Shameful Shiva

Every time I read something Vandana Shiva has written, I become more convinced that she is either 1) willfully ignorant on the subject of farming or 2) willfully ignoring a whole swath of problems in order to focus on a pet peeve. She is another sad example of a self-styled celebrity who plays games with people’s lives because she is unwilling to move from her ideology. One would think she would at least adapt her diatribes to fit peer-reviewed research or the numerous surveys of the people she claims to protect. Unfortunately, she’s still using the same old talking points and flat out lies that have accomplished nothing.
Case in point: Shiva writes about the plight of Indian farmers in the Huffington Post article From Seeds of Suicide to Seeds of Hope: Why Are Indian Farmers Committing Suicide and How Can We Stop This Tragedy? in April of 2009. Instead of focusing on real solutions or the real source of the problems, she points a lazy finger at the boogeyman Monsanto. I don’t have any particular love for big M (or for capitalism in agriculture in general), but it’s wreckless to ignore all of the other issues, as she does in this article (and many others). Shiva writes:

Farm saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds, which need fertilizers and pesticides and cannot be saved.
Corporations prevent seed savings through patents and by engineering seeds with non-renewable traits. As a result, poor peasants have to buy new seeds for every planting season and what was traditionally a free resource, available by putting aside a small portion of the crop, becomes a commodity.
The shift from saved seed to corporate monopoly of the seed supply also represents a shift from biodiversity to monoculture in agriculture. The district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh used to grow diverse legumes, millets, and oilseeds. Now the imposition of cotton monocultures has led to the loss of the wealth of farmer’s breeding and nature’s evolution.

The majority of “corporate seed” is hybrid. If farmers save seed from hybrids, the resulting plants will not have the benefit of hybrid vigor. That’s biology, and has nothing to do with corporate greed, patents, or genetic engineering. Hybrids can be grown without fertilizers and pesticides, but they will then yield less. Local varieties yield less without fertilizer and pesticides as well. In other words, hybrid seed grown in farming methods that de-emphasize chemical inputs will do as well if not better than saved seed, assuming that the hybrid is appropriate for the environment (wet or dry soil, etc). Sadly, no one is researching the use of improved seed in alternative farming systems. This is not physics, it’s crop science – which might be why she doesn’t seem to understand it. Some activists argue that we shouldn’t be using hybrids at all, but removing hybrids of all types from the food supply would spell starvation for a lot of people.
There is no corporate monopoly of the seed supply in India. Ironically, things might be better if seeds there was such a monopoly, but seed is often bought from cut rate dealers selling counterfeit (mislabeled or fake) seed. To solve this problem, India would need to adopt some sort of seed certifying system. It would also be useful to have more government research into crop varieties including genetically engineered traits, then distribute them to farmers at low cost, as China does.
Farmers are welcome to continue using local varieties; there is no legal requirement for them to take out loans they can’t afford to buy fertilizers, pesticides, and seed (or larger houses, extravagant weddings, etc). One of the biggest problems plaguing farmers and small business owners all over the world is credit – absurdly high interest rates are a bigger problem than Bt could ever be.
Shiva never asks why “corporate seeds” were snapped up so quickly by farmers (perhaps she thinks they are stupid). Farmers all over the world are buying Bt seed of various species because it works. Bt decreases pest damage without increasing pesticide use. It isn’t a silver bullet, though. Bt only controls certain pests, and the specific varieties the trait is in may or may not be suited for the local environment. The best way to use traits like Bt are to integrate them carefully into an Integrated Farm Management Plan and to put the trait in locally adapted varieties.
To solve the existing farm problems in India – including eroded soil, misuse of fertilizers and pesticides, monocultures, and misuse of Bt – India needs farm extension and price regulation. The farmers surely remember how to grow millet, legumes, and oilseeds, but why would anyone choose to grow those if they could get a higher price for cotton?
Some of these and many other issues surrounding the problem of farmer suicides and Bt cotton in India can be found in a report by IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) in October of 2008. I wrote about the report in November of 2008 in Bt cotton and suicides in India.
h/t Luigi.

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar is a science communicator and science policy expert with a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Anastasia has had various risk analysis roles in US government and military service. She serves as BFI's Director of Policy and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog.


  1. I believe the real story of Vandana Shiva is much, much worse than you report. See this, for example. And there are lots of others.

    The trouble is, to reverse metaphors, she is the fawning courtier to all the newly-dressed emperors out there, with their bleeding-heart-on-sleeve concern for poor, put-upon, farmers who haven’t the sense to take care of their own interests.

    Not that there aren’t some real concerns. There are. But they don’t play to the gallery in quite the same way.

    If I had a steady job I’d dig deeper; I know there’s a lot more to uncover, but nobody really wants to know.

  2. My understanding is that India doesn’t recognize patents on transgenic events, which, along with a network of seed-production co-ops, would seem to position them in an far better position than many countries to take advantage of GE crops. Unfortunately the lack of reasonable credit, and any sort or societal safety net is counteracting a lot of those advantages.

    It is interesting that anti-GE advocates always end up having to denigrate the intelligence and specialized knowledge of the farmers they’re supposedly advocating for isn’t it?

    Good to have you back Anastasia.

  3. Oy. Shiva’s recent article was a doozy. But even worse was her completely fact-free response to the IFPRI’s report. She used toxic so many times without justifying it. I have lately become rather interested in her “Navdanya” organization and some “studies” that they are putting out on their website. Science by Press Release.

    I know what you mean, Anastasia, about some pro-GM people being anti-AGW and more. What’s going on in their cases is that they are self-appointed pro-private-business advocates. Steven Milloy is a great example – he even lobbied for the tobacco companies, denies global warming, and is pro-genetic engineering. One might mention the behavior of broken clocks to explain it.

    I’d sure love to interview Shiva in front of a camera someday about the Indian suicide claim someday…

  4. Something I always ponder when I read the latest regurgitation of the “Indian farmer suicides” story is the proportion of the Indian population that is regarded as a farmer? They have a population of approximately 1.2 billion people and if I remember correctly 60% of these are involved in farm work. So 720 million ‘farmers’. 12 times the population of the UK living in improving yet still difficult conditions in many instances. Claims of 17000 farmers per year committing suicide (Shiva’s own figures), whilst tragic, is still only a rate of 0.0024% or 1 in 42000 per annum. In the UK we have a farm workforce of just over 500,000 (, 0.0024% of which calculates at 12 farm workers. In fact, an average of 38 farmers commit suicide every year in the UK (Gregoire, A. Occup. Med. Vol. 52 No. 8, pp. 471–476, 2002). Maybe the saddest statistic of all for Ms Shiva to dwell on would be that in the Western world we have three times as many agricultural workers throwing in their chips each year and we don’t yet allow commercial planting of any GM crops.

  5. Hi guys,
    I’ll play devil’s advocate in a minute, but…
    I do agree about Dr. Shiva. I think the best word to describe her behavior is cynical. This is a very sad situation that she is using to attack something she doesn’t like. Truth is, she is putting the blame everywhere except for where it belongs. I sorry, but if you can’t do the farming, don’t. If you need help mentally or financially, get it. Shiva completely ignores the fact that these men abandoning their families is their choice, no one is forcing them to do this.
    Now to the fun part;) Doesn’t attacking those who don’t believe in AGW based (apparently) on their political leanings and motives smack of exactly what we object to coming from the anti-GM crowd. You bring up Ronald Bailey and Steve Milloy as if politcal commentators are the only folks questioning this. They don’t generate the data they comment on, but there are climate scientists coming to a variety of conclusions on this subject. I personally don’t know enough to judge them either way, but dismissing their work out of hand is EXACTLY the treatment we get from anti-GM and eniviro-types.
    Anastasia, you say “what is with activists randomly leaving their careers to tell people about things they don’t understand themselves?!” So true, Shiva is a physicist (not an agronomist), Spurlock is a filmaker (not a nutritionist), Mrs. Garcia is a “Dead head” (not a scientist or a farmer) and Mr. Gore is a politician (not a climate expert).

  6. Anastasia,

    You are far too generous in saying you “*think* she has her heart in the right place” or “lets her ideology get in the way”.

    She’s been in this business long enough to be able to know she is speaking outright lies. That leaves two options: either her sense of right and wrong (ideology) excuses lying, or she suffers from a mental defect which leaves her unable to discriminate between fact and fiction.

    If the former, her conscience is fundamentally corrupt; if the latter, a plea of insanity is the obvious defense. Neither leaves much room for a legitimate role in what’s popularly called “the debate”.

    And LorenE, you’re unfairly claiming to speak as a “devil’s advocate”. Your observations are accurate.

  7. Loren, you bring up some good points – but I think the situation is even more parallel than you allude.
    Both GM haters and GW deniers go out of their way to avoid the bulk of peer reviewed science. They rely on repeating stories that sound like a big deal but are really isolated incidents that have been dealt with. They are both also very fond of using “fighting the man” or “fighting the status quo” type arguments to try to make themselves sound more important.

    I do my best to keep an open mind on both genetic engineering and climate science (although I understand the former far more than the latter), and at this time I find that *some* genetically engineered crops are worth the risk, while it isn’t worth the risk to deny human caused climate change.

    I appreciate that all of these people want to speak out about things, but is this really the best way to go about it? I have one more inappropriate (and dangerous) activist to add to the list: Jenny McCarthy.

  8. Anastasia,

    Those familiar enough with agricultural biotechnology to know that it actually works as advertised would be well-advised to avoid resting its benefits on anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

    Since Golden Rice was first developed, over 16 million people have died from vitamin A deficiency (VAD).

    That’s actual dead people. Dead.

    Over the same period, AGW enthusiasts have consistently failed to deliver on the promised body count. Meanwhile, AGW enthusiasts can most generally be distinguished from “deniers” quite easily: the former rely on computer-generated numbers, while the latter rely on real-world measurements.

    But why quibble over such things? The fact is, we have millions already dead from agricultural failures which we *know* can be overcome with current technology. It would be a grave (sic) mistake to rest the value of proven technology on speculations regarding the potential future impacts of a trace gas which is only scarcely within our control.

  9. I don’t remember anyone promising a near-term body count to go along with AGW. But there are many projections that life in the next 100 years is going to get much more difficult, and that includes the biotech industry. One of the main thrusts is breeding and engineering crops to withstand more water stress and carbon dioxide levels – to be able to deal with climate change as it gets worse. The two are already being tied together, I’m afraid.

    The climate impacts of the largest use of land in the world (farming) are important. No-till agriculture produces less methane, and future reductions of fertilizer use will help reduce the energy requirements (and greenhouse gas emissions) of farming as well. These are good reasons to adopt the technology, and an honest way to frame it to environmentalists who might be dubious about genetic engineering.

    I’m not going to get into a discussion of the truth-or-falsehood of anthropogenic global warming here, except to say that the statement that “AGW enthusiasts” don’t rely on real-world measurements is patently false. Send your questions to

  10. I got my first heifer when I was 12 and bought my first steers was 15 in 1957 and have had an active interest in agriculture ever since. I farmed from 1972 until 1986 when my health, interests rates and drought made a job working for Ag Engineering at Oklahoma State University a good deal more attractive as it looked like it would take the rest of my life to get out of debt if farming when well.

    I raised dryland cotton, winter wheat and cattle as the main crops, alfalfa, milo, millet and a few others as catch crops.

    Two things my grandmother taught me, “pretty is as pretty does” and “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” applies to Greenpeace and Ms. Shiva. The results of the actions are what count not how they feel in their hearts if they have one.

    I don’t know Ms. Shiva’s intentions but she is woefully ignorant about farming. At talk she was giving near Houston Texas she called on field of weed as a field of rice a crop she is claims to know a lot about.

    In a world where honest men are shackled by not straying from the truth. In the arena of public opinion the dishonest man has substantial advantage. When the press goes with most exciting comments the dishonest man or group is free to shape their message almost any way they please. No one takes the time to added up their numbers and notice that things like the number of pesticide deaths some people claim exceed the people that died in that country that year.

    Farmers that pay a lot money for genetically modified seed only do it because it make them more money. No farmer is dumb enough to spend money on seed that doesn’t make more money than it costs or too simple to know to try a small amount first no matter the sales pitch that they get.

    The suicide rate among farmers in India seem to be caused by the same thing as suicide among farmers in USA was in the 1980’s, debt. In India’s case the government has started rewarding the families of farmers that commit suicide with forgiveness of debt and a cash payment as well:

    With no bankruptcy laws and heavy handed debt collection methods it isn’t hard to see why a farmer would choose suicide if it erased his debt and gave his family and fresh start with cash in their pocket.

    I little effort on google will uncover a lot interesting facts about the problems of farmer around the world. Slow pay for their crops, the government paying them 20 to 70% less than their crop is worth and paying them 3 to 6 months late are common problems of government run marketing plans. The lack of infrastructure, irrigation and power are common all over the world where the governments point their fingers at the west and blame us as the cause of their problems.


  11. Thanks very much for your insightful comments, Gordon. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s outraged by people who think farmers are stupid and frustrated by people who show off for the cameras.

  12. The idea that farmers all over the place who are adopting GE crops are stupid or ignorant is pervasive. For those who are convinced that GE crops cannot benefit anyone but the seed company that sells them – it is really the only option they have that is consistent with their beliefs. To state otherwise would be to admit that their assumptions are wrong. I know that Shiva et al have referred to Indian farmers as ignorant, in the context of Monsanto ‘taking advantage’ of them. But there are two sides to this coin – you could just as easily say that Shiva is taking advantage of the ‘ignorance’ of these farmers when she tells them that GE crops are to blame for their troubles.

    From what I understand of Monsanto’s approach to farmers this is the opposite of what they try to do – it is in their interest to make the farmers happy because the farmers are the ones who they sell to. When I was at the BIO convention the industry folks were asking farmers what traits they wanted, and one farmer specifically asked for ‘no roundup-ready peanuts’ – to prevent volunteers in their cotton-corn-peanut rotations.

    I think the situation in India is a prime example of externalizing the blame – putting the attention outward rather than on their internal problems.

    Marion Nestle has expressed puzzlement as to how quickly GE crops have been adopted, although she has stopped short of claiming anything about the intelligence of farmers who grow them.

    There is some research about GE crop adoption following a “fad”-like pattern. Anti-GE folks who are aware of the research have tried to spin it to mean that farmers are using it for non-rational reasons, and suggest that they do not grow them because of any actual benefits. But what they don’t realize is that ALL new technologies (and practices) are adopted with that pattern, from iPods to Organic Agriculture. I should write a post about this sometime come to think of it. 🙂

  13. To: The Inoculated Mind.

    Calling organic agriculture modern is bit ridiculous. It was found in in England by two people that set down rules to farm by nearly 100 years ago. Some were good rules, using organic waste, rotation crops and growing legumes. Some were based on politics in a time when nitrates were a British monopoly and the Haber-Bosch process had made the Fist World war possible by allowing Germany a source of nitrates to gun powder and explosives.

    One of the founders Lady Eve Balfore’s uncle Arthur was deeply involved in the blockade of Germany as Foreign Minister form the time she what 15 to 20 years old and going to school studying agriculture.

    No one that lived in country at war that depends on inputs from foreign sources can help but want their food source to only depend on what you have under your control. Britain has no natural gas and she was farming when the only source of nitrogen came from guano from far away islands and deposits of Sodium nitrate were under British and US control and remembered the cost in lives, ships and money Lady Balfor’s uncle had spent going after the German commerce raiders in the pacific preying on all commerce going to its enemies. Guano and Chilean Nitrates were their only source of off farm nitrogen.

    Like many people in WW I they disliked the idea of German firms selling man made nitrates mostly as power and explosives but some as fertilizer to help finance the war. Then after the war Germany could undercut the prices of Guano and Chilean nitrates another blow to UK. It is normal to look to sure resources of manure and legumes instead of facing the risk of being cut of from nitrogen in another war.

    To still be farming by rules like that she arbitrarily laid down at a time when natural gas was dear is foolish. The World bank estimates that 25% of the amount of natural gas used in the USA is burned up in flares in the rest of the world where it produced with oil and too far from a market to sell. Portable Haber-Bosch plants could be set up to tune that natural gas into anhydrous ammonia that can be shipped as is or made in dry or liquid fertilizer and put back in the soil.

    I see the real results of genetically modified seed. The fellow that farms my place has used it for years. He uses 1/4 the fuel I did and gets 20% better yields than I did. There is no longer any erosion on ground that really needed a terrace the way we were farming it. He doesn’t have to go out when the wind gets up to see if the sand is blowing any more. Soil tests show the organic matter in the soil is gaining ground and I never saw earth worm on the place before but their sure there now taking the crop residue on top of the soil and processing in their guts to more organic matter in soil.

    I only get a 10% gain in the yield from GM cotton and we still find it worth the money. India has hockey stick shaped curve since they allowed GM cotton in 2003 that make more money than I do.
    248, 273, 268, 355, 420, 416, 461, 480 pounds of cotton lint per US acre.
    2000 2003 2007

    I see the same curve in every third world country that has a serious boll worm problem.

    It isn’t a fad like adoption it the amount pure green money they can make from growing it that leads to rapid acceptance. Indian farmers have been just getting by on 1/2 bale to the acre cotton when most of the world averages more than a 480 pound bale since the 1984 when they made a jump to 220#/ac from 150#/ac in 1984 before that it had been in slow climb from 100 pounds to the acre in 1961 to the 150 pounds that took 23 years probably the least improvement of any major cotton growing country in the world.


  14. Gordon, I agree that a lot of the ideas behind organic are far from modern, and some ideas often connected with organic (like biodynamics) are downright ridiculous. However, there are some legitimate ideas that are valuable enough to consider integrating them into farming systems, like rotations with legumes to build N and reduce incidence with disease. I don’t know how much the ideas can actually be attributed to organic, but they are now considered in that category. By combining these low tech solutions with modern methods, I think a more sustainable farming that maintains high yields might be developed –“ rel=”nofollow”>orgenic farming.

  15. Gordon!

    It’s been far too long since I’ve last seen you on the web. Your calm voice of reason and experience has sorely been lacking amidst the clamor of cozy urbanites who claim the prerogative of dictating farmers’ choices. Please drop me a note, you can find me.


  16. Great article Anastasia!! My background is Indian, and my family have been farmers for generations. Most of the Indian farmers don’t have enough land to produce for their families, let alone sell crops for profit. And blue blooded intellectuals like Shiva take their political agenda to the poor uneducated masses and deny them the technology. It is unfortunate, those are intellectually bankrupt ideas. She is made famous by the western media, now almost has a cult status among the followers of greenpeace and environmental movement in the first world. What makes me mad, is how come the farmers are never mentioned in the equation. Shouldn’t their opinion matter as well, but convenient for Shiva to ignore that. She makes me mad, and I wish I could be profanity like Penn and Teller. Keep up the good work.

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