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 criticized in the essay is Vandana Shiva. This is Part Two – read Part One here

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 hard times, but GMO foods have thrown a wrench into the works.[i] 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 Vandana Shiva does in her non-profit organization Navdanya.

Despite Specter’s claim that India has not permitted GMO foods, his article appeared a month after India approved a number of genetically modified food plants for field trials.  Field trials involve open-air release of genetically modified foods. GMO food crops cannot be contained once they are released.  An article on the current Indian controversy suggests that biotech companies “hide behind a smokescreen of benevolence.”[ii]

Specter focuses on Bt Cotton bringing positive changes for Indian farmers, but this crop cannot be reasonably compared with non-Bt GMO foods.  Bt, as Specter explains, is a bacterium otherwise used as an organic pesticide.  Bt DNA has been genetically inserted into the cotton plant, acting as an imbedded pesticide as the plant grows.  Bt toxin ruptures insect digestive systems.[iii]  The U.S. EPA approved Bt corn in 2003, and due to the potential for pests to develop resistance, regulations require a “refuge” of non-Bt crops near Bt plantings, though compliance has diminished.  In other words, farmers are decreasingly using preventative measures, giving pests a greater chance of adapting to resist Bt.  Chemical companies are already dealing with super-pests by developing and selling pesticide regimes more toxic than their predecessors.

China recently dropped its research after five years of study on Bt rice for unknown reasons, though a journalist blamed activists’ “paranoia.”[iv]  Beyond Bt GMOs, other food crops have been genetically modified to withstand higher applications of pesticides, increasing the potential for pesticide-related health risks for farmers and workers.  Whereas Specter’s Indian farmers reported lower incidence of sickness using Bt cotton due to using fewer pesticides, it is safe to say that the opposite would be true for most non-Bt GMO food crops.  A great number of GMO crops are modified expressly to live despite larger doses of toxic pesticides, which kill all other plants and pests, but are considered safe for our food supply.  Shiva finds that troubling.

Specter seems to roll his eyes at political resistance to Golden Rice, a GM crop designed to include Vitamin A, presented as a key to solving malnourishment among the world’s poor.  Agricultural researchers studying an African region with Vitamin A deficiency found that a traditional green plant provided an excellent source of Vitamin A, but that few people ate it due to Westernization of the traditional diet.  This plant continued to grow like a weed, despite its neglect.  An Iowa State University study showed that malnourished women would need to eat sixteen pounds of Golden Rice per day to meet dietary requirements of Vitamin A.  A normal diet of three half pound portions per day would provide only ten percent of daily needs, six percent if breastfeeding.  These amounts are contingent on the diet including other nutrients (fat, protein, zinc) that are required for the body to absorb Vitamin A, which sadly are not dependable among the malnourished, for whom Golden Rice was purportedly designed.[v]  Golden Rice may play a part, but it is not a panacea for solving world hunger and malnourishment.

Specter allows a single detractor to govern the tone of the latter part of the article, slandering Shiva via her former colleague Mark Lynas.  Specter quotes Lynas as saying, “she is a demagogue who opposes the universal values of the Enlightenment.”  Firstly, demagoguery is emotive, biased, dictatorial view.  Shiva is a powerful voice, surely, but not a dictator.  She apparently misses the mark with some fact checking, if Specter’s sources are correct, but anyone who has lived under dictatorial rule knows that the violence, intimidation, and anti-democratic ethos is a uniquely soul-crushing environment that Shiva’s world simply cannot resemble.

Lynas appears to be concerned about Shiva’s critique of scientific progress and reason, while downplaying her embrace of other Enlightenment values like freedom and equality.  In her many publications, Shiva explains her focus on “earth democracy” and “seed freedom.”  Earth democracy is a system of mutuality with nature, in which all living beings, including humans, share an equal contribution to the fullness of life.  All living beings are of value not for their monetary, resource value, but for their intrinsic value as participants in our shared earth.  Seed freedom is an ethical statement about the direction of the food system, critiquing those whose vision of progress focuses on the financial bottom line to the detriment of, for example, the poor, the future of soil health, and farmer self-sufficiency. I must ask: how many men have defamed and detracted from the significant contributions of women by critiquing their emotionality and questioning their reason?  Specter sadly repeats the overplayed mime of “don’t listen to that woman; she can’t think straight.”  How sad to insult half of humanity in this thoughtless way.  His loss.

Vandana Shiva works to empower farmers to grow heritage seeds and maintain seed independence.  She criticizes agribusiness corporations that have a record of steering the agricultural sector toward economic consolidation into superstructures with unwieldy power and profit-making motives.  The patenting of seeds is not science fiction, and the intention of patenting is to concentrate the privilege of creating these seeds into fewer hands.  Shiva is correct when she notes that food security reflects the opposite notion.  The fact that many American farmers have been pressured to stop saving seed, but rather buy it each year, is an odious marker of flagging farmer self-sufficiency.  Saving seed has been key to farmers engaging in agriculture since the end of the Paleolithic period, so this change is truly remarkable.

Shiva is not a perfect person, but neither was Mother Theresa.  To momentarily draw a parallel, Shiva and Mother Theresa both saw profound injustice and dedicated their lives to addressing it.  Mother Theresa fed the hungry of Calcutta as best she could.  Shiva goes another step to try to safeguard food access for peasant farmers through seed banking, plus political action to ensure that local farmers retain some control over their livelihoods.  Comparing Shiva and Mother Theresa reminds me of the adage, “You can give someone a fish, or you can teach her/him to fish.”  Both are necessary, but one leads to self-reliance.

Monsanto is not entirely evil, as some food activists may cast it to be.  That said, their public relations image is not equivalent to their central goals.  Monsanto invests significant money into their technological innovations, and through their business practices, they hope to recoup these costs.  They may even hope to feed the world with their innovations.  But if you think this is what drives their business strategy, I have a farm to sell you in New York.

[i] 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.

[ii] Colin Todhunter, “GMO Food Crops in India: BJP Government Grants the ‘Green Light’ to Monsanto and the Biotech Conglomerates,” Global Research, Centre for Research on Globalization, 25 July 2014, Web resource: (Accessed 25 August 2014).

[iii] US EPA, “Pesticide Fact Sheet: Plant Incorporated Protectant (PIP) MON 89034 x TC1507 x MON 88017 x DAS-59122-7,” US EPA Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances (7501P), 29 November 2011. Web resource: (Accessed 25 August 2014).

[iv] Dennis Normile, “China Pulls Plug on Genetically Modified Rice and Corn,” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 20 August 2014. Web resource: (Accessed 25 August 2014).

[v] Kristen Hessler, Ross Whetten, Carol Loopstra, Karen Pesari Penner, Sharon Shriver, Robert Ziegler, Jacqueline Fletcher, Melanie Torrie, Linda Guarino, Gary Comstock, “Case Study: Golden Rice,” The Biotechnology Outreach Center at Iowa State University, Reprinted from Life Science Ethics, Chapter 15A, edited by Gary Comstock, Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 2002. Web resource: (27 August 2014). A second edition was released in 2010 by Springer.

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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3 replies

  1. Thanks for a second informative post.

    Regarding Enlightenment values, I would say that Shiva is critiquing them. I am sure she is in favor of freedom and equality. However, she is criticizing the notion rooted in modern (enlightenment) science that nature is mere matter for “man with his reason” to use as he sees fit. She is advocating a paradigm shift in which nature is understood to be living system composed of interdependent beings or life forms. In this paradigm living ecosystems should be respected and traditional wisdom of those who have lived with the land should be respected.

    I don’t think you can counter Specter from within the Enlightenment system of values. What is called for is a shilft in values. Man is not the center of the universe. Reason is not able to solve all problems. For a beginning.


  2. “Earth democracy is a system of mutuality with nature, in which all living beings, including humans, share an equal contribution to the fullness of life. All living beings are of value not for their monetary, resource value, but for their intrinsic value as participants in our shared earth.”

    The definition you give here for “Earth democracy,” thanks, Sarah, is identical to what is also called “deep ecology.” Both ways of naming it are important — the ecological science is essential, but the ethics of bio-democracy, via bio-diversity, is equally important. In terms of environmental preservation, the more varied perspectives we can work with, the better.


  3. A related article: The Alliance for Natural Health posted an article this week saying that thanks to Monsanto’s herbecide half of children will be autistic in about a decade. How did the world become so scary? Is it 1348 again and do we have a new Black Death coming?


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