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Vandana Shiva on the politics of food safety

The celebrity activist and eco-feminist speaks at Dalhousie

 

Shiva spoke at Dalhousie's Ondaatje Auditorium. • • • Photo supplied by Roger Brush
Shiva spoke at Dalhousie’s Ondaatje Auditorium. • • • Photo supplied by Roger Brush

You could have heard a pin drop.

From the moment she took the stage, Vandana Shiva had the audience in the palm of her hand. The Indian-born environmentalist kept the crowd enthralled for about an hour, before receiving a rock star-worthy standing ovation.

In the last decade, Shiva has emerged as an international icon in the movement criticizing both the biotech industry and industrial agriculture. More recently, she’s been touring North American campuses and collecting honorary degrees along the way.

She was invited to speak at the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network Conference in Halifax this week, and agreed to deliver a special lecture at Dalhousie by the same token.

Last Wednesday, Shiva disputed the claims that genetically modified seeds are safe and can help solve world hunger. According to Shiva, who holds a PhD in philosophy, these claims are carefully fabricated lies propagated by an all-controlling oligarchy of biotech corporations and their political allies.

She particularly vilified Monsanto, an American biotech giant, whose activities are allegedly causing an “international disease epidemic”.

“Monsanto is making products designed to kill. They originated as a company that made chemicals for war; their only expertise is killing,” she said.

Shiva described GMOs as a system of corporate control over seeds, and says the seed monopoly created by the industry is causing an “epidemic of farmer suicides” in her native India.

In the last decades, the biotech industry has spent billions of dollars engineering and patenting genetically modified seeds in an attempt to develop high yielding pest-resistant crops, as well as pesticides and herbicides to which the unique seeds are resistant.

Shiva said Monsanto and other biotech companies have been catalysts for conflicts around the globe, including the ones in Syria and Ukraine.

“In neither of these war hotspots is the food story told,” she said. In 2013, one of the conditions for Ukraine to join the EU and access a $17 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund was to lift their ban on GMOs.

“The conflict in Ukraine became an issue of the West vs. Russia, but really it was about people vs. global corporations,” she said.

Shiva said the negative health and environmental impacts of GMO crops have been proven by peer-reviewed scientific studies, some of which she’s conducted herself.

“Industrial agriculture would collapse without fossil fuels. In 2008, when the oil prices went up, the fertilizer prices went up, and large quantities of fertilizer were held back,” she said.

The debate on GMO foods has polarized scientists around the globe. Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, is an outspoken opponent to Shiva’s anti-GMO crusade.

“When these seeds were developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s they were exhaustively tested, and the FDA approved these. There hasn’t been one single case of illness or deaths related to these foods … that’s 17 years of human consumption,” he said in an interview with the Gazette.

He denied that scientists are being bought by Monsanto, a claim that Vandana Shiva has often made.

“No one tells me what to research, and no one tells me what to publish. If I found something that showed that this stuff was dangerous, I would publish it tomorrow. That would be the biggest story I could publish in my lifetime,” he said.

In her lecture, Shiva said glyphosate, a herbicide used by industrial farmers to kills weeds, is poisoning our diets and causing myriad of diseases, including autism.

Folta firmly argued that Shiva is basing her argument on a highly-criticized and suspect literature review.

“The researcher is not a biologist, but a computer scientist, and she used the magic of correlations to scare people. She shows the rate of autism in the USA, and goes, here’s the rate of glyphosate use, and draws conclusions,” he said.

Folta also disputed Shiva’s claims that GMO crops, especially Bt cotton (a genetically modified variety of cotton that produces an insecticide) are harming the environment.

“The Bt gene only affects one kind of pest. When you have a targeted built-in resistance, you now don’t have to fly a plane over the field to spray it pesticide that kills everything. If anything they’ve shown since the bt has been implemented, you have more diversity in the field, and fewer chemicals introduced to the environment,” he said.

He says Bt resistance, an issue Shiva raised last Wednesday, could easily be prevented in India if farmers planted refuge areas.

“When farmers are given transgenic seeds, you’re supposed to do 90% of the field in transgenic seed, and another 10% conventional. It genetically dilutes out resistance,” he said.

Folta also said Shiva’s claims surrounding the spike in farmer suicides have been debunked by scientific studies, and that the high regulatory climate has made it too expensive for smaller companies to enter the market, which in turn helps maintain the seed monopolies.

Folta said he will be touring universities himself, many of whom have already invited Shiva to come speak.

“I’m following her in her heels,” he said.

In an interview with the Gazette, Shiva dismissed Folta’s rebuttals.

“Those studies are based either on Monsanto data or half truth. Indian farmers wouldn’t be ending their lives if they had better income,” she said.

She said the argument that resistance could be prevented by refuges is immoral.

“Indian farmers have tiny plots of land. They shouldn’t carry the burden of slowing down resistance, when really it’s about an irresponsible deployment of technology,” she said.

She also referred to her detractors as “lobbyists for Monsanto,” and called Folta’s arguments about Bt cotton “silly”.

“I’m an ecologist, I have looked at what Bt cotton has done to the soil and 22% of the beneficial organism were gone from the soil after 4 yrs of planting,” she said.

“The United Nations appointed me to frame the international law on biosafety. They wouldn’t have appointed me if I didn’t have some sort of expertise.”

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