Holding a Beloved Figure Accountable for False Claims

By Keith Kloor | August 24, 2014 8:34 am

In 2002, the global GMO discourse chagrined anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone:

Western audiences have been bombarded with deceptive rhetoric, spin, and soundbite science portraying the wonders—or horrors—of the new technology.

He blamed both the biotech industry and anti-GMO activists for exploiting food security concerns to advance their own agendas. The article, published in the journal Current Anthropology, is a snapshot of a formative time, when dueling narratives pushed by industry and GMO opponents had taken shape. Stone’s objective was laudable:

My focus here is on the core problem of the feeding of the growing populations in the developing world. This decomposes into two issues: the potential for biotechnology to reduce hunger by boosting food output and the need to take a discriminating view of genetically modified crops (e.g., distinguishing those from the corporate and those from the public sector) rather than treating genetic modification as a monolithic project. I examine the dominant industry and green positions on these two issues, using case material from India.

At the time, as Stone noted:

The specter of the industralization of farming, privatization of germplasm, and eventual depeasantization in developing countries has proved a mighty stimulus to a range of green writers and activists.

Such concerns fueled the anti-GMO movement and, as Stone observed,

helped make an international star of Vandana Shiva, whose voluminous writings depict genetic modification as threatening an idyllic traditional agrarian culture that is ecologically stable, seed-saving, biodiverse, noncommercial, and female-oriented.

Shiva would go on to be an instrumental figure in the global anti-GMO movement over the next decade. She was (and remains) the forceful purveyor of one of the biggest GMO myths: That the “failure” of genetically modified cotton has driven more than a quarter million Indian farmers to suicide. As I wrote last year in my deconstruction of this myth, “no one has done more to promote the narrative of Monsanto’s ‘seeds of suicide’ than Vandana Shiva.” I extensively chronicled the role Shiva played in perpetuating the GMO-Indian farmer suicide narrative, which a mostly credulous media bought into.

In his 2002 journal article, Stone discusses Shiva’s worldview and GMO rhetoric as reflective of the “characteristic green position.” He writes:

The greens’ demonization of genetically modified crops has effects that are contradictory to their values. Promoting blanket disapproval of such crops helps drive public-sector genetic modification into the arms of industry. Genetic modification is expensive, and most public projects are in a constant struggle for funding. Industry provides some funds and access to genetic materials; greens provide no funding and obstruct philanthropic investment (ABC News Online 2001).

If you read the full article, you’ll see it’s clear that Stone holds the Shivas of the world responsible for inflaming the GMO discourse and for having a misguided approach to biotechnology. (As I mentioned, he also found industry just as culpable for justifying its interests with grand claims.)

After my piece on Shiva and the GMO suicide myth appeared in the staid Issues in Science and Technology magazine, I was surprised by Stone’s vehement response to it.

In his letter to the magazine, Stone didn’t take issue with my debunking of the Indian farmer-GMO suicide myth, but rather my supposed intentions:

Kloor’s goal was not to understand the problem of farmer suicide, but rather to use it to whip up hatred toward Vandana Shiva and “liberal and environmentalist circles,” where GMOs are unpopular.

In fact, my primary goal was to show how a popular and damaging myth spread, virtually unchecked in the media. (And to show the machinations of an influential anti-GMO leader.) Equally important, I aimed to explore the complicated socio-political reasons for the Indian farmer suicides.

If this perturbed Stone, I can hardly wait to see his reaction to Michael Specter’s revealing New Yorker profile of Shiva. Perhaps it will be along the lines of this:

It’s remarkable that Bittman considers this unhinged rant against Specter “interesting” enough to share with his 437,000 followers. It’s mind-blowing that he finds it “flattering” (the writer gushes over Bittman).

Look, I get it that Shiva is perceived as a saintly champion for the downtrodden. I know she is beloved in environmental circles, “someone who understands the big-picture concerns of green-inclined young people with great clarity,” as Nathanael Johnson wrote this week in Grist. But does that give her a free pass to vilify her opponents and demonize a technology that may actually help address some of those big-picture concerns?

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an 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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