Friday, June 19, 2015

Vandana Shiva and the global anti-GMO campaign

Vandana Shiva is a well known environmental activist, eco-feminist, and anti-GMO campaigner. Time Magazine in 2003 called her an environmental hero and one of Asia's most powerful communicators.
Shiva has her critics, however. A long article in the New Yorker by Michael Specter is a recent example of criticism of her work, although it also acknowledges contributions she has made to the environmental movement. A response to the article by Counter Punch by Marxist Louis Proyect calls the article a "hatchet job" but that seems overly harsh. Specter makes a number of valid criticisms of Shiva. I have always had doubts about Shiva even though I agree with many of her positions. For example, I oppose the patents on GMO and the restrictions on farmers reusing the seed. However, the problem of patents applies to many areas. Patent protection adds huge costs to health plans because many drugs are patented and companies can charge whatever the market will bear with no fear of competition.
Shiva herself talks about the drug issue in the appended video. Stroumboulopolous treats Shiva with kid gloves. He doesn't even point out that she doe not have a Ph.D in quantum physics at all. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy, not physics, and her thesis about quantum physics from Western Ontario University is in the Philosophy of Science. Not that it matters that much since Physics is not really that relevant to her positions against GMO but it makes me uneasy that she should misrepresent what her degree was in. Throughout the interview there are no hard questions or critiques of anything she says.
She also talks about suicides in India after GM cotton was introduced. However, these did not increase in the agricultural sector, according to many critics. Critics have also pointed out that other factors caused the suicides, not the fact there were GMO seeds. Finally, another critic pointed out that the suicide rate was higher in other areas than agriculture.In any event, a correlation does not mean there was a causal relation. She has used simple correlations to establish causation when studies fail to show any causal connections. For example she uses the correlation between a sharp rise in autism with the use of the chemical glyphosate in Roundup to conclude that glyphosate is the cause of that increase. Shiva said:“If you look at the graph of the growth of G.M.O.s, the growth of application of glyphosate and autism, it’s literally a one-to-one correspondence. And you could make that graph for kidney failure, you could make that graph for diabetes, you could make that graph even for Alzheimer’s.”With a degree in Philosophy of Science, you would think that she would be aware of the difference between a correlation and a causal relation. No doubt you could draw a similar graph about the use of cellphones increasing dramatically over the same period. Maybe it is that horrible Apple company's dramatic sales increases that is causing all this. There are almost no studies that show a causal connection between the use of glysophate and the listed diseases.
I have always been conflicted about environmentalist views. On the issue of GMO I have always felt that their development was positive. They provided the possibility of growing food in areas that have insufficient water by creating drought resistant crops. Such crops would also could conserve water if grown where water is scarce as in parts of California. Products such asGolden Rice could provide much needed Vitamin A for people in undeveloped countries who lacked the vitamin. Yet Shiva along with other ant-GMO groups, such as Greenpeace, oppose its development. I agree with Shiva that patent protection for seeds, contracts that ban farmers from using seed from their crops to replant, and biopiracy are important issues but they have to do with the structure of corporate capitalism, not the technology or value of GMO products. That GMO products are beneficial appears to be recognized when it comes to the production of insulin.
An article last year called "GMO Cheerios versus GMO Insulin" puts the issue quite succinctly:The recent decision of General Mills to produce GMO-free Cheerios is interesting from marketing, political, and biological angles. However, what I am interested in most is if GMO Inside and other anti-GMO groups will realize that the process of producing the GMO ingredients in Cheerios (corn starch and sugar) is identical in principle to the way insulin—and many other drugs, like your dog’s rabies shot—is made. If they adamantly insist on GMO-free food products, how can they not extend their request to all pharmaceutical products made with the same genetic engineering technology? If we must have GMO-free Cheerios, then we must have GMO-free insulin, right?
GMO Insulin was first produced by injecting the human insulin gene into e coli bacteria so that the bacteria become a sort of insulin-producing factory. There are some anti-GMO advocates who also object against this, but not many and they do not have any hope of banning insulin produced through GMO technology as has been done with GM foods in Europe.
While agreeing with many of the criticisms of corporate dominated modern western agriculture, there are many positive features of the system which keeps adapting and introducing creative new technology as well. The main problem is that all this new technology will be employed only if it makes a profit and only those who have the money to buy the products will be able to benefit from them. As a result, many continue to starve or are themselves further impoverished by the developing system. The technology and the forces of production that capitalism has produced should be applauded even though their full benefit cannot be realized within the system. Some environmentalists such as Shiva appear to see western agricultural technology as simply an instrument of colonization and not a potential liberator of people from poverty and famine, that is to be left to some more primitive system of production less centralized, no doubt more in harmony with something called "nature." Meanwhile Shiva uses all the advanced technology of western colonizing science to jet around the world. She charges $40,000 per lecture and a business air ticket from New Delhi according to journalist Keith Kloor.
If there is any person who hated, criticized, and wanted to overthrow the capitalist system it was Marx, but the Communist Manifesto says:The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. ..The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?There is of course involved here the idea of progress which is rejected by many leftists nowadays. Environmentalists such as Shiva often present us a romanticized view of pre-capitalist societies. They represent a way backward in my opinion.


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