We’ve already looked at the promotion of pseudoscience to gain wealth and power by Vani Hari “Food Babe,” Mike Adams, and Dr. Oz. On the international scene, there’s an even more dangerous person: Vandana Shiva, wealthy promoter of food fear and anti-GMO pseudoscience.
Human beings have an innate fear of contamination (dirty or diseased food, for example.) Modern quacks play on this by targeting unfamiliar food ingredients or agricultural techniques for demonization; it is quite easy to make scientific-sounding allegations about unknown chemical names or genetic engineering techniques, present yourself as the heroic bearer of truths food businesses want to repress, and then reap the benefits of power and wealth that come from your skill at swaying the easily hoodwinked.
The New Yorker has a wonderful deep-dive story on Vandana Shiva by Michael Spector. If you don’t have time to read it all, here’s some good bits:
Shiva has a flair for incendiary analogies. Recently, she compared what she calls “seed slavery,” inflicted upon the world by the forces of globalization, to human slavery. “When starting to fight for seed freedom, it’s because I saw a parallel,” she said at a food conference in the Netherlands. “That time, it was blacks who were captured in Africa and taken to work on the cotton and sugarcane fields of America. Today, it is all of life being enslaved. All of life. All species.”
Shiva cannot tolerate any group that endorses the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, no matter what else the organization does, or how qualified its support. When I mentioned that Monsanto, in addition to making genetically engineered seeds, has also become one of the world’s largest producers of conventionally bred seeds, she laughed. “That’s just public relations,” she said. She has a similarly low regard for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has taken strong positions in support of biotechnology. Not long ago, Shiva wrote that the billions of dollars the foundation has invested in agricultural research and assistance poses “the greatest threat to farmers in the developing world.” She dismisses the American scientific organizations responsible for regulating genetically modified products, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Department of Agriculture, as little more than tools of the international seed conglomerates.
At times, Shiva’s absolutism about G.M.O.s can lead her in strange directions. 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. She also wrote to the international relief agency Oxfam to say that she hoped it wasn’t planning to send genetically modified foods to feed the starving survivors. When neither the U.S. nor Oxfam altered its plans, she condemned the Indian government for accepting the provisions.
On March 29th, in Winnipeg, Shiva began a speech to a local food-rights group by revealing alarming new information about the impact of agricultural biotechnology on human health. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that in two years the figure of autism has jumped from one in eighty-eight to one in sixty-eight,” she said, referring to an article in USA Today. “Then they go on to say obviously this is a trend showing that something’s wrong, and that whether something in the environment could be causing the uptick remains the million-dollar question.
“That question’s been answered,” Shiva continued. She mentioned glyphosate, the Monsanto herbicide that is commonly used with modified crops. “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.”
Hundreds of millions of people, in twenty-eight countries, eat transgenic products every day, and if any of Shiva’s assertions were true the implications would be catastrophic. But no relationship between glyphosate and the diseases that Shiva mentioned has been discovered. Her claims were based on a single research paper, released last year, in a journal called Entropy, which charges scientists to publish their findings. The paper contains no new research. Shiva had committed a common, but dangerous, fallacy: confusing a correlation with causation. (It turns out, for example, that the growth in sales of organic produce in the past decade matches the rise of autism, almost exactly. For that matter, so does the rise in sales of high-definition televisions, as well as the number of Americans who commute to work every day by bicycle.)
Shiva refers to her scientific credentials in almost every appearance, yet she often dispenses with the conventions of scientific inquiry. She is usually described in interviews and on television as a nuclear physicist, a quantum physicist, or a world-renowned physicist. Most of her book jackets include the following biographical note: “Before becoming an activist, Vandana Shiva was one of India’s leading physicists.” When I asked if she had ever worked as a physicist, she suggested that I search for the answer on Google. I found nothing, and she doesn’t list any such position in her biography.
“Shiva is lionized, particularly in the West, because she presents the romantic view of the farm,” Conway said. “Truth be damned. People in the rich world love to dabble in a past they were lucky enough to avoid—you know, a couple of chickens running around with the children in the back yard. But farming is bloody tough, as anyone who does it knows. It is like those people who romanticize villages in the developing world. Nobody who ever lived in one would do that.”
Everyone had a story to tell about insecticide poisoning. “Before Bt cotton came in, we used the other seeds,” Rameshwar Mamdev told me when I stopped by his six-acre farm, not far from the main dirt road that leads to the village. He plants corn in addition to cotton. “My wife would spray,” he said. “She would get sick. We would all get sick.” According to a recent study by the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, there has been a sevenfold reduction in the use of pesticide since the introduction of Bt cotton; the number of cases of pesticide poisoning has fallen by nearly ninety per cent. Similar reductions have occurred in China. The growers, particularly women, by reducing their exposure to insecticide, not only have lowered their risk of serious illness but also are able to spend more time with their children.
“Why do rich people tell us to plant crops that will ruin our farms?” Narhari Pawar asked. Pawar is forty-seven, with skin the color of burnt molasses and the texture of a well-worn saddle. “Bt cotton is the only positive part of farming,” he said. “It has changed our lives. Without it, we would have no crops. Nothing.”
The all-encompassing obsession with Monsanto has made rational discussion of the risks and benefits of genetically modified products difficult. Many academic scientists who don’t work for Monsanto or any other large corporation are struggling to develop crops that have added nutrients and others that will tolerate drought, floods, or salty soil—all traits needed desperately by the world’s poorest farmers. Golden Rice—enriched with vitamin A—is the best-known example. More than a hundred and ninety million children under the age of five suffer from vitamin-A deficiency. Every year, as many as half a million will go blind. Rice plants produce beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, in the leaves but not in the grain. To make Golden Rice, scientists insert genes in the edible part of the plant, too.
Golden Rice would never offer more than a partial solution to micronutrient deficiency, and the intellectual-property rights have long been controlled by the nonprofit International Rice Research Institute, which makes the rights available to researchers at no cost. Still, after more than a decade of opposition, the rice is prohibited everywhere. 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. (Earlier this year, vandals destroyed some of the world’s first test plots, in the Philippines.)
Note the pattern: a wealthy elite use populist politics (based on feeding the fears of the ignorant) to gain more power for themselves. If their programs (no trade or technology, local sources only, no intellectual property) were ever to be implemented, billions would starve and the world would revert to a static, repressive subsistence economy. The damage they do by preventing development of better crops and agricultural methods, as well as blocking trade and investment wherever they can, is already enormous. Can we call this evil? You could argue that such memes are well-meaning and continue to flourish because of a lack of understanding of complex economic systems and trade webs; for example, Gandhi’s emphasis on village self-sufficiency (“A free India for Gandhi meant the flourishing of thousands of self-sufficient small communities who rule themselves without hindering others. Gandhian economics focused on the need for economic self-sufficiency at the village level.”) was at the time motivated by antipathy to a British India’s mercantilist exploitation of poor Indian farmers. But to argue this today when only agricultural technology saved millions from starvation in the late 1960s (when Norman Borlaug’s improved wheat varieties doubled the subcontinent’s wheat production) is worse than irresponsible.
Reason’s science writer Ron Bailey decries her in a much quicker read. A few good bits:
I have long been tracking the career of lies and disinformation that constitute the anti-intellectual trajectory of virulent anti-biotech activist Vandana Shiva. For example, back in 2001, I reported:
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.
“We call on the government of India and the state government of Orissa to immediately withdraw the corn-soya blend from distribution,” said Vandana Shiva, director of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology. “The U.S. has been using the Orissa victims as guinea pigs for GM [genetically modified] products which have been rejected by consumers in the North, especially Europe.” Shiva’s organization had sent a sample of the food to a lab in the U.S. for testing to see if it contained any of the genetically improved corn and soy bean varieties grown by tens of thousands of farmers in the United States. Not surprisingly, it did.
“Vandana Shiva would rather have her people in India starve than eat bioengineered food,” says C.S. Prakash, a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Writer Mary McCarty famously said of Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Nothing truer could be said of Shiva.
In a superb article, International Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology researcher Anand Ranganathan nicely summarizes Shiva’s legacy of dishonesty and outright fabrication. Below are some representative quotations from Shiva along with some analysis by Ranganathan:
Shiva: “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…”
Shiva: “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.”…
So she is also a Third-Wave feminist: appeals to emotion and victimhood replace reason and science, though she pretends to be a scientist. Technology is supposedly a tool of the Patriarchy and oppresses women!
This tide of unreason, funded by governments, foundations, NGOs, and academia, threatens the future progress of humanity.
Other posts on pseudoscientific quacks:
Cleanses and Detox Diets: Quackery
Mike Adams: Quack Suggests Murdering Monsanto-supporting Scientists
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Quack
More on Quacks: “Dr. Oz” Testifies He’s a Victim!
Vani Hari, “Food Babe” and Quack: Where the Money Comes From
Vani Hari: “Food Babe” and Quack