She’s baaack, and it’s not good news for science literacy, farmers and food-minded Hawaiians.
I’m referring to Vandana Shiva, the Indian anti-GMO crusader who kicked off a five-day blitz through Hawaii with a talk-and-music fest at the Capitol Building on Wednesday.
It’s a grand tour, marked by private fund-raising pitches to wealthy locals and wannabees from the mainland who view the limited role of biotechnological research in modern agriculture as an anathema–Hawaii is a world center because of its favorable climate.
Campaigns like this tour aimed at shutting down nursery centers, most based in Maui, could send the seed giants fleeing to Puerto Rico or the Philippines, costing Hawaii hundreds of millions of dollars and hurting the cause for sustainability in the process.
Shiva’s tour caps off with a Sunday afternoon rally at the Seabury Theatre on Maui with headlined demands for what the prime organizer–Washington, DC-based Center for Food Safety (CFS)–calls “home rule.” While polls show a majority of Maui farmers and residents oppose the effort to shut down the seed nurseries and research labs, anyone but diehard opponents of modern agriculture will be personae non grata at this rally.
Shiva is reprising her 2013 tour, also led by CFS, which oversees scheduling of her $40,000-a-pop promotional speeches. A Brahmin who professes to stand with women and the poor, Shiva maintains her goal is “giving voice to those who want their agriculture free of poison and GMOs.”
On her arrival two years ago, Shiva was an exotic unknown–an “eco warrior goddess” and a “rock star in the global battle over genetically modified seeds,” in the words of journalist Bill Moyers. Here in Hawaii, she was treated as a foreign dignitary. No one dared criticize her.
Now, two years later, as more details of her philosophy and background have emerged, a darker picture has emerged. She leverages her claim as an expert at every stop. “I am scientist… a Quantum Physicist,” she claimed, until recently on her website and in many books, a claim repeated by journalists, even prominent. But she’s not. Her degree was in humanities–she’s a philosopher of science, but has no professional hard science background or writings.
To her followers? Details, Details.
Hawaii County set itself apart from much of the rest of the state in December by effectively banning the large biotech seed companies that have become a major, though controversial, part of Hawaii agriculture.
But with a ban also on the outdoor testing of transgenic crops, can the Big Island, home to genetically modified papaya, still be a place for genetic research?
Six months later, the answer might be clearly no for some researchers while a bit hazy for others.
Because of the law, Russell Nagata, Hawaii County administrator for the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said his staff will not pursue genetic engineering.
“It will prevent us from using biotech as a solution” to agricultural issues, he said following a panel discussion on genetic modification Thursday evening.
“It forces us to look at it in a different manner. It may be slow, it may not be as effective.”
Scientists interviewed say growing modified crops, that are still under development, in open fields is necessary to test their effectiveness.
While they say they take steps to prevent the spread of genes, including the removal of plants before flowering, critics of genetic modification believe outdoor testing presents too much risk. They also question the approval process.
“We are looking at the precautionary principle,” said Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille during the panel discussion sponsored by the Hilo chapter of the American Association of University Women. Wille introduced the bill restricting the use of transgenic crops.
Under the county’s law, testing can occur but it must be done indoors.
At the time the bill was adopted, Nagata said his office was not conducting any genetic research.
For those with projects already in progress, the law might provide less certainty.
Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said he is continuing his research on creating lettuce resistant to the tomato spotted wilt virus but is unsure of whether he can get it approved with the current restrictions.
We feel that genetic engineering is an important and crucial technology. Ignorance and myths surrounding this field hinders advancement at best and harms at worst. It’s especially a concern to us as vegans for these reasons:
- Animal testing: Insisting on unfounded safety testing leads to more animals being harmed in order to perform this testing.
- Animal alternatives: GM technology can help create alternatives to animal products. For example, insulin used to be obtained from slaughtered animals; now it is manufactured by genetically modified bacteria. It could also be possible to use GM technology to replace animal foods. Cheese has been difficult to mock, and the lack of acceptable vegan cheese analogues could be a barrier for many potential vegans.
- Nutrition & Health: GM technology can benefit vegans by creating plants rich in nutrients vegans lack, such as vitamin B12 and DHA. This would make it easier for people to go and stay vegan. Recently, CSIRO scientists have been enabling canola plants to produce DHA. People who are vegan need DHA, and synthetic DHA can help save the lives of fish, who are often used as a source of omega-3 fatty acids. People are animals too, and there are many in dire need of help. GM technology could help bring essential nutrients to starving populations, and GM foods could even be used as vehicles for vaccine delivery.
- Environment: Creating plants that use fewer pesticides and fertilizers will help us strive toward a sustainable agriculture that’s less detrimental to all life on this planet. Fewer insects would be killed, less runoff will poison fish, and no- or low-till agriculture will save the lives of ground-dwelling animals.
There are many in the vegan community co-opting the vegan cause with conspiratorial thinking and junk information on GMO. The best antidote to this is good critical thinking. Please be sure the source for your information is well-qualified and scientific.
A popular weapon used by those critical of agricultural biotechnology is to claim that there has been little to no evaluation of the safety of GM crops and there is no scientific consensus on this issue. Those claims are simply not true.
NOTE: This piece was co-written with a writer at the Genetic Literacy Project, JoAnna Wendel.
“The science just hasn’t been done.”
– Charles Benbrook, organic researcher, Washington State University.
“There is no credible evidence that GMO foods are safe to eat.”
– David Schubert, Salk Institute of Biological Studies
“[The] research [on GMOs] is scant…. Whether they’re killing us slowly— contributing to long-term, chronic maladies—remains anyone’s guess.”
– Tom Philpott, Mother Jones
“Genetically modified (GM) foods should be a concern for those who suffer from food allergies because they are not tested….”
The claim that genetically engineered crops are ‘understudied’—the meme represented in the quotes highlighted above—has become a staple of opponents of crop biotechnology, especially activist journalists. Anti-GMO campaigners, including many organic supporters, assert time and again that genetically modified crops have not been safety tested or that the research done to date on the health or environmental impact of GMOs has “all” been done by the companies that produce the seeds. Therefore, they claim, consumers are taking a ‘leap of faith’ in concluding that they face no harm from consuming foods made with genetically modified ingredients.
That is false.
Carlow, Ireland — Ewen Mullins is the face of modern Ireland: Young, cosmopolitan, highly educated, he is a plant scientist whose work on a genetically modified potato inherently looks to the future. But Mullins also must think back to one of Ireland’s darkest chapters, the Great Famine of the 1840s.
“It’s always there,” he said. “It’s not something we forget or something we should be allowed to forget.”
From his laboratory and greenhouse in a research farm outside Carlow, 42-year-old Mullins deals daily with a disease that not only afflicts his native land but haunts it: the potato blight, a pernicious rot caused by a fungus that still thrives in Ireland’s wet, cold climate.
The disease has become even more damaging in the past five years with the arrival of new, highly aggressive strains. Unchecked, blight can destroy entire crops in just days.
Mullins and his team have spent the winter cloning new potato stock in a locked, temperature controlled room and, nearby, a secured greenhouse bay where the plant is isolated and any waste must be sterilized in a steamer.
In the spring, they will start the test by setting out more than 2,000 transplants in a fenced field at the Irish agricultural research service’s farm.
“There’s a lot of public interest” in his work, Mullins said. Not all of it is friendly. Genetic engineering remains highly controversial in Europe, and the research in Ireland has spawned a campaign against it.
The field trials in Carlow are harming Ireland’s reputation for local, organic and artisanal food, said Kaethe Burt-O’Dea, a Dublin-based local-food activist. “People feel that once you let GM in, there’s really no turning back,” she said.
But proponents of the genetically modified potato say its eventual use could prevent harmful and expensive applications of pesticides and bolster potato yields, which are decimated by the blight in poorer countries today.
The potato is the third-most-consumed crop on the planet after wheat and rice and has become increasingly important in the developing world, which now has more potato fields than developed countries, according to Dutch scientists at the forefront of the effort.
Today the amount of Irish farmland devoted to the potato pales in comparison with pasture land and cereal production. And yet the potato remains an iconic vegetable here, in many homes arriving nightly on the dinner table in a big steaming bowl — boiled, floury and in their skins.
Like other potato farmers, David Rodgers is wary of a biologically engineered superpotato.
“We are fighting the blight, we are growing the potato,” he said. Pressed some more, Rodgers says everything depends on consumer acceptance. “You can’t decide to do it without finding out if the consumer would want to buy it. Europe is so against GM.”
While St. Patrick’s Day marks the traditional start of the new potato planting season, some growers have already put seed spuds in their fields. Rodgers and his three brothers will plant a total of 250 acres in County Dublin next month. He knows he will do battle with the blight, especially if the season again is cool, humid and wet, conditions that favor the spread of spores.
Genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop but has vastly increased the use of chemicals and the growth of “superweeds”, according to a report by 20 Indian, south-east Asian, African and Latin American food and conservation groups representing millions of people.
The so-called miracle crops, which were first sold in the US about 20 years ago and which are now grown in 29 countries on about 1.5bn hectares (3.7bn acres) of land, have been billed as potential solutions to food crises, climate change and soil erosion, but the assessment finds that they have not lived up to their promises.
The report claims that hunger has reached “epic proportions” since the technology was developed. Besides this, only two GM “traits” have been developed on any significant scale, despite investments of tens of billions of dollars, and benefits such as drought resistance and salt tolerance have yet to materialise on any scale.
Most worrisome, say the authors of the Global Citizens’ Report on the State of GMOs, is the greatly increased use of synthetic chemicals, used to control pests despite biotech companies’ justification that GM-engineered crops would reduce insecticide use.
In China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, populations of pests that previously posed only minor problems have increased 12-fold since 1997. A 2008 study in the International Journal of Biotechnology found that any benefits of planting Bt cotton have been eroded by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat them.
Additionally, soya growers in Argentina and Brazil have been found to use twice as much herbicide on their GM as they do on conventional crops, and a survey by Navdanya International, in India, showed that pesticide use increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced.
AS gardeners stock up on heirloom seeds for spring, Rob Johnston, the chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Me., would like to suggest an accessory. Why not buckle up in a 1936 Oldsmobile coupe?
O.K., so it doesn’t have seat belts. But the swoop of the fenders resembles Joan Crawford’s eyebrows. Better yet, the rest of the Oldsmobile’s curves are all Lana Turner.
And the technology! Where else can today’s driver find such innovations as knee-action wheels and a solid steel “turret top”?
But even with all that a ’36 Olds has going for it, Mr. Johnston, 60, said, “I’m not sure how big of a market there would be” for 75-year-old cars. “It would just be a sentimental business.”
So to return to Mr. Johnston’s own business, vegetable seeds, why is the backyard gardener buying so many 1936-era heirlooms?
Mr. Johnston, it should be noted, is a fan of heirlooms, which, in the broadest sense, are old varieties of “open pollinated” seeds that will grow the same plant again.
But he argues that his typical customers — small market farmers and avid home gardeners — have better choices. Modern seeds, which are generally hybrid crosses, produce a “more vigorous plant, better resistance to diseases,” he said.
And here’s the heirloom heresy: they often taste better, too.
At the supermarket, most shoppers are oblivious to a battle raging within U.S. agriculture and the Obama administration’s role in it. Two thriving but opposing sectors — organics and genetically engineered crops — have been warring on the farm, in the courts and in Washington.
Organic growers say that, without safeguards, their foods will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby. The genetic engineering industry argues that its way of farming is safe and should not be restricted in order to protect organic competitors.
Into that conflict comes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who for two years has been promising something revolutionary: finding a way for organic farms to coexist alongside the modified plants.
But in recent weeks, the administration has announced a trio of decisions that have clouded the future of organics and boosted the position of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Vilsack approved genetically modified alfalfa and a modified corn to be made into ethanol, and he gave limited approval to GE sugar beets.
The announcements were applauded by GE industry executives, who describe their crops as the farming of the future. But organics supporters were furious, saying their hopes that the Obama administration would protect their interests were dashed.
“It was boom, boom boom,” said Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Markets, a major player in organics. “These were deeply disappointing. They were such one-sided decisions.”