It’s 6 years since I last dabbled in the area of GMO research and thus came across this name. But Vandana Shiva has continued her war on all things GMO in the ensuing years, and as such, has caught the attention of a fairly large and very knowledgeable cohort.
Let’s dig in.
Vandana Shiva, an Indian activist philosopher who maintains the Green Revolution was a failure and promotes small-scale farming to address the growing global food needs, is speaking at the University of Missouri-Kansas City on October 7 as part of its “Social Justice” series. According to Shiva’s website, she is paid $100,000 plus business class travel reimbursement to advocate on behalf of the poor. A group of more than 50 scientists, scholars and communicators, including a Nobel Prize winner and a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have signed a joint letter addressed to the Chancellor outlining Shiva’s misrepresentations.
Below is the letter, the response from the Chancellor, and a response to the Chancellor from Nobel Laureate Sir Richard Roberts:
Date: 28 September 2021
To: C. Mauli Agrawal, Chancellor, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ref.: University of Missouri-Kansas City Social Justice Book and Lecture Series on Oct. 7 with Dr. Vandana Shiva.
We are scholars of life sciences and social sciences who have published many scholarly papers and articles about agriculture, food and related biotechnologies; some of us are science communicators and agronomists.
Perhaps you are unaware of Dr. Vandana Shiva’s constant use of anti-scientific rhetoric to support unethical positions. We are surprised that any science-based and ethically inspired institution would invite her to speak.
Here are just a few examples of her prejudicial, anti-science, anti-social stances:
1. Her astonishing tendency to nonsense
See the absurd statement regarding the supposed functioning of the Genetic Use Restriction technology (GURT), from her book Stolen Harvest (p. 82-83):
Molecular biologists are examining the risk of the Terminator function escaping the genome of the crops into which it has been intentionally incorporated, and moving into surrounding open-pollinated crops or wild, related plants in fields nearby. Given Nature’s incredible adaptability and the fact that the technology has never been tested on a large scale, the possibility that the Terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or to the natural environment MUST be taken seriously. The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a globalcatastrope that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet
She has repeatedly used the same words in other documents in her websites. One may need to read these statements twice, because they are too bewildering to be understood at first sight. In fact, she claims that sterile seeds – which of course cannot germinate – can spread sterility. A middle school student expressing such views would fail the biology exam.
Interestingly enough, I have heard this argument and precaution before. Not from Vandana herself (or in my research), but from my father, him being very much knowledgable of plants and horticulture (though not officially trained or employed in the field). That he would have come across this concern in his journeys online outlines the risk that such misinformation represents. When even people with some knowledge in the area can not tell the difference between science and propaganda, problems are bound to result.
Knowing how complex this entire field of study is to navigate (having done so myself in the past), I don’t blame my father (or anyone like him) for getting lost in the debate. It makes me really feel for the everyday laypeople in which people like Vandana Shiva are really targeting with this stuff. If people with knowledge can’t sort this stuff out, what hope does your grandmother or father have?!
2. Her stunning ignorance
— Dr. Vandana Shiva (@drvandanashiva) March 3, 2014
Somebody should explain to her that Bt proteins are toxic to some clearly identified classes of insects (plant pests), but not to fish, birds, or mammals. See also the scientific papers quoted in response to her delusional Twitter post, in particular, the “classic” study by Ames et al. which clarifies that plants naturally produce substances to defend themselves from pests and 99.99% of pesticidal substances in food are natural – and harmless to humans.
I can also attest to this, having looked into this claim myself (Twice. 1 and 2). If I remember correctly, the toxin was activated in the stomach of insects attacking the corn by the alkaline content of their stomach, but it had no effect on humans since our stomachs are not alkaline. Our stomachs are acidic. Hence, stomach acid.
Let’s just do a quick check for ourselves.
Is Bt Safe for Humans to Eat?
• Bt is a bacterium that is not toxic to humans or other mammals but is toxic to certain insects when ingested.
• Bt works as an insecticide by producing a crystal-shaped protein (Cry toxin) that specifically kills certain
• Bt is naturally found on leaves and in soil worldwide and has been used commercially both in organic and
conventional agriculture for over fifty years.
• Most genetically engineered, insect-resistant crops express one or more Bt insecticidal Cry toxins.
• Over two decades of review, the EPA and numerous scientific bodies have consistently found that Bt and
engineered Bt-crops are not harmful to humans.
What is Bt?
Bacillus thuringiensis (often referred to as simply “Bt”) is a common, naturally occurring bacterium found in soils and
on plant leaves worldwide. First discovered in 1901 in Japan, Bt has revolutionized how we stop insects from eating
our crops. For over fifty years, Bt has been applied directly to a variety of agricultural crops and plants in home gardens
as a living pesticide to control insect pests.
The secret to Bt’s success is a family of proteins that these bacteria produce that specifically target insect digestive
tracts. These proteins are shaped like crystals, so they are commonly called “Crystalline toxins” or “Cry toxins.” These
Cry toxins remain inactive until consumed by an insect. Once digested, the protein is activated and then binds to specif-
ic receptors in insect guts. Once bound, the Cry toxins pierce holes in the insect’s gut, ultimately causing the contents
to leak and the insect to starve. Importantly, humans do not have the same receptors or gut conditions as insects, which
means Cry toxins pass through us with no effect. Studies show that humans digest Cry toxins like any other protein that
would be ingested when eating foods like meat, beans, leafy greens, or tofu.
What are Bt-crops?
Crops that have been genetically engineered to produce Cry toxins are often described with the prefix “Bt” (such as Bt-cotton or Bt-corn), even
though they do not contain living Bt bacteria; rather, they contain genes from Bt for producing insect-specific toxins.
This abstract has a bit more explanation of the role of PH in bt activation.
In general, PFT producing-bacteria secrete their toxins and these toxins interact with specific receptors located on the host cell surface. In most cases, PFT are activated by host proteases after receptor binding inducing the formation of an oligomeric structure that is insertion competent. Finally, membrane insertion is triggered, in most cases, by a decrease in pH that induces a molten globule state of the protein (Parker and Feil, 2005).
I am not a biologist, so most of that sentence (and that scientific paper) is WAY over my head. But decrease in PH tells me that I am not far off from the knowledge of the matter.
Speaking of things related to the BT corn conversation (but unrelated to the current post), it occurred to me years ago that the fear people had of BT corn (and of all corn-containing products) could potentially be causing another issue. The jist of the argument surrounds parents with children and corn-containing foods such as children’s snacks. Since people were freaked out about feeding any corn to themselves (let alone their children), the next most commonly available grain for children’s snacks tends to be rice. And true to that, some corn-fearing influencers (a name they didn’t have back in 2014/1015, but a name that seems to fit best now) listed rice products as a good alternative to corn.
This was a problem for me since much rice is known to contain some level of arsenic. These levels increase in processed rice foods (like chips or cereals). So known is the risk that governing bodies actually have maximum recommendations in terms of rice (in particular, of processed rice products).
Rice is known to often times have MEASURABLE amounts of arsenic. To the point where it is recommended to severely limit the intake of rice and processed rice foods for children. Because very little (particularly for processed foods) can put them at (or above) the recommended limit.
Though I am not 100% sure how the arsenic content of rice and rice based foods compares to the amount of genetically modified genes that constitutes 0.1% of an alfalfa shipment, im almost certain that were talking more then traces. Just by the measurements.
An entire shipping container, verses a bowl of cereal, a few rice cakes or a quart of rice milk.
As always, context is everything.
Fortunately, someone was paying attention, which led to the publication of THIS ARTICLE later. Whether or not my critique had anything to do with its creation is debatable (my ego certainly would love to take credit!). Either way, it’s good to know that not everyone was blindly willing to trade a largely benign hazard for one that was very real.
Anyway, back to why Vandana Shiva is an ideologically biased hack.
3. Her proclivity to outrage
— Dr. Vandana Shiva (@drvandanashiva) January 5, 2013
She compares farmers, who grow crops which are scientifically and legally recognized as safe, to rapists! It’s a grotesque insult to millions of honest workers who use modern technologies to farm more sustainably and efficiently. Understandably, her outrageous abuse raised many angry reactions (see the replies to the same post).
I knew the woman was a nut, but god damn . . . this makes Oprah Winfrey’s feud with the meat industry back in the 90’s look tame.
The American cattle industry was already in the spotlight amid growing concerns of mad cow disease in England, but the queen of daytime talk shows ratcheted up the problems for US beef on a 1996 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
A discussion with animal rights activist Howard Lyman focusing on mad cow disease put the famous talk show host at odds with the American cattle industry.
With Lyman offering his prediction of widespread impact to American beef from the disease, Oprah declared that the conversation had, “stopped me cold from eating another burger.”
Don’t get me wrong, Oprah’s reason for causing that whole fiasco was largely irrational given the state of the beef industry at the time (no disease yet detected in North America). And there are plenty of reasons to adopt a diet with less beef. But fortunately, she rightfully won the lawsuit against her brought by the beef industry.
As irrational as the attitude was, it is in fact protected by free speech.
Either way, god damn . . . Vandana really went there. Despite being born in a nation with a terrible rate of sexual assault, she actually degraded the term rapist.
4. Her rejection of technologies which help farmers (mostly women and children) to alleviate the painful, back-breaking labour of hand-weeding
Indian women selectively do weeding by hand, hereby preserving our biodiversity
This is a preposterous statement; any act of weeding is exactly aimed at eliminating detrimental plant “biodiversity” which, in a field, stifles crops.
It is easy to speak from a pedestal when you are not actually doing the work, after all. Particularly when people are paying you thousands in endorsements for doing so.
Check your privilege, Vandana!
5. As a final treat, a ridiculous statement
Fertilizer should never have been allowed in agriculture. I think it’s time to ban it. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. Its use is like in war, because it came from war.
From a speech in 2011 quoted in the New Yorker and in other websites.
Let us ask her if she is going to ban metallurgy, since it has been used to forge cannons.
This one is almost too idiotic to retort. Since there are probably several thousand ways to approach this, ill settle for 2.
1.) Airplanes (and in particular, jet engines) were also a product of war. This doesn’t stop Vandana from hopping on an airliner and flying to various venues to share her propaganda, however.
2.) Without fertilizer, MILLIONS of people in all areas of the globe would not be alive. I am almost certain that I would not exist without fertilizer. Though it is certainly a major containment in waterways when used improperly, that makes it no different than any other tool (when used improperly, the result may be less than desirable).
A hammer in the wrong hand can be a murder weapon. As such, should hammers not exist?
We would greatly value a point-by-point response to the important matters we raise. Here are some links to articles that contained reasoned criticism of Dr. Shiva’s untenable stances:
Who is Vandana Shiva and why is she saying such awful things about GMOs? (Reprinted in Forbes: Vandana Shiva, Anti-GMO Celebrity: ‘Eco Goddess’ Or Dangerous Fabulist?)
Vandana Shiva: ‘Rock Star’ of GMO protest movement has history of opposing Green Revolution and agricultural technological innovation
The GMO-Suicide Myth
Seeds of Doubt
Vandana Shiva Compares GMOs to Rape
Vandana Shiva’s Myth Busted: Monsanto Didn’t Cause Farmer Suicides In India
Counterview: In GMO debate, Vandana Shiva has chosen fear-mongering and denialism
Vandana Shiva: Fearmongering in Oregon
Lies, Lies And More Lies
Activism and the gift of delusion
Vandana Shiva is confusing ideology for science – and getting rational people to believe her
Viewpoint: GMO critic Vandana Shiva’s anti-modernity crusade threatens world’s poor
‘Social Justice Warrior’ Vandana Shiva Is A Poor Advocate For The Poor
[Signatories in alphabetical order. Institutional affiliation is for identification purposes only and does not indicate institutional endorsement]
Philipp Aerni – University of Zurich, Switzerland, Director, Center for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Geography, Public Policy
Klaus Ammann – University of Bern, Switzerland, Professor Emeritus, expert in agri-food biotech regulation
David J. Bertioli – University of Georgia, USA, Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator and Professor, Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics
Giuseppe Bertoni – Università Cattolica, Piacenza, Italy, Professor Emeritus of Animal Husbandry
Peter Beyer – Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg, Germany, Professor (retired). Co-inventor of the Golden Rice. Member of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board
Borut Bohanec – University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, Biotechnical Faculty, Plant Biotechnology and Breeding
Ildebrando Bonacini – Agricultural organization manager, agri-food journalist, Cremona, Italy
Enrico Bucci – Temple University, Philadelphia, USA, Adjunct Professor in Systems Biology, Sbarro Health Research Organization
Trevor Charles – University of Waterloo, Canada, Professor in the Department of Biology, Director, Waterloo Centre for Microbial Research
Bruce M. Chassy – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA, Professor Emeritus, expert in agri-food biotech regulation
Felice Cervone – University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Italy, Full Professor, Dept of Biology and Biotechnologies, M.A.E. (Member of Academia Europaea)
Pellegrino Conte – University of Palermo, Italy, Full Professor, Agricultural Chemistry
Gilberto Corbellini – Italian National Research Council (CNR), Rome, Italy, Full Professor of Bioethics and History of Medicine, “Sapienza” University of Rome
Terry Daynard – Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph, Former Professor of Crop Science, former Associate Dean of Research and Innovation
Roberto Defez – Italian National Research Council (CNR), Naples, Italy, Senior Researcher, Microbial Biotechnology laboratory
Adrian Dubock – Former Global Head M&A, Ventures and Licensing, Syngenta, Switzerland (retired), Member & Executive Secretary, Golden Rice Humanitarian Board
Jon Entine – Genetic Literacy Project, Cincinnati, OH, USA, Executive Director
Edgardo Filippone – University of Naples “Federico II”, Italy, Full Professor, Department of Agricultural Sciences, Section of Plant Genetics and Biotechnology
Kevin Folta – University of Florida, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Professor
Corrado Lodovico Galli – University of Milan, Italy, Department of Pharmacological and Biomolecular Sciences
L. Val Giddings, PhD – PrometheusAB, Inc., USA, Expert in agri-food biotech regulation
Jonathan Gressel – Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, Professor, Plant & Environmental Sciences
Alberto Guidorzi – Agronomist, Sermide Felonica (Mantua), Italy
Larson C. Hannah – University of Florida, Professor Emeritus, Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology & Horticultural Sciences
Klaus-Dieter Jany – Wadi International University, Syria, Vice-President for Teaching and Research
Jonathan D. G. Jones FRS – The Sainsbury Lab, Norwich, UK, Professor and Senior Group Leader
Drew L. Kershen – University of Oklahoma, USA, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law Emeritus
Marcel Kuntz – University of Grenoble-Alpes, France, Director of Research at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)
Christopher J. Leaver CBE FRS FRSE – University of Oxford, UK, Emeritus Professor of Plant Science
Michele Lodigiani – Agronomist, farmer, science communicator. Piacenza, Italy
Alan McHughen – University of California, Riverside, USA, Botany and Plant Sciences, expert in agri-food biotech regulation
Henry I. Miller, M.Sc., M.D. – Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute, San Francisco, USA, Founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology
Giovanni Molteni Tagliabue – Como (Italy), Independent researcher in philosophy of life sciences, political science
Eliano Morello – Agronomist, Padua, Italy
Piero Morandini – University of Milan, Italy, Researcher, Environmental Science and Policy Department
Jean-Paul Oury – Chief Editor of “The European Scientist” website, Paris, France, PhD in history of science and technology
Marco Aurelio Pasti – Agronomist, member of Accademia dei Georgofili, Venice, Italy
Deborah Piovan – Farmer and scientific communicator, Padua, Italy
Ingo Potrykus – ETH Zurich, Switzerland, Institute of Plant Sciences, Professor Emeritus, Co-inventor Golden Rice, Chair Golden Rice Humanitarian Board
Channa Prakash, Tuskegee University, USA, Dean, Arts & Sciences
Sir Richard John Roberts – Chief Scientific Officer, New England Biolabs, Ipswich, USA, 1993 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine
Daniele Rosellini – University of Perugia, Italy, Associate Professor of Agricultural Genetics
Eddo Rugini – Università della Tuscia, Italy, Past Full Professor in Fruit Tree Science and Biotechnology
Donatello Sandroni – PhD in Ecotoxicology, Journalist & Science communicator, Italy
Angelo Santino – Institute of Sciences of Food Production, National Research Council (CNR), Lecce, Italy, Senior Scientist
Giuseppe Sarasso – Agronomist, member of Accademia dei Georgofili and Accademia di Agricoltura of Turin, Italy
Teemu Teeri – University of Helsinki, Finland, Professor in Plant Breeding
Roberto Tuberosa – University of Bologna, Italy, Professor in Biotechnology Applied to Plant Breeding, Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences
Ignazio Verde – Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA), Rome, Italy, Senior scientist on Plant Genetics and scientific advisor
Robert Wager – Vancouver Island University, Canada, Molecular biology, Biochemistry
Allan Wenck – BASF, Morrisville, NC, USA, PhD molecular, cell and developmental biology
The University of Missouri responded to the letter with this:
To which one signatory retorted with this:
Response from one of the signers, Sir Richard John Roberts:
Dear Chancellor Agrawal:
Frankly, I am appalled by your response (attached) to Dr. Giovanni Tagliabue and his colleagues. You seem to consider Vandana Shiva’s views as merely controversial, when she continuously spews lies and falsehoods to support her views. Has the University of Missouri lost faith in the value of the truth?
Controversy implies opposing interpretations of facts, not pitting facts against fabrications. By exposing your students to blatant lies and giving them equal credence with truth you do them a great disservice.
It is not too late to rescind your decision to invite her to speak.
Sir Richard J. Roberts Ph.D. F.R.S.
1993 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine
Chief Scientific Officer
New England Biolabs
240 County Road
Ipswich, MA 01938-2723 USA
To be honest, this letter (and most notably, the reply above) presents me with some internal conflict. It feels a bit Cancel Culture-esk. A phenomenon that I have no doubt Vandana Shiva would jump behind in a heartbeat if she thought it would help her get ahead. And in this climate of political discourse, there is no doubt that it would help.
Which makes this an interesting situation. While much of what Vandana spews is nonsense and at times propaganda, it’s not exactly hate speech. Though I have no doubt that she contributes to phenomenons that hold back biotechnology research (and arguably science in general), that is very different from speech that can be seen to incite. Which makes me hesitant to call for her removal from the roster of speakers at this event.
Having said that, I completely concur that her views should not be showcased to uneducated pupils of any age as though they are simply the flip side of some debate. Without context being made clear at the outset, I do not doubt that her views can result in people being dragged in the wrong direction. At the very least, the platform should allow for critiques (if not during, then directly afterward). This should ensure that most people viewing the presentation will also see the critique.
Her presentation should not be cancelled. However, it would indeed be doing the students of the University of Missouri a great disservice to have her presentation happen without any other context presented.
Note: As it turns out, I’m coming to this 3 days too late. I don’t know how the presentation turned out, but if it is posted online, I will link it below.