August 19, 2014
Vandana Shiva, The New Yorker, and cold hard facts: Debunking the myths behind GMO “debate”

Genetically modified cotton grown from Monsanto seeds.

For years, media coverage of genetically modified foods (GMOs) has been dominated by simplistic coverage that media watchdogs would fondly describe as “he said, she said” stories, or stories that quoted one person making a sensationalist claim of some sort (e.g. “The earth is flat”), and another person responding to it, and just leaving it at that. It’s no wonder that such journalism has left the world little wiser in in its understanding of GM seeds and foods.

The latest edition the ‘‘New Yorker’ magazine finally breaks the mould, with one of the most well researched and carefully analysed pieces of investigative journalism in years. It takes a good, hard look at one particular individual responsible for many of the most misleading and reckless statements about GMOs and juxtaposes her claims with facts in a way that leaves no doubt which side is telling the truth and which disdains facts.

In ‘Seeds of Doubt – An activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops’, Michael Specter, a long time and highly respected staff writer at The New Yorker, profiles and analyses the claims made by one of the world’s most virulent anti-GMO campaigners, Vandana Shiva.

For those not familiar with Vandana Shiva, she is an author, environmental activist, and anti-globalisation campaigner. As the New Yorker article describes her, she is “a heroine to anti-GMO activists everywhere”. She is a vocal opponent of ‘Golden Rice;’ ( the vitamin enriched rice crop that has the potential to save millions of lives) and regularly takes aim at organisations such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxfam and yes, Monsanto, for their support of the biotech industry. Through a combination of hard cold facts, applied logic, and the ‘real life’ experiences of farmers in India, the article systematically debunks some of her most misleading and dangerous claims.

One of her most dangerous claims is that GMOs and Glyphosate are directly linked to the rise in autism in recent years, and to diseases such as kidney failure, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. These claims have been largely left unchallenged by some media. But in this article, Mr. Specter sets the record straight: “Hundreds of millions of people, in twenty-eight countries eat transgenic products each day, and if any of Shiva’s assertions were true, the implications would be catastrophic.” The article goes on to explain that “no relationship between Glyphosate and the diseases Shiva mentioned has been discovered.”

As the article so succinctly puts it, what Shiva is in reality doing, is ‘confusing’ “correlation with causation.” This ‘confusion’ is all too common amongst the anti- GMO activists, and most of the time, they get away with it. This article doesn’t, and goes on to highlight just how ridiculous those claims are with the rather ironic fact that “the growth in sales of organic produce in the past decade matches the rise of autism, almost exactly.” The article continues to debunk the illogical, and dangerous claims, pointing out that “since 1996 when the (GMO) crops were first planted, humans have consumed trillions of servings of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, and have draped themselves in thousands of tons clothing made from genetically engineered cotton, yet there has not been a single documented case of any person becoming ill as a result. That is one reason that the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the advancement of Science, the World Health Organisation, the U.K.’s Royal Society, the French Academy of Science and the European Commission and dozens of other scientific organisations, have all concluded that foods derived from genetically modified crops are as safe to eat as any other food.”

The article also challenges, and dispels, one of the most reprehensible claims by Shiva and her followers–that of the “suicide seed.” We’ve discussed these deplorable claims previously on the blog here and also on our corporate website.  Specter also draws a line in the sand on these claims,  echoing  statistics published earlier this year,  and pointing out that “The suicide rate (in India) has not risen in a decade” and “the suicide rate among Indian farmers is lower than for other Indians, and is comparable to that among French farmers.”  The article then goes one step further, explaining that the underlying causes of this ongoing tragedy are in fact, social and economic. The article quotes Suman Sahai, a geneticist, environmental activist, and the founder of a Delhi-based, farmers’ rights organization, the ‘Gene Campaign’, who plainly says that “studies have shown that unbearable credit and a lack of financial support for agriculture is the killer. It’s hardly a secret.”

The article continues on the issue of ‘seed saving’ and the claims that Monsanto does not allow farmers to save seeds for replanting (one of the “antis'” core claims for the rise of suicide rates), the article lays out a truth that no one from the anti- brigade will ever admit: “The (Indian) Farmers Rights’ Act of 2001 guarantees every person the right to ‘save, use, sow, re-sow, exchange, share or sell’ his seeds. Most farmers, though, even those with tiny yields, choose to buy newly bred seeds each year, whether genetically engineered of not, because they ensure bigger yields and bigger profits.” (This is in fact the case everywhere, not just in India, even though the article only focuses on India).

In fact, as Mr. Specter writes, the reality of genetically modified farming in India is that farmers are overwhelmingly choosing (i.e. willingly) to buy, and farm, genetically modified seeds. Bt cotton, one of the most vilified of all crops, is a prime example of that. As the article states, “In India, more than seven million farmers, occupying twenty- six million acres, have adopted the technology. That’s nearly ninety per cent of all Indian cotton fields.” On the claim of rising cotton seed costs, the article is clear: “The prices of modified seeds, which are regulated by the government, have fallen steadily. While they remain higher than those of conventional seeds, in most cases, the modified seeds provide greater benefits. “The article continues “according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, Bt farmers spend at least 15 per cent more on crops, but their pesticide costs are fifty per cent lower. Since the seed was introduced, yields have increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent.” Let’s just savour those figures in numerals:  15 percent higher price, for a 50 percent reduction in pesticide costs, for a yield increase of 150 percent.  Most investors would kill for such returns.

On the argument that all anti-GMOs come back to time and time again–that genetic modification is ‘un-natural,’ the article is similarly blunt and serves up a big dose of reality–“for thousands of years, people have crossed sexually compatible plants and then chosen among their offspring for what seemed like desirable characteristics.” The article continues with the plain facts on the foods and plants we buy every day: “nearly all the plants we cultivate–corn, wheat, rice, roses, Christmas trees–have been genetically modified through breeding to last longer, look better, taste sweeter or grow more vigorously in arid soil. A walk through any supermarket would demonstrate, nearly every food we eat has been modified, if not by genetic engineering, then by more traditional cross-breeding, or by nature itself. Corn in its present form wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t cultivated the crop.”
These are just some of the myths and realities of GMOs that the article explores, challenges and routinely debunks.

For anyone who has an interest in agriculture, food, poverty and the realities of GMOs, this is a must read. And for anyone who is questioning the use of GMOs in agriculture and is looking for some answers, this might just be the authoritative article that gives you the answers you’re looking for.