A Profile of Vandana Shiva in The New Yorker

It’s not easy writing about Vandana Shiva. The Indian environmentalist is adored in green and progressive circles. Her exalted status has apparently disinclined many of my colleagues in the media from taking a closer look at what she stands for and what she often says on the global lecture circuit and to admiring journalists.

Michael Specter seems to have recognized he had a story pretty much to himself. His profile of Shiva in this week’s New Yorker is a must-read. Here’s a taste:

Early this spring, the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva led an unusual pilgrimage across southern Europe. Beginning in Greece, with the international Pan-Hellenic Exchange of Local Seed Varieties Festival, which celebrated the virtues of traditional agriculture, Shiva and an entourage of followers crossed the Adriatic and travelled by bus up the boot of Italy, to Florence, where she spoke at the Seed, Food and Earth Democracy Festival. After a short planning meeting in Genoa, the caravan rolled on to the South of France, ending in Le Mas d’Azil, just in time to celebrate International Days of the Seed.

Shiva’s fiery opposition to globalization and to the use of genetically modified crops has made her a hero to anti-G.M.O. activists everywhere. The purpose of the trip through Europe, she had told me a few weeks earlier, was to focus attention there on “the voices of those who want their agriculture to be free of poison and G.M.O.s.” At each stop, Shiva delivered a message that she has honed for nearly three decades: by engineering, patenting, and transforming seeds into costly packets of intellectual property, multinational corporations such as Monsanto, with considerable assistance from the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the United States government, and even philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are attempting to impose “food totalitarianism” on the world. She describes the fight against agricultural biotechnology as a global war against a few giant seed companies on behalf of the billions of farmers who depend on what they themselves grow to survive. Shiva contends that nothing less than the future of humanity rides on the outcome.

“There are two trends,” she told the crowd that had gathered in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, in Florence, for the seed fair. “One: a trend of diversity, democracy, freedom, joy, culture—people celebrating their lives.” She paused to let silence fill the square. “And the other: monocultures, deadness. Everyone depressed. Everyone on Prozac. More and more young people unemployed. We don’t want that world of death.” The audience, a mixture of people attending the festival and tourists on their way to the Duomo, stood transfixed. Shiva, dressed in a burgundy sari and a shawl the color of rust, was a formidable sight. “We would have no hunger in the world if the seed was in the hands of the farmers and gardeners and the land was in the hands of the farmers,” she said. “They want to take that away.”

Be sure to read the entire piece, which is not behind a paywall.


40 Responses to “A Profile of Vandana Shiva in The New Yorker”

  1. RobertWager says:

    It is so unfortunate that so many people in the developed world are so divorced from primary food production that they believe 100 year techniques are superior to modern agriculture technology. If we did as Shiva prescribes, hundreds of miilions to billions would starve to death. As the immortal Dr. Norman Borlaug said: ‘ organic can only possibly feed four billion. I don’t see two billion[now three billion and headed towards five billion] volunteers to disappear’

    We need the best of every form of agriculture to feed the9-10 billion people who will inhabit the planet by 2050.

  2. Loren Eaton says:

    A must read. At times it seems as though he is giving her a bit too much credit. But he pretty much shoots down every one of her beliefs.

  3. Uncle Al says:

    Indian environmentalist” 1) the Ganges River, 2) street defecation, 3) India in particular and overall.

    the virtues of traditional agriculture” 7 billion mouths to feed. Good luck, lady – to you, to your expense account, to your perquisites, and to your walk-in closets bursting with bar-coded databased silks and shoes.

    “food totalitarianism”” The US burns 40+% of its astoundingly large corn harvest to return 0.9 joule for every joule invested. You are prattling about a seed covered in clay, fungicide, and nutrients, or one bred for maximum product yield, or one gene-gineered to be awesome. Eat teosinte, lady. Eat nothing.

    Shiva, dressed in a burgundy sari and a shawl the color of rust, was a formidable sight.” Poverty is a terrible thing. Donate it it generously to others in trade for promises due in 2100 AD.

  4. Tom Scharf says:

    The good news is this piece in the New Yorker makes her out to look like an extremist playing fast and loose with the facts. I wouldn’t call it a puff piece by any stretch, closer to a hit piece. I’m quite sure KK approves, ha ha.

    “using a gene gun to fire a bacterium into seeds seems like a violation of the rules of life”.

    “They want to release G.M.O.s without testing, and they want to impose this order worldwide.”

    “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 war, because it came from war.”

    “G.M.O. stands for ‘God, Move Over,’ we are the creators now,”

    “One: a trend of diversity, democracy, freedom, joy, culture—people celebrating their lives.” She paused to let silence fill the square. “And the other: monocultures, deadness. Everyone depressed. Everyone on Prozac. More and more young people unemployed. We don’t want that world of death.”

    Well gosh, I don’t want a world of death either! Who in their right mind would want that? What a compelling argument this is. I’m convinced.

    If this is the best she can do with a “message that she has honed for nearly three decades”, then I would submit she doesn’t have a lot of respect for the intellectual capacity of her audience. This is basically a religious argument. The appeal to emotion and appeal to nature is standard fare for many greens with a weak argument.

    If you examine India’s population trajectory, it looks like they will need all the help they can get in agriculture in the coming decades.


    Check what happened to cotton yields after genetically modified cotton was allowed in India:


  5. Tom says:

    She is so full of certified organic fertilizer.

  6. Uncle Al says:

    Pathological morality, politics to fetishes, is a hallmark of self-loathing. Is she a fat girl in a starving society?

  7. Loren Eaton says:

    ‘fat girl in a starving society’. Not exactly how I would have put it, but you do bring up an interesting point. It appears she grew up in a privileged caste in Indian society. I’ve often wondered how someone who grew up in that country can be so cynical and narrow-minded about the multitude of reasons for famines in India. I’m sure the English occupation had something to do with it, but according to Mr. Specter, famines have been occurring for 400 years and English were only there for 90 years. And they’ve been gone for 70 years. I read a report a while back that estimated that 68 MILLION children under the age of 5 in India are malnourished. The time for blaming Norman Borlaug and Monsanto for this are over.

  8. Loren Eaton says:

    While I think that monoculture should be avoided when possible, all those monocultures and water and fertilizer saved over a billion people. And while I think that we must do a better job of soil conservation in particular, this notion that genetic diversity automatically results in disease resistance and high yields is totally naïve. Genetically diverse lines of any crop that do not have the proper alleles for resistance will be susceptible.

  9. Uncle Al says:

    Point taken, Substitute “phat” for “fat.” How little of her much reflects India,


  10. Keith Kloor says:

    Your previous comment was offensive. I deleted it.

  11. Natarajan Balakrishnan says:

    She seems to feel that farmers should live at the expense of consumers…the poor people of India.It has a more anti corporate stand and her views aren’t for the poor common man in India who is being slaughtered by rising food inflation.What if Monsanto or other corporations help in alleviating the hunger of millions of Indians?Should we denounce them just because they are corporates?She seems to be more in favour of the middlemen,big farmers and seed marketers with obsolete technology seeds!
    Whatever she writes would definitely be of no consequence since technology and GM crops would prevail finally…we are not in Galileo’s times!

  12. mem_somerville says:

    Wow, I’m glad someone took a close look at her activities and her claims. She really does seem to get a free pass.

    I mean–the random shouter on twitter probably has very little real range. But Shiva gets on major media and peddles this misinformation. I think she’s one of the most damaging voices in this arena. She has made it very difficult to talk about the actual issues and find the roots of them because of this dramatic BS that really has taken in a lot of people.

  13. Uncle Al says:

    An engineer’s first task in solving a problem is discovering its cause. Social advocacy is a simple sales pitch: “If you disagree, then you are proven unqualified to comment.” Support evolution – shoot back. Ms. Shiva is a self-righteous idiot wearing Emperor’s new clothing.

    There are 104 historic Black colleges in the US. How long would a historic White college persist before every dusky git from Al Sharpton to Eric Holder (running the spectrum from A to B) went absolutely ballistic? Racism is racism no matter what its background color.

    We worship the lame, halt, dim-witted, addicted, perverse, diverse, deserving, delusional, and proven unable to the exclusion of the Gifted. We will obtain a future of process not product, punctuated by tests of faith and inquisitions.

    I disdain your disserving progressivism. One cannot discover a turd’s clean end by which to lift it.

  14. Keith Kloor says:

    I just deleted your second comment. I notice you are a frequent commenter across the blogosphere. So I imagine you won’t be put out too much by getting cut back in this space.

    I’m pretty lax about commenting, but when I see somebody being obnoxiously offensive, I’ll step in. You got two strikes. The third one gets you moderated in this space.

  15. JH says:

    The anti-Monsanto gig is all about creating a monster that our SuperHero can step in to save us from. Who better to demonize than a corporation?

  16. JH says:

    “she doesn’t have a lot of respect for the intellectual capacity of her audience. This is basically a religious argument.”

    We’re in the New Age of Mother Earth Religion. Most of the argument against GMOs, and much of the argument on climate change, hinges not on scientific facts, but on beliefs about what’s “natural” and therefore sacred. Anything that smacks of being caused by humans, even if it’s beneficial, is treated as an unnatural sin against nature.

  17. Uncle Al says:

    Go ahead, demand I am unqualified for comment for saying the Emperor is naked. She is a self-aggrandizing monster. You are a poltroon.

    Have a nice unreality. The rest of us have an empirical reality to build. Our engineering is efficient, our books balance, and we don’t whine.

  18. Loren Eaton says:

    Let me preface this by saying that I’m NOT comparing this woman to a Nazi, but when you read the OSS assessment of his Hitler’s method of manipulating public opinion and consider Shiva’s level of hyperbole, I think there are similarities:
    “never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

  19. Buddy199 says:

    I try to make heads or tails of Uncle Al comments, vainly looking for a DiVinci Code like meaning. Challenging and utterly baffling, but definitely entertaining. Big Al fan.

  20. Maia says:

    “To feed ten billion people, most of whom will live in the developing
    world, we will need what the Indian agricultural pioneer M. S.
    Swaminathan has called “an evergreen revolution,” one that combines the
    most advanced science with a clear focus on sustaining the environment.”

    I see little focus on sustaining the environment, and that is one real reason for such immense opposition to genetic engineering. If pro GE people/companies were also pro environment (which does include bio-diversity) and pro independent farmers, the opposition would melt away. The bio-mimicry movement seeks to bring together the best of of science/technology with a deep respect for the wisdom of billions of years of evolution, and all the life forms and biomes which support human life.

    The comments here attack the woman, more than her causes, and do not look intelligently into the underlying issues which she is attempting to raise. Sneering and name-calling is not scientific! If you really want people to embrace GM technology, then you must combine it with respect for the natural world and the desire of more and more people everywhere to be free of poisonous, fossil-fuel driven agriculture.

  21. First Officer says:

    Well, she still supports Mike Adams.

  22. First Officer says:

    She advocates violence, even arson. She supports Mike Adams call to arms and hit lists. Regardless of her demeanor and however sound the footings of her arguments might be (which, by any measure, they are not) she does not deserve to have the podium to spread such hatred.

  23. First Officer says:

    Yes indeed. Even with patents, Monsanto has lost control of Bt cotton in India where such enforcements are lax at best in the rural areas. There are a number of Indian seed companies hybriding Bt cotton into new varieties, many doing so on the sly.

  24. First Officer says:

    There are a lot of people who do believe all our best ideas come form the 19th century and earlier.

  25. Maia says:

    I understand and share your objection to extreme tactics, on whatever side of any issue. I agree that Shiva has crossed a line and is speaking from anger, exaggerating some things, downplaying others, and on the wrong track in her approach these days. BUT many of her underlying concerns if addressed genuinely, could help return us to the real issue: how will we feed ourselves without destroying the soil, water, killing off pollinators, sickening farm workers, and losing the trust of ordinary people.
    Instead of attacking Shiva, let’s address and do something about these real threats to our well-being, whether we are part of a giant corporation, a poor farmer who has terrible choices to make, or a parent trying to feed her/his family food that is not costing the health of the planet and ourselves.

  26. Tom says:

    “If bloodletting was good enough for George Washington then by God it’s good enough for me!”

  27. beerenauslese says:

    It is a shame that Michael Specter can even be called a journalism. He lacks all journalistic integrity, and clearly if one takes even a brief look at his twitter feed his whole life is about advocating for GMOs and biotechnology. It’s so unfortunate that the New Yorker would keep someone like this on board. In any case, here is Dr. Vandana Shiva’s thoughtful response to Specter’s outlandish article: http://vandanashiva.com/?p=105

  28. DrAStein says:

    Specter’s is an interesting read but reeks of the obvious strain of a writer who is trying way too hard to discredit someone. And judging by the obsene comments below, it has worked. “Fat girl”, “monster”, wow, who are you people?? Is this scientific debate or what? Given that The New Yorker’s parent company, Condé Nast, is currently being paid by Monsanto to create Monsanto-funded PR and propoganda (http://bit.ly/1u4oc4O), we should all be reading their publications with a more critical/skeptical eye. Specter doesn’t stray far from the narrative Monsanto & friends want to tell. I believe that we need a more nuanced conversation than ‘pro-GMO vs anti-GMO’ and Specter does little to advance intelligent conversation on the topic. For anyone interested in Vandana Shiva’s response to the article, it is very much worth the read, and you can read it here: http://vandanashiva.com/?p=105

  29. TheTranslator says:

    Food for thought:
    What percentage of the world’s plant produce production is used for animal feed?

    To what percentage the meat and dairy consumption in the world would have to drop to be able to feed 20 billion human beings on this planet (with plant food from the arable land thus freed combined with the already existing arable land)?

    To what percentage the meat and dairy consumption in the world would have to drop to be able to feed 20 billion human beings on this planet, if we want the crops coming solely from “organic farming”, i.e. humane farming which provides real nutrition?

    Just asking…

  30. MarkDonners says:

    I don’t agree, she is dealing with the enemies of humanity and psychotics who would destroy the earth out of greed. Her tactics are correct. If she wasn’t being ranted and raved at, she wouldn’t be doing her job. Gandhi faced the same psychotic opposition when he dared to tell the truth

  31. MarkDonners says:

    Except that Shiva is trying to protect humanity and the future of all life on earth. To a Hitler type, that would sound like a personal threat. She should be proud of her work though, if the enemies of humanity and psychotics of the world weren’t shrieking, ranting and raving against Shiva for telling the truth and confronting them (as they did Ghandi) she wouldn’t be doing her job

  32. MarkDonners says:

    Do you know the history of Monsanto since their inception? They have committed massive criminal acts that would make ISIS look tame. Don’t try to pass Monsanto off as an altruistic organization. They have only two agendas, control of the world food supply at any cost, no matter how immoral, and to pocket billions. They are worse than any terrorist organization.

  33. MarkDonners says:

    Monsanto doesn’t care about malnourished children. That’s like saying Ted Bundy cared about his victims.

  34. MarkDonners says:

    Now that’s a stretch in untruth. Organic farming with crop variety actually feeds people. Monoculture especially with toxic GMO inserted herbicide genes and the attendant poisons which it is soaked STARVES billions. No more plant variety, no more pollinators is a recipe for destruction of life on earth. No matter how much you spew the propaganda of crooks like Monsanto, Sygenta, Dow, Bayer, Dupont, this is the chaos and destruction that GMO monocultures have created.

  35. MarkDonners says:

    Very weak attempt to slander the messenger. You forgot to call Mrs. Shiva, who is an activist hero on the level of Ghandi, “ugly” You know what? Monsanto isn’t “feeding seven billion people” by destroying the future of the earth. The top executives of Monsanto should be banished to the sewers, and their profits confiscated. They are monsters.

  36. MarkDonners says:

    Unfortunate that you’ve swallowed Monsanto propaganda like “Roundup is a harmless vitamin”. I suppose that will be your next assertion.

  37. MarkDonners says:

    wrong, GMO is factually a poison. It happens also to be caused by humans.. the psychotic ones.

  38. MarkDonners says:

    GMO is a dangerous poison. Eating genetically modified corn (GM corn) and consuming trace levels of Monsanto’s Roundup chemical fertilizer caused rats to develop horrifying tumors, widespread organ damage, and premature death. rats exposed to even the smallest amounts, “developed mammary tumors and severe liver and kidney damage as early as four months in males, and seven months for females.” The animals on the GM diet suffered mammary tumors, as well as severe liver and kidney damage. Everywhere GMO is being grown, food allergies, disorders such as autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems, and others have been skyrocketing in the human populations.

    There has been a drastic decline of crop-pollinating insects all over the world, and what this means for the future of the world’s food supply. Wild pollinators like bumblebees, butterflies, and beetles are basically disappearing. GMO industrial agricultural practices are causing this insect genocide. Pollinating insects in general, which include a wide range of insects and other animals, are simply vanishing from their normal habitats and foraging areas. That lower diversity and lower abundance of wild insects means less fruits and destruction of the diversity of plants and their fruits worldwide.

    GMOs cross pollinate and their seeds can travel. It is impossible to fully clean up our contaminated gene pool. Self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste. The potential impact is huge, threatening the health of future generations. GMO contamination has also caused economic losses for organic and non-GMO farmers who often struggle to keep their crops pure.

    GMOs increase herbicide use. Most GM crops are engineered to be “herbicide tolerant”―surviving deadly weed killers. Monsanto, for example, sells Roundup Ready crops, designed to survive applications of their Roundup herbicide. Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on GMOs. Overuse of Roundup results in “superweeds,” resistant to the herbicide. This is causing farmers to use even more toxic herbicides every year. Not only does this create environmental harm, GM foods contain higher residues of toxic herbicides. Roundup, for example, is linked with sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer.

    GM crops and their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. They reduce bio-diversity, pollute water resources, and are unsustainable. For example, GM crops are eliminating habitat for monarch butterflies, whose populations are down 50% in the US. Roundup herbicide has been shown to cause birth defects in amphibians, embryonic deaths and endocrine disruptions, and organ damage in animals even at very low doses. GM canola has been found growing wild in North Dakota and California, threatening to pass on its herbicide tolerant genes on to weeds.

    By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects. Moreover, irrespective of the type of genes that are inserted, the very process of creating a GM plant can result in massive collateral damage that produces new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.

    GMOs do not increase yields, and work against feeding a hungry world.

    Whereas sustainable non-GMO agricultural methods used in developing countries have conclusively resulted in yield increases of 79% and higher, GMOs do not, on average, increase yields at all. This was evident in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2009 report Failure to Yield―the definitive study to date on GM crops and yield.

    The toxins associated with GMO should never be tolerated. NEONICOTINOID PESTICIDE neurotoxins are absolutely the main factor causing the collapse of bee and pollinator populations along with other lethal chemicals, glysophate, etc. When these poisons are banned as they were in Europe the bee populations start to recover. GMO neonicotinoids, roundup etc. MUST BE BANNED OUTRIGHT and all the farmers along with USDA, Biotech and chemical companies told to cease and desist from what they are doing.

    An even scarier prospect: the “BT” version of GMO soybeans and corn, (basically pesticides engineered directly into the plant )

    The “BT toxin” gene is put into the DNA of the corn in order for it to manufacture its own toxins that kill pests. The BT gene originated from a soil bacteria that also infiltrates the microflora (friendly digestive bacteria) in your gut. The Bt gene converts the microflora in your intestine into toxin-manufacturing machines.

    So, to be clear, eating GMO corn products can cause your gut (which is primarily responsible for keeping you healthy) to turn into a breeding ground for tiny little pesticide factories inside your body, actively creating toxins which are designed to kill living things. These toxins are found in the blood and are readily transferred across the placenta to developing babies in the womb.

  39. Loren Eaton says:

    You mean the organic farming that makes up around 10% of agricultural production? It feeds people who can afford it and has yields that are 20-30 years behind those evil monocultures. And who exactly is starving?

  40. From Remnick’s response.

    “4.) We take particular exception to your charge that Mr. Specter’s
    physical description of a farmer, with “skin the color of burnt
    molasses and the texture of a worn saddle” was racist. It wasn’t. In a
    2005 profile he described the Italian designer Valentino this way:
    “Valentino spends a lot of time in the sun. His skin, the color of
    melted caramel, has the texture of a lovingly preserved Etruscan ruin.”
    Last year, Specter described a sixty-eight year old American farmer as
    having “ a tan, weather beaten face.”

    His fourth point is still wrong, though not necessarily deeply racist. The writer does describe the Indian farmer in a condescending and
    disparaging manner. The first part of the descriptions, describe the
    Indian farmer as ‘burnt molasses,’ burnt generally conjures somewhat
    more negative connotations. Burnt body, burnt food, burnt forest.
    Valentino, who has a name, is described as melted caramel. Melted
    caramel sounds pleasant and is the basis of many desserts. The American farmer was described as tan, an actual Crayola color.
    Two, the second halves of the descriptions also possess a similar tinge. The Indian once again gets the shabbiest treatment. Velentino is described as an ‘Etruscan antiquity,’ something of great value and beauty. The American farmer has a ‘weather beaten face.’ Not very positive, but within the American mindframe brings up notions of hardworking sons of the soil imagery. Even if you disagree it beats the poor ‘worn saddle’ our Indian farmer is described as. A saddle, a utilitarian object placed upon an animal, which you’d place your rear upon.
    Possibly your writer has come to hate all Indians in the process of hating Vandana Shiva, or maybe he is a racist, or just some yuppy hack shill who gets a thrill out of bullying and spitting upon the most unfortunate and non-white of us.

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