Seeds of Doubt An activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops.
When Shiva writes that “Golden Rice will make the malnutrition crisis worse” and that it will kill people, she reinforces the worst fears of her largely Western audience. Much of what she says resonates with the many people who feel that profit-seeking corporations hold too much power over the food they eat. Theirs is an argument well worth making. But her statements are rarely supported by data, and her positions often seem more like those of an end-of-days mystic than like those of a scientist.
Maize is the most commonly grown staple crop in Africa, but it is highly susceptible to drought. Researchers are working on a strain that resists both striga and the African endemic maize-streak virus; there have also been promising advances with insect-resistant cowpea and nutritionally enriched sorghum. Other scientists are working on plants that greatly reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers, and several that produce healthful omega-3 fatty acids. None of the products have so far managed to overcome regulatory opposition.
Anne Glover, the chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, considers it unethical to ignore G.M. crops if other approaches have failed. “People are still concerned about G.M.,” she said. “Most of them are uneasy not with the technology per se but, rather, with the business practices in the agrifood sector, which is dominated by multinational companies.” She said that those companies need to do a much better job of communicating with their customers.
According to a recent study by the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, there has been a sevenfold reduction in the use of pesticide since the introduction of Bt cotton; the number of cases of pesticide poisoning has fallen by nearly ninety per cent. Similar reductions have occurred in China. The growers, particularly women, by reducing their exposure to insecticide, not only have lowered their risk of serious illness but also are able to spend more time with their children.
“It is absolutely remarkable to me how Vandana Shiva is able to get away with saying whatever people want to hear,” Gordon Conway told me recently. Conway is the former president of the Rockefeller Foundation and a professor at London’s Imperial College. His book “One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?” has become an essential text for those who study poverty, agriculture, and development.
The need for more resilient crops has never been so great. “In Africa, the pests and diseases of agriculture are as devastating as human diseases,” Gordon Conway, who is on the board of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, told me. He added that the impact of diseases like the fungus black sigatoka, the parasitic weed striga, and the newly identified syndrome maize lethal necrosis—all of which attack Africa’s most important crops—are “in many instances every bit as deadly as H.I.V. and TB.” For years, in Tanzania, a disease called brown-streak virus has attacked cassava, a critical source of carbohydrates in the region. Researchers have developed a virus-resistant version of the starchy root vegetable, which is now being tested in field trials. But, again, the opposition, led in part by Shiva, who visited this summer, has been strong.