Demagogues, Scientists, or Saints: Michael Specter’s Neglected Territory in the Global Food Landscape of Vandana Shiva and the Biotech Industry by Sarah E. Robinson

sarah robinson

Photo credit: Matt Blowers

Written in response to Michael Specter’s article, “Seeds of Doubt: An Activist’s Controversial Crusade against Genetically Modified Crops” in The New Yorker (August 25, 2014). The activist whose work he criticizes is renowned Indian scientist and ecofeminist Vandana Shiva. This is Part One of two. 

In Michael Specter’s article in The New Yorker, “Seeds of Doubt: An Activist’s Controversial Crusade against Genetically Modified Crops,” the author was remiss in omitting overarching narratives in the global food conversation, as well as vital details to clarify the agricultural and ethical landscape in which food scholar-activist Vandana Shiva works.  In his celebration of genetic innovation, Specter ignores sciences, such as agroecology, that criticize and co-exist with biotechnology.  Most appallingly, Specter repeats a slanderous remark against Shiva without challenging its accuracy.  While I appreciate Specter’s attempt to weigh both sides of an issue, as a non-profit director seeking food security for peasants, Shiva cannot be compared with deep-pocketed agribusinesses, which must first attend to a financial bottom line before meeting any humanitarian goals that may be quite honest, despite the smell of greenwashing.

Specter’s article is dubiously well-timed to belittle the hard work of anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) activists and policymakers in Vermont who face legal challenges to a GMO labeling law passed in April 2014.  State-level GMO labeling has become an important political issue in the U.S., as other states prepare ballot measures and similar legislation.  Consumers in the E.U., Australia, China, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the U.K. have already either banned or required labeling of genetically modified foods.  Just like the so-called “debate” over climate change, the conversation on food safety continues with a hefty dose of political maneuvering. 

Specter fails to report on the level of waste in contemporary food systems. Questioning the capacity of non-industrial agriculture to “feed the world,” Specter cites past starvation before the Green Revolution and future mouths to feed increasing to ten billion.  Despite industrial agriculture’s global dominance and PR promise to feed all people, chronic malnutrition or hunger affects nearly a billion people globally today.  Global hunger is not due to lack of food on the planet, but rather problems of distribution and waste.

In 2011, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization revealed that about one third of food grown for humans becomes waste, a humbling 1.3 billion metric tons each year.[i] In the global South, food waste is largely due to issues of spoilage and damage from farm to fork, without adequate refrigeration and packaging.  In the global North, food waste derives from the sad excess of food at the consumer level: at restaurants, in overpacked refrigerators, and in the grocery store norm of unblemished produce.  Food waste also releases methane from landfills, a more powerful contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide.

Beyond the startling statistics on food waste, various other food issues play centrally in food studies, such as the absurd levels of global transport of perishable food using fossil fuel.  With the rising specter of global climate weirding, these “food miles” are taking center stage for locavores, who eat food produced within a short radius of home.  In discussions about global hunger, vegetarians remind us that the land used to grow grain to feed animals could easily transition to feeding people, instead.  Even among avid meat eaters, meatless Mondays are increasing in popularity.[ii]  Of course, this is even before touching on issues of animal welfare, increasing antibiotic resistance, pathogen spread and food recalls, and other challenges posed by the far from idyllic life of factory-farmed animals.

In any case, the food is there; the logistics and political will for equitable distribution are not.  Hungry people will exist as long as people with food access ignore them.

Specter confuses the terms of genetic modification, muddying rather than clarifying the difference between breeding (techniques which involve matching plants or animals that are sexually compatible) and the post-1996 commercialization of genetically engineered life forms (laboratory insertion of genetic material from one plant or animal into another).  Breeding shapes the contours of agricultural history, with plants and animals adapted to a specific region. These adaptations reflect both natural and human elements including water availability, seasonal weather, and culinary preferences.

Genetic engineering (GE) or genetic modification (GM) involves genetic science, splicing the DNA of one life form into another, without any precedent in nature.  This is both an exciting scientific feat and a dubious legacy. What unintended consequences might arise for the animal or plant and for their unique role in the landscape and web of life now and into the future?  Will animal genes spliced into plants produce new forms of sentience?  Nothing is alone in this world, and as we change the genetic contents of our fellow earthlings, we increase the unpredictability of life on our evolutionary earth, while intending to do benefit. We simply won’t know the ecological consequences until it is too late.

For this reason, environmental ethics from the late 1990s echoed with the Precautionary Principle, the notion that the safety of genetic innovations must be proven before they are widely or commercially released.  In the U.S., we have generally considered inventions innocent until proven guilty.  This legal philosophy works well for people, but not as favorably with potential pollutants.  Within a decade of release, GMO corn pollen has spread widely on the wind to hills in Mexico where corn originated.  Wild and ancient varieties of corn represent the cradle of Mesoamerican civilization.  The robustness of corn-based cultures is at stake with the danger that ancient forms may no longer grow untainted by genetically modified strains.[iii]  GMO corn pollen may also negatively affect pollinators, like bees and butterflies.

The diversity of our food base increases our potential to continue to eat as we face a variety of weather conditions, droughts, floods, and such.  This is the wisdom behind seed banking, what Shiva does in her non-profit organization Navdanya.  Biodiversity is a crucial feature of a healthy landscape and a resilient foodscape.  Agroecologists and others work to ensure that humanity can lean on our food diversity in harder times, but GMO foods have thrown a wrench into the works.[iv]

More to follow in Part II – stay tuned! 


[i] FAO, Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes, and Prevention, Rome, Italy: UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2011. Web resource: (Accessed 25 August 2014).

[ii] Karl Hamerschlag, Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health, Environmental Working Group, July 2011, Web resource: (Accessed 27 August 2014).

[iii] David Quist and Ignacio H. Chapella, “Transgenic DNA Introgressed into Traditional Maize Landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico,” in Nature 414:29 (November 2001), 541-543.

[iv] Maria Alice Garcia and Miguel Altieri, “Transgenic Crops: Implications for Biodiversity and Sustainable Agriculture” in Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 25:4 (August 2005), 335-353.

Sarah E. Robinson is a scholar of religion, sustainable agriculture, and women’s studies.  She is completing her doctoral work at Claremont Graduate University, studying Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists engaging in local, sustainable agriculture projects in the United States.  She is a fifth generation Californian.  

Categories: Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, Ethics, General, Nature, Resistance, Social Justice

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5 replies

  1. Vandana Shiva questions the whole notion of development, calling it maldevelopment. In her view, rural subsistence economies are sustainable, but they do not produce excess commodities for profit. Thus they are not counted in capitalist economic paradigms. Starvation is generally the result of war or the conversion of traditional agriculture into “for profit” agriculture, including diverting rivers and turning to single (often non-native) crops for export. This puts the profit in the hands of the few and puts subsistence in harmony with the land out of the hands of the many. It ignores traditional environmental knowledge, it is not sustainable, and its by-product is environmental degradation.

    In my experience in Greece, it was war that caused starvation. Without war, the subsistence economy is sustainable, people are not rich, but they share what they have, and in many ways they are happier than those of us who depend on “buying” our happiness in the form of goods we do not really need.

    But this cannot be comprehended or appreciated from within the dominant capitalist paradigm, so no wonder the incredibly brilliant and wise Shiva is being portrayed as a misguided kook.

    What is needed is a paradigm shift.

    Thanks for introducing this subject on FAR.


  2. Thank you for this excellent post, drawing our attention to the important subject of food production. Looking forward to Part 2.


  3. A very informative post, thanks for the good work!!

    Interesting question — “Will animal genes spliced into plants produce new forms of sentience?” It sounds absurd, but I sometimes sense awareness in trees and other plants, along with something magnificent in the way of a plant having a “presence,” all on its own, as an individual.

    A search on the Net this morning yielded a surprising statistic. The Center for Food Safety states that “approximately 75% of processed foods on the market — from cereal to soda to baby formula — contain genetically modified ingredients.” I had no idea the biotechnology in the supermarket was so extensive. Wow!!


  4. Thank you for this post and for your clear explanation of the distinction between breeding and genetic engineering. Almost all the arguments I have heard for genetic engineering obfuscate the difference, disingenuously insisting that genetic engineering in nothing new and is in fact time-honored. Thanks for your passion and your clarity.


  5. Thank you for drawing the clear distinction between breeding abd genetic modification. I will find this very helpful in conversation with my friends, who blur the difference, making it hard to have a serious and commited discussion. I can hardly wait for part two.


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