I’m excited to share today’s guest post by a buddy of mine, Jayson Merkley. Merkley is a Fellow with the Cornell Alliance for Science and the campaign co-founder of Vegan GMO and happens to live in Salem, Oregon, just down the road from me. The other day he alerted me that Dr. Vandana Shiva, a well-known international anti-GMO activist, is scheduled to speak at Willamette University today in Salem. I encouraged him to submit an opinion piece to the Salem paper – the Statesman Journal – and he submitted the below letter but was, for unexplained reasons, denied. I think it’s really unfortunate that Willamette University is giving Dr. Shiva a platform to spread her misinformation when she’s well-known in the science community for lacking the credibility she claims on subjects. So I decided to share Merkley’s letter here – please share it widely. Additionally, if you’re in the Oregon area, there will be a protest outside the University tonight during Dr. Shiva’s scheduled talk hosted by the Portland MAMyths. Feel free to join them. – Sara
As a conscientious eater and agricultural advocate I’m extremely disappointed to see the University’s Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences hosting Vandana Shiva as part of their Dempsey Lecture series. Don’t get me wrong; I am a strong supporter of Willamette soliciting diverse voices to represent various perspectives as part of the series, but Dr. Shiva lacks the credibility to add to a productive conversation, and her blatant anti-science stance should not be promoted by a science department. As an ethical vegan I’m quite sympathetic to ethical issues in food production, which makes it all the more frustrating to see legitimate concerns for developing world farmers obfuscated by misleading claims about innovative ag technology.
Dr. Shiva is an Indian philosopher with a long track record of distorting the truth—especially around modern agriculture. Driven by her opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crops, Vandana has gone so far as to say in a 2011 speech that fertilizer is a “weapon of mass destruction.” This opposition to a basic input for plant growth leads one to question her most basic knowledge of agriculture, and speaks volumes to her ability to sensationalize the conversation.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated statement from her, but rather a reflection of the dramatization she uses to attack a variety of modern agricultural techniques. When it comes to GE crops, Dr. Shiva employs a wide range of claims to make her point, all of which can be debunked with a simple Google search.
One staple of her presentations is an attempt to link GE crops to many modern maladies including autism, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Using the logical fallacy that correlation equals causation, she refers to graphs that show these diseases growing at a similar rate to the consumption of GE crops. Not only is there is absolutely no proof that any disease is related to GE crops, but thousands of studies have disproven that claim and corroborated the safety of GE food over the past two decades. Trillions of meals containing GE food have been consumed during that time without a single documented case of negative effects. A similar graph could show the incidences of these diseases correlating very well with the growth of organic food sales, but no one would credibly make the argument that organic food causes autism.
In fact, every major world science organization has concluded that biotech foods are as safe for human and animal consumption as their non-GE counterparts including the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Council for Science, the French Food Agency, and the British Medical Association.
Dr. Shiva’s activism on agricultural issues has crossed the line of civility in many areas, but perhaps none as much as when she blames the tragedy of farmer suicides in India on GE cotton. Farmer suicides in India have been a major problem for decades, well before the advent of GE crops. Studies have shown that a lack of affordable credit and virtually no crop insurance programs are the likely cause—not GE cotton. And while suicide is a problem in India, the rate for Indian farmers is actually less than that of the general population. Falsely using these tragedies to oppose GE crops is unconscionable, and the fact that Dr. Shiva continues to use this as an argument, despite the evidence to the contrary, is just another example of her lack of credibility and her attempt to inappropriately blame a technology for a very real problem in order to scare people away from a useful agricultural tool.
Why is this opposition so dangerous? Because millions of real lives in the developing world are being affected by Dr. Shiva’s activism. Perhaps the most damning example is her continued opposition to Golden Rice. It is estimated that this genetically engineered variety of rice, donated royalty-free to farmers, could help provide vitamin A to the more than 190 million children under age five who suffer from vitamin A deficiency which can lead to blindness and eventually death. A 2014 study concluded that the absence of Golden Rice over the last decade has caused the loss of over 1,424,680 life years in India alone. This is the real tragedy in India, yet Dr. Shiva continues to vociferously oppose Golden Rice simply because it’s a result of brilliant genetic engineering and would be a clear demonstration of the positive benefits of GMOs.
We can all agree that the future of our worldwide agricultural systems involves a complex conversation and to find a solution will require every tool we have and many we don’t. By the end of the 21st century, it is estimated that we will need to feed an additional 3 billion people, requiring farmers to grow more food in the next seventy-five years than has been produced in all of human history. Unfortunately, Dr. Shiva has proven time and time again that she is more concerned with standing in the way of progress toward that goal than she is about actually finding solutions to feed the world.
Willamette University must have higher standards than this, and I can only assume when they discover the background on who they’ve invited, they will agree Vandana Shiva does not meet those standards. Speakers who are known for mis-representing the facts to impressionable minds should not be given the platform of credibility provided by a lecture series at a well-respected University. The rhetoric she uses is simply unacceptable. I urge the University to cancel the event, and be more thoughtful about who it invites in the future. Additionally I’d like to urge the Willamette University student body and my fellow citizens of Salem to take a stand on behalf of Indian farmers; let’s do what we can to give them access to more tools, not less.