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Vandana Shiva: From Physicist to Anti-GMO Activist

By Matthew DiLallo - Sep 1, 2015 at 5:05PM

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Anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva has risen as a star in the fight against GMOs.

Vandana Shiva. Photo credit: greensefa via Flickr.  

Environmental activist Vandana Shiva has made a name for herself by fighting against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Her methods and her logical reasoning really resonate with those that want to rid the world of GMOs. That said, those on the other side of the debate believe that she isn't telling the whole story.    

Who is Vandana Shiva?
Indian born Vandana Shiva is among the leaders of the crusade to keep farming pure by fighting against genetic engineering, intellectual property rights, and other more modern farming methods and technology. She started out as a physicist after graduating with a bachelors and masters in science from Panjab University in the early 1970s before subsequently working for the Bhabha Atomic Research Center. She then moved to Canada in the late 1970s where she earned a PhD in philosophy.

It wasn't until the late 1980s when she attended a conference on biotechnology and the future of food that she changed her course. She was troubled by what was said, recalling that,

I realized they want to patent life, and life is not an invention ... They want to release G.M.O.s without testing, and they want to impose this order worldwide. I decided on the flight back I didn't want that world.

In order to fight back she returned to India and started Navdanya, which means "nine seeds" with a mission to "protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, and to promote organic farming and fair trade." It is a mission that has led to fierce opposition of the companies that are pushing for change, especially Monsanto (MON), which Shiva has leveled severe accusations against.

Not without her detractors
One of the most serious accusations she leveled on the company is that Monsanto's introduction of Bt cotton in India, which is modified to resist the bollworm, has led to a dramatic increase in suicides among farmers. She has gone as far as to call it a genocide saying that,


Photo credit: Roy Luck via Flickr. 

Farmers are dying because Monsanto is making profits — by owning life that it never created but it pretends to create. That is why we need to reclaim the seed. That is why we need to get rid of the G.M.O.s. That is why we need to stop the patenting of life.

Shiva has alleged that the company's practices are directly correlated to hundreds of thousands of suicides among Indian farmers since Bt cotton was introduced. These suicides, however, are not due to any physical or mental issues from the seeds, but are said to be happening because farmers became so deeply in debt from purchasing expensive seeds that they see no other way out than to take their own life.

That being said, it is just one of her many accusations against GMOs that has drawn a lot of criticism. The New Yorker, for example, wrote a very critical piece last year on Shiva that was entitled Seeds of Doubt, which picked apart many of her accusations against GMOs. It pointed out that, contrary to Shiva, there has statistically been no meaningful change in the suicide rate of Indian farmers since the introduction of Bt cotton. This was based on a 2011 study on the suicides which concluded that, "Available data show no evidence of a 'resurgence' of farmer suicides. Moreover, Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India." That effectiveness confirmed an earlier study in 2006 that found that Bt cotton increased yield by 31%, decreased insecticide sprays by 39% and increased farmer profitability by 88%. Moreover, the 2011 study found that the suicide rate was actually lower among Indian farmers than other Indians and was about the same suicide rate as that of French farmers. 

Shiva, according to her detractors, has instead used the overall trend of a rise in the number of suicides and attributed it to a rise in Bt cotton being planted in India without factoring in rising population or other issues like the lack of crop insurance and access to farm credit. As such, she is said to be using a logic fallacy known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc, which confuses correlation with causation. In other words, the rise in the number of suicides could be simply due to population growth instead of the growth in Bt cotton usage.  

Investor takeaway
Once a physicist, Vandana Shiva changed her course when she became aware of the potential future dangers of GMOs. Over the years she has become one of the more well-known opponents to GMO's as she has levied several very serious accusations against companies like Monsanto that are leading makers of GMOs. However, some of her arguments appear to have serious flaws, which has led to some discrediting of her work. 

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