The Sacred Messenger

By Keith Kloor | March 13, 2013 7:27 am

Once upon a time, long before a recent wave of ideological zealotry drove the Republican party to cleanse itself of moderates, appeals for GOP comity were often couched in Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment:

Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican

In liberal and environmental circles, a similar dictate seems to now hold, with respect to those who are perceived as tireless defenders of nature and champions of social justice. If someone meets that criteria and is also credited with taking on evil, greedy corporations, a one-dimensional portrait of the hero is often painted by admiring media. This is the case with Vandana Shiva, the internationally famous activist and author. Her deified status is such that I can’t imagine any of my colleagues working at progressive media outlets ever speaking ill of her. Besides, to do so would only undermine her message–her larger cause to save the earth from profit-hungry plunderers. That is likely the rationale of those who might not buy into everything she says. But I doubt that most progressive or eco-minded writers are even inclined to be skeptical of Shiva. She is the green world’s Mother Teresa. 

As I have previously noted:

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.

In fact, her many admirers treat Shiva with obsequiousness. In an interview last year, Bill Moyers introduced her as a “a rock star in the worldwide battle over genetically modified seeds.” His first question:

It’s an uphill battle you’re waging. How do you keep doing it? What drives you really?

Her answer:

You know, we have this very beautiful text in India. We have the [Bhagavad] Gita. And there’s a very simple lesson that Krishna gives. That you do not measure the fruit of your action. You have to measure your obligation of action. You have to find out what’s the right thing to do. That is your duty. Whether you win or lose is not the issue. The obligation to do the right thing…

That is the framework that almost all discussion of Shiva’s work takes place in. There is a sacred quality to it. If you’re starting from this premise–of a selfless defender of the earth and downtrodden fighting the proverbial good fight–how do you, as a progressive challenge this person’s hyperbole and false claims?

You don’t. You simply don’t. There are outliers, but I dare  you to find any examples in progressive media where Shiva is treated as anything less than a crusading, heroic do-gooder.

That is certainly how she was treated this past weekend, when she gave a talk on ecological resilience at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in New York City. Anyone familiar with Shiva’s rhetoric would not have been surprised to hear her mention “terminator” seeds and Monsanto’s link to farmer suicides in India (discussed in this post), or her sneering dismissal of the green revolution (apparently it’s a myth) and the potential of Golden Rice. There was much more along those lines, including her claim that “genetic engineering is shooting a toxic gene into whatever plant there is.” I think you get the picture.

The capacity crowd, most of who I’m sure were well educated, ate it up. They cheered and gave Shiva a standing ovation at the end of her 45 minute talk, which on the whole was a rambling but spirited defense of organic farming and a repudiation of all things related to Monsanto, multinational corporations, and genetic engineering. In the brief Q & A period that followed, the first questioner asked Shiva how she was able to keep battling, after all these years, against the dark forces of the world. It was the same kind of trite, softball question that Moyers served up at the start of his interview with Shiva.

She hit this one out of the park, too.

UPDATE: Bernie Mooney uncovers something pretty interesting. Via Twitter, he writes: “Back in 2001, Before GM in India, Shiva claimed ‘trade liberalization’ was the cause of farmer suicides.” Ironically, he discovers this in an article reproduced at an anti-GMO site.

UPDATE: Some additional information on a related note has come in via Twitter:

 

 

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    The parallels to the deference that religious perspectives get on other issues is pretty interesting. For example, on the right the religious organizations are getting special dispensation to not have birth control in their insurance plans. Yet this outrages liberals.

    Try it on plant science rather than women’s health and it’s all good.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      That update about her previous suicide claim is particularly interesting. If that isn’t a case of moving the goal posts like any anti-vaxxer….

      But ok: let’s say she eliminates all Bt cotton, just like getting “mercury” out of vaccines. Farmers go back to inferior seeds with more pesticides. Can she really promise the suicide rate drops then? Seriously? And where do the goalposts go if that doesn’t happen?

      That’s exactly the problem with aiming at the wrong target. It doesn’t solve the underlying issues and is a giant distraction and waste of resources.

      • http://twitter.com/AJStein_de Alexander J. Stein

        And in this Commentary from 2002 – http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/research/biotech_suicide.html – it says that pre-GM, Shiva blamed the suicides on “globalization, purchased farm inputs and intrusive technologies.” However, it also indicates that she prepared already the ground for her subsequent framing of GMOs and suicides by reporting that she contended: “that GM crops would worsen poverty and indebtedness by concentrating power, promoting ecologically unstable monocultures, and discouraging traditional seed-saving and exchange.”

        And in this book of her from 2000 – p. 10: http://faculty.washington.edu/bborn/Shiva%20Ch%201.pdf – Shiva writes: “The new hybrid seeds… required more pesticides. Extremely poor farmers bought both seeds and chemicals on credit… When the crops failed due to heavy pest incidence or large-scare seed failure, many peasants committed suicide… In the district of Warangal, nearly 400 cotton farmers committed suicide due to crop failure in 1997, and dozens more committed suicide in 1998.” – Note that she does not blame it on GM cotton.

        Same in this other book of her from 2000 (revised in 2002) – http://sanhati.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/seeds-of-suicide.pdf – On p. 38 Shiva confirms under the heading “Farmers’ Suicides: Opportunity for Gene Giants to Launch Genetically Engineered Crops” that the suicides predated the introduction of GM cotton, suggesting rather that GM cotton was sold in response to these suicides: “The farmers’ suicides in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab and other states of India (see chapter 3) as well as the ecological disasters like the continuous failure of cotton in last few years in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab are used by industry to sell new ‘miracles’ and new vulnerabilities.”

        Or on p. 68: “As seen in Andhra Pradesh, when these costly chemicals fail, thousands of farmers are forced to commit suicides.” Then, on p. 71: “Seeds of Suicide study take stock of the impact of a decade of trade liberalisation that has impacted the lives and livelihood of farmers and transformed them into negative economies through propagating non-sustainable agriculture practices. Across the country farmers are taking the desperate step of ending their life because of the new pressures building upon them as a result of globalisation and corporate take over of seed supply leading to spread of capital intensive agriculture. The lure of huge profits linked with clever advertising strategies evolved by the seeds and chemical industries and easy credit for purchase of costly inputs is forcing farmers into a chemical treadmill and a debt trap.” – Again, she does not blame the suicides on GM cotton but on trade liberalisation, capital intensive agriculture and the “chemical” treadmill…

        On p. 72 she reports suicides as far back as 1995 and on p. 73 she links them to hybrid seeds and monoculture, i.e. to yet another cause: “Hybrid seeds offer a promise of higher yields, but they also have higher risks of crop failure since they are more prone to pest and disease attack as illustrated by the Andhra Pradesh experience. Monocultures further increase the vulnerability to pest attacks since the same crop of the same variety planted over large areas year after year encourages pest build-ups.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/donpsmith54 Don Smith

    Perfect. Hindu sanctimony is more comical than 150 mostly old white guys meeting in secret to confer infallibility. I’m glad you see the practical truth, unfortunately in NY you’re a voice in the wilderness. Keep up your work on biotech in the popular press — say biotech not GM foods. Me, I’m saving to attend the Michael Pollan sermon/book-signing here in Minneapolis (the heart of corn-belt darkness) this planting season. For $500 I can have my picture taken alongside him. He’s bald and skinny, must be holy like Ghandi.

    Don Smith

    http://olsonpr.com/white-papers/biotech-food-debate-is-over-we-won-move-on/

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    Painfully self righteous. Great post

  • Mike Bendzela

    What Christopher Hitchens did to “Mother” Theresa some brave liberal needs to do to Vandana Shiva.

    • BBD

      See KK above.
      ;-)

  • JonFrum

    V.S. Naipaul pointed out decades ago that where Westerners saw in Gandhi political principles, Indians heard Hindu religiosity. Naipaul detailed an anti-rational, anti-Western, nationalistic strain in modern India that some Westerners saw as Indian authenticity. I’m thinking of the ‘institute for appropriate technology’ in which Indian city boys attempted to invent ‘better’ hand tools for Indian peasant farmers (which were always a disaster), instead of making currently existing agricultural technology available to gain the benefits accruing to Western farmers. Western neo-hippies can afford to play these anti-modernist games – for Indians, it was life or death.

  • Reese Houser

    I like this idea
    a lot, but it also scares me. I wonder
    how long it would be before my re-read stack was just as big.

    http://www.brilliantpapers.com

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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.

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