When Vandana Shiva spoke to students at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa on November 16, she used one of her favorite lines: “Seeds must be in the hands of farmers.”
To many, that makes sense.
As the daughter of a smallholder farmer in India, I agree with Shiva that seeds must remain in the hands of farmers. But that is about all that we agree on.
When seeds are in my father’s hands, we’re able to grow any number of crops on our family farm, comprised of about 85 acres in Haryana, in the northern part of our nation. We currently raise wheat, basmati rice, and cotton.
This season, when it came time to choose cotton seeds, my father selected a genetically modified variety, as he has done for the last dozen years and for one simple reason: GM cotton is a superior plant that has transformed our ability to earn a living in the difficult work of agriculture.
Before GM cotton, the bollworms were completely out of control. They ravaged our fields. To protect our harvests, we sprayed pesticides constantly. This helped us make a modest living, but sometimes we felt more like chemists than farmers.
After GM cotton, which naturally repels the menace of bollworms, our productivity jumped. We began to grow more cotton than ever before. Best of all, our usage of pesticides on our cotton sank to almost nil. It is difficult to think of even one disadvantage associated with GM cotton.
Most Indian cotton growers agree. Today, more than 90 percent of my country’s cotton is a product of biotechnology.
This is what happens when farmers have a choice. This is what happens when we put seeds in their hands.
I’ve never met Shiva in person. Sometimes I wonder if she ever visits farms or talks to actual farmers. I’ve watched her videos and I’ve read about her campaigns in newspapers. Vandana Shiva is a full-time, self-proclaimed environmental activist who spreads lies about agriculture in the developing world. Her deeply unscientific views, if enacted, would make it harder for farmers to feed themselves and their countries.
When she attacks GM crops as “poison” and complains about “deadness” in our fields, she sounds like someone who simply doesn’t know what farmers in developing countries really think and do.
She even claims that GM cotton is so bad that suicide has reached epidemic levels among cotton farmers. This is a wild accusation and completely untrue.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Michael Specter wrote about Shiva in the New Yorker two years ago: “Her statements are rarely supported by data, and her positions often seem like those of an end-of-days mystic than like those of a scientist.”
There is one big problem with GM crops in India: We don’t have enough of them. Although they’ve been amazingly successful for cotton, my country still has not taken full advantage of this technology. Farmers in the United States enjoy the ability to grow GM corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and even papayas. I’ve seen the flourishing fields in Iowa. We have only cotton.
Our seed companies are ready to offer GM brinjal and mustard—a pair of plants that are staples for us. Brinjal (known as eggplant in the United States) is a common ingredient in our meals. Mustard helps us make edible oils, which are difficult to grow in India and must be imported.
If these crops were to become available, they would provide a big boost to many of our struggling farmers. They would also make it easier for my country of more than 1 billion people to feed itself.
The main reason they’re not available, however, is people like Shiva. These professional propagandists have frightened many Indians into resisting GM crops. They’ve built a political hurdle that blocks a scientific solution.
This is a shame. India has so much to gain from the latest agricultural technologies—the ones that well-fed farmers and consumers and university students in Iowa have the luxury of taking for granted, but which for us in the developing world can make the difference between food security and malnutrition.
The answer is obvious: Seeds—including GM seeds—must be in the hands of farmers.