Sustainability Debate is Distracted by Eco-Babble

By Keith Kloor | February 12, 2013 12:38 pm

Bill Moyers has asked an array of luminaries to play speechwriter for tonight’s State of the Union Address. Everybody has their own pet cause or issue, of course. So here’s what Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva wishes President Obama might say (my emphasis):

For the sake of the Earth, our family farms and our children’s health, we must send a signal across America and the world that organic is the future. Every child must have access to healthy and safe food. We’ve started an organic garden at the White House, and I will work to create a system to ensure that healthy and safe food is a reality worldwide.

I have realized that neither genetic modification nor chemicals help to produce more food. Gardens and small ecological farms are the basis of food security. Currently, 90 percent of all food commodities grown become biofuel or animal feed; this is a crime when 1 billion people go hungry. So I will work on a transitional plan for phasing out subsidies to a wasteful and unjust agriculture system.

I had promised in my first election campaign that I would ensure that genetically-modified foods be labeled as such. I apologize to my fellow citizens and to citizens of the world that I did not keep my promise. The right to know what you are eating is fundamental to any democracy.

Vandana Shiva has long been treated by environmentalists—and far too many environmental writers–as a font of green wisdom. She’s got an eco-schtick that many otherwise smart people find irresistible. This speaks to the nature-centric environmentalism that still holds powerful sway in public discourse, which is reinforced by media influentials, such as Bill Moyers, who delight in Shiva’s eco-babble. Because she is a liberal eco-saint fighting the earth’s multinational overlords, liberals and enviros never question anything Shiva says, even when she endlessly repeats the urban myth about the thousands of Indian farmers who have supposedly committed suicide because of Monsanto. A rare case in which Shiva did raise some eyebrows occurred recently, when she compared GMOs to rape.

People in the food movement and environmental community who bemoan the simplistic, fear-based GM food narratives should take their complaints to popular activists like Shiva, whose high profile media appearances shape the GMO discourse.

Even better, they could challenge some of the easily refutable statements she makes, like these (highlighted above):

Organic is the future. Really? Maybe in Portlandia, but not in the real world.

Gardens and small ecological farms are the basis of food security.

Sounds quaint. But will that suffice for the billions of urban dwellers living in cities today? Here’s a nice reality check by an eco-pragmatist blogger:

The movement underpinning small farms, organics and permaculture is underpinned by an ideology rooted more in nostalgia for a non-existent past where everyone lived on Happy Farms that provided nothing but abundance and joy, rather than in anything resembling reason and science…the obvious facts are that we cannot feed the world without industrial agriculture, and the hope is that genetic engineering may be one tool that will help this become more sustainable.

If we are to have serious debates about what true sustainability means in the age of the Anthropocene, there is no place for the indulgent eco-babble spouted by Vandana Shiva and like-minded environmentalists.

UPDATE: Linus Blomqvist, the director of the Breakthrough Institute’s Conservation and Development program, has sent this response via email:

The idea that small-scale farming is the best solution for food security is very dangerous – it really is the total opposite. If everyone just grows their own food, then any local disruption will be catastrophic for those involved. Bad harvest, and you’re screwed. Instead, if we all rely on global markets, as long as we have the purchasing power, we can be pretty damn sure to get food from somewhere. The entire harvest in Australia can go to waste and none would starve, either in Australia or elsewhere. Particularly in a world where climate change might change the capacity of different regions to grow food, international trade is absolutely necessary to increase food security. The problem then becomes mostly one of poverty.

Shiva’s future is one of hugely expanded croplands at the expense of forests, and increased vulnerability. Not what I wish for the Anthropocene.

UPDATE: For more on Vandana Shiva’s background and PR-made image, this post is a must-read.

  • Buddy199

    Bill Moyers has asked an array of luminaries to play speechwriter for tonight’s State of the Union Address. So here’s what Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva wishes President Obama might say
    —————-
    I wonder what the Kardashians and the Swamp People guys have to say, they’re luminaries too. Did Moyers go off his Alzheimer’s meds?

    • Keith Kloor

      Buddy, I won’t tolerate flaming of a personal nature, especially related to someone’s age. Consider this one strike. Two strikes gets you on moderation.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    She was one of the worst offenders in spreading the terminator seed lie too. People keep claiming she’s got cred because she’s a scientist, and yet they refuse to acknowledge that then she is also smart enough to have known it was false.

    She’s one of the major causes of toxins on this topic, making it hard to have any fact-based conversations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthony.hanson.902 Anthony Hanson

    Keith your attacking Shiva as a voice but your not making any real arguments against the things she stands for beyond quoting Breakthrough an organization whose only job is to make arguments that support industry. We need to start thinking about all of this on a higher level.

    We can create correlations between genes and aspects of life but we can never create causation. Every gene is responsible for effecting several aspects of life and most aspects of life are effected by several genes. As well every gene is effected by the unique circumstances of each individual life. So you can never find direct causation and you will never know everything an individual gene is capable of.

    When we modify the genes of a life we take out one gene to replace with another rarely knowing more then one life aspect that each gene effects. This near blind test of life has been well documented in peer reviewed journals to have many negative side effects for the environment and consumers. Labeling GMOs is something small farms who cant afford the organic certification have been begging for. They just dont have the money like Monsanto to pay Breakthrough and Keith.

    • Keith Kloor

      Anthony,

      I realize that anyone who challenges environmentalist orthodoxy or the myths propagated by anti-GMO campaigners stands a good chance of being labeled industry shills by folks like you.

      C’est la vie

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=654743589 Michael Lindsay

      What muddies the waters in this debate is the conflation by anti GMO types of an entire field of technology with one companies proven record of corporate malfeasance and the odd notion by some pro GMO types that a beneficial technology makes that same corporation blameless because they are a world leader in the area. GMO being beneficial =/= Monsanto is good.

      • Nullius in Verba

        If you make GMO more difficult and expensive to develop, only the real sharks will be able to survive in the hostile regulatory environment.

        The best defence against predatory practices is competition. If other companies developing GMO offer farmers better terms than Monsanto, all the custom will flow to them and Monsanto would have to follow suit. It’s only because of the fight the greens always put up that only seriously deep pockets can develop GMO, and they have the field to themselves. Nobody who is nice can play.

        It’s almost as if Monsanto planned it that way.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=654743589 Michael Lindsay

          “If you make GMO more difficult and expensive to develop, only the real sharks will be able to survive in the hostile regulatory environment.”
          Actually I don’t see that regulation for safety reasons only allows the “real sharks” to survive in any industry, let alone GMO. Left to their own devices private companies simply won’t pursue the best practice in terms of health and safety because it’s cheaper for them not to. This argument is a furphy.

          • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

            Furphy is my favorite new word I learned in the last year. I’m so glad to see it again.

          • Nullius in Verba

            “Actually I don’t see that regulation for safety reasons only allows the “real sharks” to survive in any industry, let alone GMO.”

            But they’re not regulating for safety reasons – if they were, then all products on the market would be tested to the same standards, and a uniform risk threshold would be set and applied consistently. They don’t – GMOs face higher hurdles, to the extent that hardly any have been passed for use, which implies that the regulation is intended to exclude GMOs in favour of different breeding methods.

  • Chuck Currie

    If by “feeding the world” you mean dumping massive amounts of calorie dense, nutrient poor cereal grains on the world, and in the process depleting top soil with mono-crops, polluting streams, rivers and deltas with hydrocarbon based fertilizers, and destroying local indigenous farming cultures, then I think you need to take another look at your paradigm. Maybe expand your horizons by reading a little Joel Saladin – you can start with “Folks, this ain’t normal”.

    And by no means should you think I agree with Ms Shiva’s lib/eco/agw unicorn and pixie dust babble.

    Cheers

  • http://socioproctology.blogpost.com windwheel

    Dr.Vandana Siva’s views gained a lot of traction because
    1) Indians were impressed by her Western credentials and skill in English- we have good home-grown agronomists but they tend to come from agricultural castes and lack elite level English language skills. They are awed by people like Dr. Siva and also hope that she can get the urban elites to pay attention to Agriculture. The truth is land reform and Govt. mandated soft credit to farmers have created a lot of unviable farming by peasant proprietors who don’t have the proper skill set. Proper farmers’ education is not a priority for Govt. in most states, so Indian agronomists hoped that people like P.Sainath and Dr. Siva would at least get the elites interested in the problems of the marginal farmer. However, the noise to signal ratio in their work is too high and seems counter-productive. In particular, if they publicly opposed subsidies (which, logically, they should do) then they could start to look at how to improve things for farmers. But they don’t want to make those sorts of tough choices and prefer to paint a gloomy picture about evil Global corporations driving farmers to suicide.
    2) Westerners believed Dr. Siva is ‘authentic’ Indian from a family of traditional farmers and that she has access to that traditional wisdom which is in fact more productive than the unsustainable products being pushed by Monsanto. This is an attractive myth because we all suspect that things like Coca Cola or McDonalds aren’t as nutritious as the traditional root beer or meat sandwich which they replaced.The problem here is that we are often irrational when it comes to impulse-buying of consumer items and so advertising and branding has more impact on us. However, when it comes to earning a living, we can’t afford to be irrational. Westerners need to appreciate that peasants make rational decisions. Still, there can be a ‘tragedy of the commons’ even with rationality- but that is an argument for rationalising Govt policy- ending subsidies, taxing agricultural income- on the basis of a discriminated view of the peasant.

    It is a great pity that Indian agricultural scientists and Economists are now caught in a trap whereby any attempt to speak rationally is shouted down- people are accused of having been bribed by Monsanto- and their career is put at risk.

  • Tom Scharf

    Beyond all the normal hyperbole, here is a genuine interesting case related to GM and Monsanto. Farmer buys soybean feed grain to plant soybeans, most of this grain ends up being “Roundup Ready”, and Monsanto sues him for using their patented beans.

    Farmer’s use of genetically modified soybeans grows into Supreme Court case

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/farmers-use-of-genetically-modified-soybeans-grows-into-supreme-court-case/2013/02/09/8729f05a-717c-11e2-ac36-3d8d9dcaa2e2_story.html

  • dogktor

    Keith. Please send this video of Dr. Miguel Altieri of UC Berkeley to Linus with my compliments. Ask him to research agroecology–it is what Vandana Shiva is advocating after all. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57sJGMWT190 Thanks very much!

  • dogktor

    I have no idea how to talk about sustainability without discussing, agroecology and small farms. http://wn.com/agroecology

  • BBD

    Great update link to the backgrounder piece on V Shiva, Keith. Full disclosure: she ain’t my cup of tea. This excerpt sums up the logical contradictions and more besides:

    But here’s a disconnect. She believes you can get the same output as the Green Revolution yield through organic sources. On one hand she claims the Green Revolution was a failure, then tacitly admits it worked. Wait, wasn’t what farmers were doing before the Green Revolution organic, when they had all those famines?

    Needless to say she hates GMOs. This is where her rhetoric becomes dangerous. She hates them so much that she attacked OXFAM on their GMO stance when they were engaged in cyclone relief efforts in Orissa, a state on the southeast coast of India. She tried to persuade them to not supply GMO foods writing in an open letter that “We hope your food aid will be G.E. free.” Shiva’s group Women for Diversity demanded the Indian government “immediately withdraw the corn-soya blend from Orissa.” Apparently it was better for people to starve rather than eat GMO food.

    She hates “golden rice,” a non-commercially developed GMO rice with higher levels of Vitamin A which can prevent blindness in children. Millions of Third World children go blind each year due to lack of Vitamin A, yet Shiva would deny these children because GM is evil bad and golden rice is a “myth” and negates, “nature’s diverse gifts and women’s knowledge of how to use diversity to feed their children and families.”

    She should know about this stuff. She’s an expert in organic farming and agriculture. Consider this incident as told in the Houston Press from 2000:

    Before leaving Alvin to prepare for a 7 p.m. lecture in Houston titled “WTO, Basmati Rice & the Stolen Harvest,” Shiva walked across the road and looked out into a shaggy field. “They look unhappy,” she said. “The rice plants. Ours at home look very happy.” “That,” RiceTec reports, “is because it’s not rice. That’s our test field, it was harvested in August. That’s weeds.”

  • dbbd

    phhh, stop with the fairy dust of industrial agiculture babble, if industrial agriculture wanted to feed the world, they would have done it already. Industrial ag is a scourge and a sham, another industry concentrating wealth into fewer hands and more accurately described as agricultural strip mining.

  • Joshua

    The idea that small-scale farming is the best solution
    for food security is very dangerous – it really is the total opposite.
    If everyone just
    grows their own food, then any local disruption will be catastrophic for
    those involved.

    A focus on improving small-scale farming, and expanding urban farming is
    not mutually exclusive with global agricultural markets. Anyone who
    argues, either way, in ways that suggest that kind of mutual exclusivity
    (be it an “environmentalist” or someone from Breakthrough”) is making a
    false argument. A focus in both directions is important. Improving small-scale farming and increasing access to quality produce in urban environments (through urban farming) will be useful. A monolithic focus on industrial farming will not suffice.

    Keith – don’t you ever get tired of this focus on the back-and-forth of facile arguments?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »