Vandana Shiva’s latest effusion against Monsanto Company in particular and genetically modified organisms in general appeared in this publication on Monday, and I feel obliged to respond. In a past column, I discussed Shiva’s deception regarding her educational qualifications, and the use of science as an ideological tool. Environmentalists uphold the scientific consensus when it suits their belief system, as it does with regard to global warming, and reject it when it does not, as happens with the issue of the safety of genetically modified organisms.
In the present article, I want to focus narrowly on issues related to GMOs, and I have included chunks of Shiva’s own words to ensure I am not accused of taking them out of context, and followed those passages with annotations of my own.
Bad analogies, false oppositions
"Would we allow someone to claim they were the owner of a building only because they moved furniture into it and therefore claim a right to collect rent for it from the landlord?
When we do not allow such illogical claims to become the basis of property law, how can they be allowed to become the basis of ownership of seed and ownership of life?
That, in essence, is the argument against corporations such as Monsanto that deal with Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, such corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds which have now become their property."
Bad analogies are commonly used to pass off false arguments as true, and Shiva starts her article with a whopper. In what way are the years of research spent on developing transgenic crops and testing for their safety comparable to moving furniture into a house? If Monsanto, Syngenta and other corporations claim ownership of the seed and plant, how is it that millions of farmers buy and plant cotton seeds without handing over a paisa to Monsanto? The fact is that Monsanto only collects money for seeds created with its patented technology. It is a voluntary transaction, with the farmer having the option of choosing expensive GMO seeds or inexpensive non-GMO ones.
As for owning "all future seeds", patents, like copyrights, have an expiration date. Just as the end of a pharmaceutical firm’s exclusivity period allows the creation of generic drugs, GMO technology becomes available for public use after 20 years. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean seeds, which account for over 90% of all soybeans grown in the US, came off patent last year, and are now available cheaply to any farmers who want to grow them.
Monsanto has in the meantime developed a better version of the seed which it is offering on the market. Instead of very cheap common seeds and expensive patented seeds, farmers will now have a choice between very cheap common seeds, cheap generic genetically modified soybean seeds and expensive second generation Monsanto seeds. In what universe does this process qualify as having rights over entire plants in perpetuity?
"Seed is the source of life. Life forms, forms of life – plants and seeds – are self-evolving, self-organised sovereign beings. They have Intrinsic worth, value and standing."
While naturally occurring plants and seeds can be called "self-evolving, self-organised sovereign beings", this is far from true of crop seeds. All domesticated cereals, vegetables, fruits and nuts have been carefully bred for hundreds or thousands of years to deliver the maximum nutrition, taste and convenience to humans. The choice between conventionally bred crops and GMO crops is not one between nature and technology as Shiva proposes, because all crops involve the imposition of technology on nature. Her perspective merely reveals a prejudice in favour of old technologies against new ones.
The great farmer suicide lie
"By claiming to be the inventor of these seeds, Monsanto claimed to be the creator and owner of generations of seeds that reproduce themselves for life and the right to collect royalties from farmers.
These claims are illegal, unethical, unjust.
Over 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide because of extraction of illegal royalties. This crime must stop..."
Here’s a chart mapping farmer suicides against the acreage devoted to Bt Cotton, the only GMO crop commercially cultivated in India. Between 2002 and 2007, acreage devoted to Bt Cotton increased from zero to six million hectares. In that period, the rate of farmer suicides barely budged. In recent years, Bt cotton has continued to expand in popularity, going from six million hectares in 2007 to 10.8 million hectares in 2013. In that period, the rate of farmer suicides has actually dropped marginally. The entire idea that Bt Cotton has anything to do with farmer suicides is a figment of the imagination of environmentalists determined to demonise GMO crops, and has been accepted as gospel by Europeans desperate to justify their irrational fear of GMOs. How comforting to blame greedy multinationals for driving poor dark-skinned farmers to kill themselves.
The lie, however, goes further than merely imagining causation in the total absence of even correlation. Look at that chart again. It counts a total of 2,84,694 farmer suicides in India over an 18-year period from 1995 to 2012 (since rates have remained relatively steady, we can assume a similar total from 1999 to 2016). Now read, once again, Vandana Shiva’s claim: “Over 3,00,000 farmers have committed suicide because of extraction of illegal royalties." Shiva is asserting that Monsanto and GMO crops are responsible for every farmer suicide in India in the past 18 years, including those of potato harvesters, wheat growers, rice cultivators, not to mention the tens of thousands who killed themselves before the first GMO cotton seed was planted in India.
This is dishonesty on a Trumpian scale, exacerbated by the fact that she makes it here despite prominent publications like Nature having debunked it in the past. The deception, however, has taken firm root in the world’s consciousness. This Guardian photo feature, for instance, begins with the claim that, “More than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers have killed themselves since 1995.”
Of course, there are bound to have been instances when cotton farmers bought Monsanto seeds, had their crop fail because of drought or infestation by pests that Bt Cotton doesn’t protect against, and committed suicide because of depression or indebtedness. But it’s a fairly low number, as this interesting government study of farmer suicides makes clear. Besides, the rate at which Indian farmers commit suicide is incredibly low compared to urban suicide rates in most countries including India. That’s not to say Indian farmers don’t live very difficult lives, but rather to suggest that suicide rates are a very bad marker of economic distress, social oppression or political disenfranchisement.
The verdict on GMOs
After decades of development and 20 years of practical use, genetically modified crops have seen more failure than success. Only a few varieties of crops such as soybeans, corn and cotton have been widely adopted, and those only in a handful of nations. On the other hand, these few crops in these few nations have achieved startling levels of popularity. In the US, the country most receptive to GMO technology, over 90% of the total acreage devoted to cotton, corn and soybeans is occupied by herbicide resistant GMOs.
The real promise of GMOs, however,remains unrealised. We see hints of it in the development of Golden Rice, a variety of genetically modified rice that includes beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. Four in ten children under the age of five in the developing world suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. Many of them live in rice eating cultures, and could be provided the requisite amount of Vitamin A through their daily staple. The leading cause of preventable blindness in the world and a significant contributor to child mortality could be effectively countered.
Golden Rice is a non-commercial project led by a coalition of universities, NGOs and private firms, the latter having agreed to provide the seeds free to farmers below an earning threshold of 10,000 dollars per year. Progress has been slow, and it could take years yet before yields of Golden Rice make it a viable proposition for ordinary farmers. What’s more disappointing than the slow pace of development is the response of environmentalist organisations such as Greenpeace. Greenpeace treats Golden Rice as the equivalent of a gateway drug, the thin end of the wedge that opens markets up for other supposedly exploitative or dangerous crops.
Two months ago, a group of 111 Nobel Laureates signed a petition urging Greenpeace to reverse its short-sighted opposition to biotechnological innovations in agriculture. Most of the Laureates got their award in one of the sciences, and 41 of them received the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine. These are people who understand the mechanics, and the potential benefits and hazards of GMOs as profoundly as pretty much anybody in the world.
The petition stated:
“Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption… Greenpeace has spearheaded opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia.”
Vandana Shiva’s view of Golden Rice?
“Vitamin A rice is a hoax, and will bring further dispute (sic) to plant genetic engineering where public relations exercises seem to have replaced science in promotion of untested, unproven and unnecessary technology. The problem is that vitamin A rice will not remove vitamin A deficiency (VAD). It will seriously aggravate it.”
Shiva blames the Green Revolution for introducing Vitamin A deficiency to India, and says a diet rich in coriander, amaranth, carrot, jackfruit and mango can supply more than enough Vitamin A. That’s the Indian equivalent of “Let them eat cake”, because had India’s poor been able to afford amaranth, carrot, jackfruit and mango, we’d have no malnutrition crisis in the first place.
A time will come when GMOs fulfil their potential. An exciting new gene editing technology called CRISPCas9 seems certain to revolutionise the field and bring new challenges for regulators. It’s a pity that the entire Green movement has been on the wrong side of history during this process, having chosen fear-mongering and denialism over serious engagement and balanced criticism.