Vandana Shiva vs GM Foods - examining the battle lines and fallouts of this war.
Vandana Shiva is a chain reaction that cannot be stopped. It can only be witnessed from a safe distance. The process of achieving critical mass was a slow and arduous one and to understand it one has to go back to her formative years in activism. It is a journey few have taken – a pity for it expounds unmistakably her rabid opposition to GM Foods and science in general.
Back in the early 1980s Vandana was, along with Ashis Nandy and Shiv Vishwanathan, at the forefront of a bizarre Alternate Science movement. It helped that none among them was a practising scientist. Indeed, they prided themselves in being anti-rationalist, anti-enlightenment, and violent opponents of “scientific temper” In a book of essays: Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, Vandana wrote, “Contrary to the claim of modern science that people are ultimately the beneficiaries of scientific knowledge, people – particularly the poor – are its worst victims.” Essentially, these intellectuals were out to “question the superiority of the method of science as against the collective wisdom of Indian people.” They tried to explain rational thought and scientific temper through Reductionism, calling it the root cause of colonialism and patriarchy and something that turned women into passive objects. “The nexus between modern science and violence is obvious from the fact that eighty per cent of all scientific research is devoted to the war industry and is frankly aimed at large-scale violence,” noted the young Vandana, refusing even then to provide a single citation. This war on science reached its zenith in Vandana’s most famous book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development .
“The parochial roots of science have been concealed behind a claim to universality, and can be seen only through other traditions – of women and non-western peoples. It is these subjugated traditions that are revealing how modern science is gendered, how it is specific to the needs and impulses of the dominant western culture and how ecological destruction and nature’s exploitation are inherent to its logic.”
From every page, from almost every paragraph, the battle-cry is audible – that modern science has made Mother Earth, women, and colonised cultures passive and powerless.
This careful mixing of pop-psychology with environmentalism and feminism is a masterstroke, for it brings together to the vanguard, like placard-carrying tributaries of frothing-from-the-mouth peoples, the two major streams of twentieth-century protest culture. That it is dangerous is not quite obvious at first sight. Feminism remains a laudable counter-weight to patriarchy, in literature, in science, even in politics. It may have run its course in the West but not so in India. Vandana knew this.
“Science and masculinity were associated in domination over nature and femininity, and the ideologies of science and gender reinforced each other. The witch-hunting hysteria which was aimed at annihilating women in Europe as knowers and experts was contemporous with two centuries of scientific revolution. It reached its peak with Galileo’s Dialogue…”
There we have it, the missing piece in the Strangelove jigsaw. Witch-hunting coincided with scientific revolution. For woman and earth to be emancipated, science had to be made the villain. On such foundations was Navdanya established. Requests for appearances and lectures poured in, so did donations, until Vandana likely realised anti-science rants could damage the long-term prospects of an environment NGO. It is true – the unsure gladly lend an ear to a pseudo-scientific theory, but are swayed by it only when they trust the credentials of its source. Baba Ramdev, for example, can slam GM Foods and animal-testing and rare-earth mining as much as he wants – and people will listen – but then they’ll dissipate chuckling and shaking their heads.
And so, a physics MSc graduate who had earned her PhD in philosophy became a scientist: “Yes, I am an ecologist and feminist. But I am also a scientist…a trained Quantum Physicist” . The philosopher also never bothered to correct gushing interviewers and a hundred others from churning out artful biographical sketches -“…Vandana would follow her hero, Albert Einstein. She would become a physicist…Nuclear physics was Dr Shiva’s chosen specialty…”, or “Dr. Shiva completed her PhD on the ‘Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory’…”
The messiah was now impossible to handle. She termed economic growth as anti-life, called inserting a gene into a seed as “polluting it”, opposed development and poverty reduction initiatives, saying that the ‘natural’ state of poverty is preferable for Africans and Indians, talked of sterile seeds even though the use of such seeds is banned worldwide, and when the Intelligence Bureau furnished proof that her NGO – having previously received Rs 12.78 crore from Canada, Italy, Germany, Sweden and even Pakistan – hadn’t filed its Foreign Contributory Statement for the year 2013-14, she accused the IB of “conspiring with global corporate interests to haemorrhage India’s agricultural economy”. Some scientist.
In the directory Pubmed, where millions of peer-reviewed research papers are catalogued, the search string Shiva_V brings up only four entries, none of which describe original scientific research work. Reading through one such entry –The seed and the earth. Biotechnology and the colonisation of regeneration, one finally understands Dr. Shiva’s hatred for science and in particular Biotechnology.
“The invasion and take-over of land as colonies was made possible through the technology of the gunboat; the invasion and takeover of the life of organisms as the new colonies is being made possible through the technology of genetic engineering. Biotechnology, as the handmaiden of capital in the post-industrial era, makes it possible to colonise and control that which is autonomous, free and self-regenerative.”
Insulin, Hepatitis vaccine, Antibiotics, Erythropoietin, Herceptin, Taxol, Stem cells – consigned all to the dustbin of imperialism.
It gets worse.
“Scientific missions colluded with religious missions to deny rights to nature. The rise of mechanical philosophy with the emergence of the scientific revolution was based on the destruction of concepts of a self-regenerative, self-organising nature which sustained all life. Just as technology changes seed from a living, renewable resource into mere raw material, it devalues women in a similar way.”
This is no ordinary grouse but a requiem for Galileo and, as we shall now see, a paean for Gaia.
“We have to make a choice,” pleads Dr Shiva, “Will we obey the market laws of corporate greed or Gaia’s laws for maintenance of the earth’s ecosystems?” What next – Cultural learnings of Intelligent Design for make benefit glorious nation of farmers? For the uninitiated, Gaia hypothesis states that “Life moderates the planetary environment to make it more favourable for life.” In other words, Mother Earth is a throbbing, breathing, living entity complicit in life’s propagation itself. Darwin be damned, it is the third rock from the sun that regulates survival of the fittest. Here, then, was yet another hypothesis waiting its turn to shake hands with feminism and environmentalism. It is unfortunate that Dr. Shiva, a Gaia associate and someone who features prominently in Gaia Foundation and Gaia University activities, hasn’t found time to acquaint herself with Prof Tyrrell’s authoritative discourse on Gaia. His book, On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth, lays bare what many scientists have long suspected, that Gaia confuses cause and effect. As one study puts it, “Climate stability might be a precondition for a complex biosphere rather than climate stability being the consequence of a complex biosphere”. Richard Dawkins, in his excellent book The Extended Phenotype calls Gaia a fatally flawed attempt to apportion evolution onto a web of connections. “It is an extreme form of the BBC Theorem.” The planet does not yield an offspring; the planet is not a product of Darwin’s evolution; its inhabitants are.
Recently, a supporting hypothesis called CLAW – touted as a validation of sorts for Gaia – was debunked, leaving Gaia-ites gasping for air. But the Pillars of Hercules are constantly being shifted to make Gaia acceptable to the wider scientific community – Gaia Hypothesis, Gaia Theory, and there is even something called a Weak Gaia. Gaia is evolving; the irony isn’t lost on some.
It could very well be that Dr. Shiva’s faith in Gaia has allowed her to term India’s Green Revolution an unmitigated disaster. “It has often been argued that the Green Revolution provided the only way in which India could have increased food availability. Yet, until the 1960s, India was successfully pursuing an agricultural development policy based on strengthening the ecological base of agriculture and the self-reliance of peasants. The term high-yielding varieties, HYV, is a misnomer”. While Dr. Shiva is right to an extent, in that the continuance of practices adopted during the Green Revolution have since caused havoc, it is grossly unfair on her part to label the revolution itself one big failure. Today, almost 100% of Indian wheat lines possess remnants of HYV genes. Between 1970 and 1995, after much of Asia had adopted HYVs, the incomes doubled, calorific intake jumped by 30 per cent, and poverty reduced by a quarter despite steep population growth. It was because of the Green Revolution that many countries including India escaped finally from the clutches of devastating famines. This wasn’t always so. Post-independence, hunger and disease were wide-spread leaving us perennially at the mercy of American wheat imports – the so-called PL-480 programme. Many countries doubted our capacity to feed our people; “basket-case”, they called us. The HYVs Lerma Rojo-64A, Sonora 63, Sonora 64, and Mayo 64, procured in 1963 from Dr Borlaug changed all that. So when Dr. Shiva claims, “Hunger and malnutrition are hardwired in the design of the industrial, chemical model of agriculture”, it is simply not true. We as a nation were saved at the gates of hell by the Green Revolution; we owe a debt of gratitude to those who made it possible. Its dreadful consequences three decades later, evident in Punjab and elsewhere, have their reasons – “It became Greed Revolution not Green Revolution” – but the phenomenal contribution of HYVs to independent India’s history cannot be denied.
Dr. Shiva also doesn’t like Golden Rice (or Vitamin A rice), a genetically-engineered variety that can provide much-needed Vitamin A to malnourished children in Africa and Asia. “Vitamin A rice is a hoax”, she says. “Vitamin A rice will not remove vitamin A deficiency. It will seriously aggravate it. This is a recipe for creating hunger and malnutrition. It appears as if the world’s top scientists suffer a more severe form of blindness than children in poor countries.” Citing a peer-reviewed study, Dr. Shiva then alleges, “The promoters of Golden rice admit that it produces only 35 micrograms per 100 mg of rice. Biodiversity and ecological agriculture offers us alternatives that are 3500% richer in vitamin A than Golden Rice. Golden Rice will actually decrease Vitamin A availability compared to the alternatives. Table 6.12 Gives sources rich in vitamin A used commonly in Indian foods”.
Table 6.12 lists methi-ka-saag, bandh gobi, and kaddu as containing 450, 217, and 120 micrograms of vitamin A per 100 gram portion respectively. Debate over.
Not quite. The Golden Rice portion quoted by Dr. Shiva was in milligrams not grams. Equated to the same SI units, a 100 gram portion of Golden Rice would contain 35,000 micrograms of vitamin A, way beyond saag or kaddu and comparable to the amount present in cod-liver oil.
Scientific debates, however, are not occasions to gloat over falsifications, deliberate or otherwise. The scientists were talking of 35 micrograms of beta-carotene, not vitamin A. For the correct picture one needs to read the citation carefully. It turns out that a 100 gram portion of Golden Rice would provide 500-800 micrograms of retinol (human form of vitamin A) representing 80-100 per cent of Estimated Average Requirements for adults, and that as little as a 50 gram portion would take care of 90% vitamin EAR (275 micrograms retinol per day) for children. Indeed, not only does the Golden Rice portion meet a child’s daily requirement, its beta-carotene is as good as the one present in oil at providing vitamin A.
But it was too late. Dr. Shiva’s essay went viral and was duplicated on innumerable anti-GMO platforms like Seedfreedom and GMwatch. Needless to say, such deceits act as a tonic for anti-GMO protestors, some of whom take the next logical step of burning and vandalising Golden Rice trial fields. Scientists have estimated that opposition to Golden Rice has resulted in as many as 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India.
Perhaps the most scathing indictment of Dr. Shiva’s claims comes from an article in the scientific journal Nature that takes a dispassionate look at GM Foods, and in doing so exposes the falsehood that Bt cotton has led to genocide. Has it? The short answer is, no. Dr Shiva’s assertion runs counter to the study carried out by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Their report, Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India, shows irrefutably that the rate of farmer suicides has remained constant over the past decade, even as the area under Bt cotton cultivation has shown a dramatic increase, not to mention an equally dramatic jump in cotton production. Yet another scientific study, Economic impacts and impact dynamics of Bt cotton in India, published in the prestigious journal PNASc, shows that India’s switch to Bt cotton has led to a “24% increase in cotton yield per acre through reduced pest damage and a 50% gain in cotton profit.”.
Unfortunately, Dr. Shiva’s rebuttal to the damning Nature article is as dense as it is incoherent. “Yes, I am an ecologist and feminist”, she begins, “But I am also a scientist – a fact (Nature) intentionally avoids mentioning. As a Quantum Physicist, I have been trained to look at the interconnectedness and non-separability of processes, which in a mechanistic and reductionist paradigm, are seen as separate and unrelated…Reality cannot be cooked up in papers, no matter how prestigious the journals in which these concoctions are published. Reality is what happens in reality…”
Not only does Dr. Shiva stick to her earlier claim – “It is, indeed, a genocide,” she also junks the peer-reviewed PNASc study, stating: “Every statement of (that study) is false as shown from both our field studies and studies of India’s parliament and leading scientific institutions.” Dr. Shiva does not provide any citations of her “field studies” or those conducted by “India’s parliament”. Why should she? The beauty of pseudo-science is that it beats science hands-down. It is accessible, comprehensible, reachable, even desirable. Granted, it is not logical, responsible, practical, or dependable but then these are lyrics not virtues.
The tragedy is that it need not have turned out like this. Dr. Shiva’s NGO Navdanya has done creditable and pioneering work in the field of seed know-how and Organic Farming. Her scientific ideas concerning these subjects make sense, they really do. Organic Farming (dealt in detail in Part V) is not voodoo, it works and it is good for the environment. Many Indian states such as Sikkim are heavily involved in it.
Even Dr. Shiva’s criticism of the terrible consequences of India’s Green Revolution is valid. None other than the scientist who made it happen acknowledges this, adding that Organic Farming is a worthy enterprise and must form an essential part of what he calls the next step – an Evergreen Revolution. The problem comes when Dr. Shiva claims Organic Farming and GM Foods cannot co-exist, that her solutions for sustainability are the only solutions. This is clearly not the case. Had the world depended entirely on Organic Farming for its needs it would have required an additional 3 billion hectares of land, especially as Organic Farming provides up to 34 per cent lower yields than conventional farming.
Like a proselytiser loathed to extol the virtues of other religions, Dr Shiva refuses to budge from her anti-GMO, anti-science pedestal, even going the extra mile to help foreign NGOs prevent new technologies from reaching the domestic food sector. She likens farmers being given freedom to choose GM Foods to rapists being given the freedom to rape. So it goes.
Vandana Shiva’s mind is made up. A science-hater-turned-philosopher-turned-activist-turned-quantum physicist is busy sowing seeds of doubt among the gullible. Fools who challenge her will only end up supplementing those seeds with the nourishment they need, for they have now taken root and shall one day, just like their progenitor, bloom into magnificent trees laden with lies and deceit, ripe and pluckable. As the Navajo saying goes, you can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.
Author’s note: Some of the statements and quotes have been abridged for want of space. Part IV will examine the science behind Bt cotton, Golden Rice, and other GM Foods.