The New Yorker has a fascinating article on Vandana Shiva, a crusader against GMO crops. I’d never heard of her before, but apparently she has charisma and cult-like followers who hang on her every word, and her word is a rather religious opposition to scientific agriculture. Weirdly, I can agree with some of it.
At each stop, Shiva delivered a message that she has honed for nearly three decades: by engineering, patenting, and transforming seeds into costly packets of intellectual property, multinational corporations such as Monsanto, with considerable assistance from the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the United States government, and even philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are attempting to impose “food totalitarianism” on the world. She describes the fight against agricultural biotechnology as a global war against a few giant seed companies on behalf of the billions of farmers who depend on what they themselves grow to survive.
But that has nothing to do with GMOs. I agree that a lot of corporate agriculture is bad for us in the long run; I think the purely capitalistic drive of the major agricultural corporations is damaging. I live smack in the middle of Monsanto-land, and I see this all around me.
Shiva, along with a growing army of supporters, argues that the prevailing model of industrial agriculture, heavily reliant on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, and a seemingly limitless supply of cheap water, places an unacceptable burden on the Earth’s resources. She promotes, as most knowledgeable farmers do, more diversity in crops, greater care for the soil, and more support for people who work the land every day. Shiva has particular contempt for farmers who plant monocultures—vast fields of a single crop. “They are ruining the planet,” she told me. “They are destroying this beautiful world.”
The rivers around here are thick with fertilizers and pesticides. I drove through endless fields of corn, corn, corn this weekend…well, they were corn. Now they’re plowed over, and the naked earth is left bare to receive the rain and snow and Minnesota topsoil will become Caribbean silt, because there is no incentive to maintain and preserve. And when the farmers plant, they will happily accept subsidies to plant nothing but corn, and corn tailored to produce ethanol, no less.
I have a lot of respect for the small family farmers who produce a variety of foods — the kind of folk who show up at our farmer’s market. But there’s also a lot of semi-industrial farming going on, land bought up by gigantic corporations that then lease it to farmers who raise what they’re told to raise, to maximize profits.
So I sympathize. But I think there’s a confusion of issues, of the problem with corporate domination of the agricultural sector with the scientific improvement of our crops. The latter is necessary. This is nonsense:
“We would have no hunger in the world if the seed was in the hands of the farmers and gardeners and the land was in the hands of the farmers,” she said. “They want to take that away.”
The problem there is that with more than 7 billion people on the planet, we need to optimize production. Small traditional farms using traditional methods using genetically unmodified seed stock is a formula for starvation. She’s completely wrong there. The world would go hungry if we followed her recipe.
Again, this is not to say that there aren’t huge problems with the current model. A heck of a lot of the farmland in Minnesota is dedicated not to food, but to making alcohol, inefficiently. Or to producing high fructose corn syrup. But this is going too far:
For her part, Shiva insists that the only acceptable path is to return to the principles and practices of an earlier era. “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.”
Madness. No fertilizers equals billions of dead people. If your goal is to reduce the human footprint on the planet by any means necessary, that’s a good strategy — I’d rather do it with education and contraception, rather than starving people to death, though.
But Shiva is backed by two indisputable authorities: God and Prince Charles. How can you argue with that?
Like Gandhi, whom she reveres, Shiva questions many of the goals of contemporary civilization. Last year, Prince Charles, who keeps a bust of Shiva on display at Highgrove, his family house, visited her at the Navdanya farm, in Dehradun, about a hundred and fifty miles north of New Delhi. Charles, perhaps the world’s best-known critic of modern life, has for years denounced transgenic crops. “This kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone,” he wrote in the nineteen-nineties, when Monsanto tried to sell its genetically engineered seeds in Europe. Shiva, too, invokes religion in her assault on agricultural biotechnology. “G.M.O. stands for ‘God, Move Over,’ we are the creators now,” she said in a speech earlier this year. Navdanya does not report its contributions publicly, but, according to a recent Indian government report, foreign N.G.O.s have contributed significantly in the past decade to help the campaign against adoption of G.M.O.s in India. In June, the government banned most such contributions. Shiva, who was named in the report, called it “an attack on civil society,” and biased in favor of foreign corporations.
I thought this remark was particularly telling, though.
Shiva also says that Monsanto’s patents prevent poor people from saving seeds. That is not the case in India. The Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001 guarantees every person the right to “save, use, sow, resow, exchange, share, or sell” his seeds. Most farmers, though, even those with tiny fields, choose to buy newly bred seeds each year, whether genetically engineered or not, because they insure better yields and bigger profits.
Yes, exactly! GMO crops work better. Even without a corporate lock on their use, farmers prefer to use seed that produces a higher yield. That’s the bottom line: do you want more acreage dedicated to less efficient crops, or reduced acreage producing a surplus?
Furthermore, GMOs actually reduce the use of those “chemicals” so hated by the anti-GMO contingent. This excellent debunking of anti-GMO bias points out that extensive use of GMO crops leads to a significant reduction in the use of pesticides. That’s a good thing, right?
I just wish these arguments could dwell in the land of reason and evidence — too often they don’t.
Shiva and other opponents of agricultural biotechnology argue that the higher cost of patented seeds, produced by giant corporations, prevents poor farmers from sowing them in their fields. And they worry that pollen from genetically engineered crops will drift into the wild, altering plant ecosystems forever. Many people, however, raise an even more fundamental objection: crossing varieties and growing them in fields is one thing, but using a gene gun to fire a bacterium into seeds seems like a violation of the rules of life.
The first part, yes — let’s discuss strategies to break agriculture free of the tyranny of short-term capitalist gain. But the last is simply silly and irrelevant and not fit for consideration. Every crop plant we raise has been radically modified from its original, “natural” state by cruel domestication and mutation and selection. Modern techniques for making directed change to plant genetics are not a “violation of the rules of life”, as if there are such things.