A café in Brussels, early winter, 2013. A wide-ranging conversation hones in on the current state of India. My companion Lissa, placing her cup of flat white back in its saucer, says, “Farmers in India are committing suicide because of genetically modified crops, right?”

“Well, not quite”, I reply, and try to explicate the many causes of agricultural debt. She remains unconvinced.

Murugan Idli shop, Besant Nagar Beach, Chennai, February 2014. A conversation about the state of India turns to the familiar subject of farmer suicides. My companion, Pierre-Yves, asks, “Genetically modified crops are causing the deaths, right?”

I reply, “Well, not quite”.

Europeans distrust genetically modified organisms. The European Union has legalised only one variety meant for human consumption, and that was back in 1998. Individual member states have since demanded the right to ban GMOs even after they pass stringent EU tests. In the US, meanwhile, the corn and soya harvest is now dominated by genetically modified varieties.

Frankenstein food

The European fear of “Frankenstein food” is perfectly understandable, in the manner of many phobias. That does not make it rational. Perhaps to cover up the fact that their national policies are based on vague fears rather than sound science, Europeans seek GMO-related horror stories to justify their beliefs. None does the job as well as the tale of poor Indians driven to suicide by the evil Monsanto corporation.

The person most responsible for cementing the GMO-suicide link in European minds is the environmentalist Vandana Shiva. She is given to statements like,“270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market… It’s genocide.” Responding to to Natasha Gilbert’s May 2013 article in Nature  which debunked the myth of GM crops causing farmer suicides, Shiva began  by touting her qualifications as a “quantum physicist”. She then made this mind-boggling statement: “As a scientist, I have tried to understand what is driving our small farmers to suicide. Two things are evident. One, the suicides begin with the period of globalisation which allowed MNC’s entry into India’s Seed Sector, making seeds a non-renewable ‘input’, to be bought every year.”

The suicides begin with the period of globalisation? Perhaps Shiva believes it’s only suicide if it makes the papers. Peasants have been falling into debt and ending their lives for as long as money lending has existed in Indian villages, which is thousands of years. There’s no evidence that the rate of suicides has risen since 1991, although the issue has finally received the media attention it deserves.

Shiva is in the news following Michael Specter’s long article in the New Yorker about her anti-GMO jihad. In her response, she side-steps the main issues, just as she did in her reply to Gilbert. Having refused to answer direct questions Specter put to her about her educational qualifications, she quotes the title of her doctoral thesis, but fails to say if it was submitted to the physics department at the University of Western Ontario. It seems to have been a Philosophy of Science dissertation, which would mean she was never a scientist, let alone, “one of India’s leading physicists” as her book jackets claim.

The prevarication about her education becomes relevant because Shiva has consistently highlighted her physicist background as a source of scientific authority. It could be ignored if she actually followed anything approaching a scientific method. Instead, when confronted with all the data pointing to the safety of GM crops, and to the absence of any connection between GMOs and farmer suicide rates (see the chart in Natasha Gilbert’s article), she questions the sources of the data. Companies like Monsanto, she says, “control the entire scientific literature of the world.” The world’s most widely respected publications such as Nature, Science, and Scientific American, “have just become extensions of their propaganda. There is no independent science left in the world.”

This attitude, unfortunately, is not confined to Shiva, but is held by large sections of the environmentalist movement. It is a conspiracy theory in which the bad capitalist corporation dominates everything, corrupts everything. Shiva makes explicit in her response to Specter that she views the corporation as a direct extension of European imperialist power: The British were responsible for the Bengal famine of the early 1940s, and Monsanto has effected a comparable contemporary genocide.

There is no objective way of disproving the idea that the system of science has been corrupted, because there is no objective way of disproving anything. All one can show up is internal inconsistencies and self-contradictions. When it comes to the most pressing environmental issue of our time, which is undoubtedly climate change, environmentalists, Shiva included, take the scientific literature at face value, while right-wingers of all stripes argue anthropogenic global warming is a hoax perpetrated by compromised scientists. When it comes to the safety of GMOs, on the other hand, Greens reject the scientific consensus out of hand. This is the central hypocrisy of several environmentalists: they tout the science when it suits their ideology, and dismiss it when it doesn’t.

The Irrationalist Left

I have discussed this issue with friends I respect who lean green, and they often say, “I see your point, but we need people like Shiva to argue for the alternative, since the dominant ideology is so powerful.” In this view, one kind of extremism is necessary to battle another in order to reach a happy mean. It is not necessarily a bad argument, except that it fails to consider what happens when the marginal resistance gains power. There are many examples of this at the sub-national level, and one tragic instance of the lunatics taking over the asylum in a large country. I’m referring to South Africa under Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki rejected the established scientific consensus about the cause of AIDS, insisting it was dictated by White corporations bent on exploiting Blacks just as colonialists had done. It’s a mode of argument central to various factions of what one might call the Irrationalist Left (which includes post-colonialists, environmentalists, gender feminists, and new agers). Science is racist, patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist, and anti-nature. To counter this perceived bias in science, Mbeki appointed scientific advisors who denied that HIV caused AIDS and was treatable with antiretroviral therapy. His health minister advocated traditional, natural remedies instead of treatments developed by evil pharmaceutical corporations. In the first five years of this millennium, according to a Harvard study, over 330,000 South Africans perished as a direct result of Mbeki’s crackpot ideas. Some 35,000 babies were born with HIV despite mother-to-child transmission being easily preventable.

You want a genocide driven by policy rather than weapons? You’ll find it in Thabo Mbeki’s embrace of Irrationalist Left conspiracy theories, not in Monsanto’s marketing of Bt cotton.