming  that it has brought nothing to India except “indebted and discontented farmers.”

Yet, in the 1950s, India was a global agricultural basket case. Prior to the introduction of Borlaug’s technological innovations and new seed varieties, it had suffered more than 60 million famine related deaths. After the Green Revolution took hold, between 1965 and 1970 alone, wheat yields nearly doubled in the countries of India and Pakistan as a result of the embrace of modern agricultural techniques.

The agricultural turnaround in India may have saved hundreds of millions of lives. In 2012-2013, the country produced almost 250 million tons (mt) of food grain, and productivity is still growing. Famine has all but been eradicated and farmers can now cope with predictable periods of drought.

Most controversially, Shiva is also a vocal promoter of the much disputed claim that the introduction of GMOs in India has prompted the suicides of hundreds of thousands of impoverished Indian farmers.

“Suicides have intensified after the introduction of GMO Bt cotton [in India],” she has written.  “…[S]eed monopolies… the collection of super-profits …has created a context for debt, suicides and agrarian distress which is driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in India.”

As Discover blogger and New York University journalism professor Keith Kloor recently noted, Shiva’s claims have resonated with anti-GMO activists around the world. She is credited with inspiring a 2011 movie called Bitter Seeds which claimed to document the genocide supposedly perpetrated by Monsanto, who developed the Bt cotton seeds. The green online magazine Grist extolled the documentary for revealing the “tragic toll of GMOs in India.” Foodie favorite Michael Pollan, who often recklessly recommends anti-GMO propaganda to his legion of followers, called it “a powerful documentary on farmer suicides and biotech seeds in India.”

But Shiva is flat out wrong. She alleges a link between farmer suicides and the adoption of Bt cotton in India where no causal link actually exists. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reviewed the government data, academic articles and media reports about Bt cotton and suicide in India in 2008 and 2010, concluding that farmer suicides predated the introduction of GMOs, reflect the broader trend in suicides in the general population and have in fact leveled off in the agricultural sector in recent years.

“[I]t is nonsense to attribute farmer suicides solely to Bt cotton,” wrote Dominic Glover, an agricultural socio-economist at Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands in an article in Nature last year. “Although financial hardship is a driving factor in suicide among Indian farmers, there has been essentially no change in the suicide rate for farmers since the introduction of Bt cotton.”

Kloor provides a contextualized deconstruction of the ‘suicide myth’ and an analysis of what really has been going on in India’s farm belt in a superb article in the current Issues in Science and Technology, a publication of the National Academy of Sciences.

Is Shiva a demagogue?

Mark Lynas, the British journalist who campaigned for years arm in arm with Greenpeace against crop biotechnology, but more recently abandoned his views refers to Shiva as part of the “lunatic fringe” of the anti-GMO movement. A year ago last January, after Lynas renounced what he now calls his ‘anti-science” past, Shiva rebuked him for saying that farmers should be free to use GMO crops, saying it was like giving rapists the freedom to rape.

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“That is obscene and offensive,” Lynas responded, noting a string of bizarre comments by Shiva—many of them eagerly embraced by her followers and disseminated by credulous journalists from Bill Moyers to Bill Maher. In her public statements, he notes, Shiva often oscillates between exaggeration and deliberate falsehoods. Consider her comments on the so-called terminator, the name given to describe seeds that could be designed to be sterile, so they can only be used once. Shiva constantly invokes the specter of “suicide genes” as part of her stump speech criticism of GMOs.

“The danger that the terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or the natural environment is a serious one,” Shiva has said. “The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet”.

One problem with Shiva’s argument: terminator genes have never been developed; they are a fiction of the anti-GMO movement, perpetuated by Shiva and her followers and the journalists that enable her. As Lynas has written, “You don’t need the intelligence of a Richard Dawkins or indeed a Charles Darwin to understand that sterility is not a great selective advantage when it comes to reproduction, hence the regular observed failure of sterile couples to breed large numbers of children. As Shiva’s case so clearly shows, if we reject data-driven empiricism and evidence as the basis for identifying and solving problems, we have nothing left but vacuous ideology and self-referential myth-making.”

Vandana Shiva’s influence in the world of agriculture, technology and development shows no signs of waning. She continues to receive accolades in the media, collects humanitarian awards and is regularly bestowed with honorary degrees from universities across North America (most recently an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Victoria in Canada).

Shiva says Golden Rice can’t work but published studies show that it does work. She claims Indian farmers commit suicide because of Bt cotton while careful academic studies show that Indian farmers who plant Bt cotton earn more money per hectare and are no more likely to commit suicide than organic farmers. She claims that seed companies are distributing ‘terminator genes’ that will will bankrupt them when no such seeds exist. She claims that no famine existed in India before the Green Revolution when the Indian government itself has published the data on lives lost to starvation.

In overstating her credentials and in spreading her political agenda, Vandana Shiva asks the public to believe she is an expert in agriculture, crop production and genetic engineering. She influences the public debate. She is called upon as an expert witness as legislators, oh so sensitive to public opinion, debate how to best regulate agricultural technology. That’s concerning. At best, Vanda Shiva is a provocative lay observer. She deserves to be judged and listened to based upon the quality of her arguments and the evidence.


Cami Ryan is a Professional Affiliate with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan and advocate for science, farming and consumers. Her blog is a platform for dialogue around current food and agriculture issues. You can follow her on Twitter at @DocCamiRyan and on Facebook.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter.

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