Wednesday, August 27, 2014

MICHAEL SPECTER - Seeds of Doubt: An activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops.

Early this spring, the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva led an unusual pilgrimage across southern Europe. Beginning in Greece, with the international Pan-Hellenic Exchange of Local Seed Varieties Festival, which celebrated the virtues of traditional agriculture, Shiva and an entourage of followers crossed the e Adriatic and travelled by bus up the boot of Italy, to Florence, where she spoke at the Seed, Food and Earth Democracy Festival. After a short planning meeting in Genoa, the caravan rolled on to the South of France, ending in Le Mas d’Azil, just in time to celebrate International Days of the Seed.

Shiva’s fiery opposition to globalization and to the use of genetically modified crops has made her a hero to anti-G.M.O. activists everywhere. The purpose of the trip through Europe, she had told me a few weeks earlier, was to focus attention there on “the voices of those who want their agriculture to be free of poison and G.M.O.s.” At each stop, Shiva delivered a message that she has honed for nearly three decades: by engineering, patenting, and transforming seeds into costly packets of intellectual property, multinational corporations such as Monsanto, with considerable assistance from the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the United States government, and even philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are attempting to impose “food totalitarianism” on the world. She describes the fight against agricultural biotechnology as a global war against a few giant seed companies on behalf of the billions of farmers who depend on what they themselves grow to survive. Shiva contends that nothing less than the future of humanity rides on the outcome.

“There are two trends,” she told the crowd that had gathered in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, in Florence, for the seed fair. “One: a trend of diversity, democracy, freedom, joy, culture—people celebrating their lives.” She paused to let silence fill the square. “And the other: monocultures, deadness. Everyone depressed. Everyone on Prozac. More and more young people unemployed. We don’t want that world of death.” The audience, a mixture of people attending the festival and tourists on their way to the Duomo, stood transfixed. Shiva, dressed in a burgundy sari and a shawl the color of rust, was a formidable sight. “We would have no hunger in the world if the seed was in the hands of the farmers and gardeners and the land was in the hands of the farmers,” she said. “They want to take that away.”

Shiva, along with a growing army of supporters, argues that the prevailing model of industrial agriculture, heavily reliant on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, and a seemingly limitless supply of cheap water, places an unacceptable burden on the Earth’s resources. She promotes, as most knowledgeable farmers do, more diversity in crops, greater care for the soil, and more support for people who work the land every day. Shiva has particular contempt for farmers who plant monocultures—vast fields of a single crop. “They are ruining the planet,” she told me. “They are destroying this beautiful world.”

The global food supply is indeed in danger. Feeding the expanding population without further harming the Earth presents one of the greatest challenges of our time, perhaps of all time. By the end of the century, the world may well have to accommodate ten billion inhabitants—roughly the equivalent of adding two new Indias. Sustaining that many people will require farmers to grow more food in the next seventy-five years than has been produced in all of human history. For most of the past ten thousand years, feeding more people simply meant farming more land. That option no longer exists; nearly every arable patch of ground has been cultivated, and irrigation for agriculture already consumes seventy per cent of the Earth’s freshwater.

The nutritional demands of the developing world’s rapidly growing middle class—more protein from pork, beef, chicken, and eggs—will add to the pressure; so will the ecological impact of climate change, particularly in India and other countries where farmers depend on monsoons. Many scientists are convinced that we can hope to meet those demands only with help from the advanced tools of plant genetics. Shiva disagrees; she looks upon any seed bred in a laboratory as an abomination.

The fight has not been easy. Few technologies, not the car, the phone, or even the computer, have been adopted as rapidly and as widely as the products of agricultural biotechnology. Between 1996, when genetically engineered crops were first planted, and last year, the area they cover has increased a hundredfold—from 1.7 million hectares to a hundred and seventy million. Nearly half of the world’s soybeans and a third of its corn are products of biotechnology. Cotton that has been engineered to repel the devastating bollworm dominates the Indian market, as it does almost everywhere it has been introduced.

Those statistics have not deterred Shiva. At the age of sixty-one, she is constantly in motion: this year, she has travelled not only across Europe but throughout South Asia, Africa, and Canada, and twice to the United States. In the past quarter century, she has turned out nearly a book a year, including “The Violence of the Green Revolution,” “Monocultures of the Mind,” “Stolen Harvest,” and “Water Wars.” In each, she has argued that modern agricultural practices have done little but plunder the Earth... read more: