I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Vandana Shiva the other day. If you haven’t heard about her, make sure to check out her initiative Navdanya, a network of seed banks, farm schools and across India – she has become somewhat of an icon of the anti-GMO movement in the wake of battling seed corporations for decades.
The above video by The Perennial Plate (which is, by the way, an amazing project focused on weekly short videos about food systems around the world which I can highly recommend) captures the essence of Dr. Shiva very well – she is an amazingly powerful public speaker with very strong opinions and extremely persuasive rhetoric. Thus, on the one hand I was really happy to have gone to the event just to hear about her work within Navdanya, which does a lot of inspiring work to preserve Indian agricultural biodiversity and to empower farmers.
However, on the other hand, her very strong opinions about GMOs and biotech corporations in general and Monsanto in particular make it difficult for me to fully support her movement without any caveats. As I hope this blog has reflected so far, I am a person that likes nothing more than balanced viewpoints and fully-fledged arguments that take into consideration all of the newest research findings, good and bad alike. And while this makes me very critical of the extremely optimistic rhetoric (Vandana Shiva calls it ‘propaganda’) of pro-gentech advocates and businesses, it also makes me a little reluctant to take Dr. Shiva’s story for granted with no reservations, simply because things are very rarely black and white.
A commenter on the Perennial Plate video summarized my feelings very aptly when he said “the story of these farmer suicides is tragic, and Vandana Shiva’s work with Navdanya is important, but I think it’s important for all of us to remember that this video represents a single perspective. India’s agricultural economy is affected by more than a single corporate giant. Farmers the world over must cope with drought, flood, market fluctuations and government intervention. I’m not suggesting that Monsanto is entirely innocent, but I don’t think that characterizing Monsanto as an evil villain does anybody any good. I love the passion with which her story is told, but I know there’s more to it than this.”
And showing that more (such as a differentiated analysis of the correlation, and potential causal link, between GMO cotton and farmer suicides, for example) might be even more powerful than to stick to the counterarguments bordering on conspiracy theories that seed corporations are setting up to take over the world. Yes, they are powerful lobbyists and yes, they strive to establish monopolies in their markets – because they are profit-maximizing entities. If these business practices are counteracting our environmental and public health – which I would argue they are – we should righteously be advocating for political regulations that keep such actions in check. But it is my belief that such reform is best achieved through dialogue and compromise, rather than through the emotional arguments that anti-GMO groups are pushing. Such an approach might also lead to the issue becoming more mainstream and reaching the majority of voters, rather than the leftist fringe that seemed to gather two days ago at Dr. Shiva’s talk.
What do you think of Vandana Shiva’s work and her rhetoric? Do her arguments convince you or do they make you more skeptical and motivated to find out the entire story?
Bonus: In response to some of the comments on their video, the Perennial Plate authors wrote a very thoughtful blogpost on the ethics of storytelling and whether they should have presented a counter-opinion in their video. Worth a read!