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The New Yorker, GMOs and Chemical Farming

Gunning for Vandana Shiva

by LOUIS PROYECT

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the decline of the New Yorker magazine more than the hatchet job on Vandana Shiva that appears in the latest issue. Written by Michael Specter, the author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress”, the article is a meretricious defense of genetically modified organisms (GMO) relying on one dodgy source after another. This is the same magazine whose reputation was at its apex when Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking articles on DDT appeared in 1962. If DDT was once a symbol of the destructive power of chemicals on the environment, GMO amounts to one of the biggest threats to food production today. It threatens to enrich powerful multinational corporations while turning farmers into indentured servants through the use of patented seeds. Furthermore, it threatens to unleash potentially calamitous results in farmlands through unintended mutations.

Specter represents himself as a defender of science against irrational thinking. Since many activists regard Vandana Shiva as grounded in science, it is essential that he discredit her. For example, he mentions a book jacket that refers to her as “one of India’s leading physicists”. But when he asked her if she ever worked as a physicist, she invited him to “search for the answer on Google”. He asserts that he found nothing and furthermore that no such position was listed in her biography. Not that I would ever take an inflated publicity blurb that seriously to begin with (having read one too many of those for Slavoj Žižek), I wondered what being a physicist would have to do with GMO in the first place. Is a degree in particle physics necessary for understanding the transformation of vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone because of fertilizer-enriched algae?

Specter is a defender of the Green Revolution, a technology-based approach to farming that Norman Borlaug developed in the 1940s and that serves as one of the pillars of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Like Specter, the Gates Foundation sees GMO as the latest and greatest tool for carrying the Green Revolution forward.

To buttress his case for the Green Revolution, Specter calls upon a couple of witnesses to testify. They are a husband and wife team consisting of Raoul Adamchack, the former president of California Certified Organic Farmers, and Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant genetics at UC Davis. Without the Green Revolution, the planet would be “smaller, poorer, and far more agrarian”, according to Adamchack. Hmm. That’s the first time I ever heard “agrarian” used as a swear word but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

Maybe Specter thought that New Yorker magazine readers’ eyes would glaze over the reference to Ronald’s work in “plant genetics”, which could conceivably be conventional in nature, and settle upon her husband’s “organic” credentials. But not mine. I have learned to become a careful reader over the years, especially when it comes to the neoliberal New Yorker magazine. As it turns out, Pamela Ronald is one of the most fanatical supporters of GMO in the USA and hardly a neutral judge on chemistry in agriculture. It is like someone treating Bjorn Lomborg as a disinterested expert on global warming.

Furthermore, Pamela Ronald would be far less credible as a scientific expert than Vandana Shiva in light of her multiple gaffes in peer-reviewed journals. As CounterPunch contributor Jonathan Latham pointed out, she was forced to retract two papers and possibly a third that constituted the core of her pro-GMO research.

A while back Ronald excoriated Mark Bittman for urging that GM food be labeled (in another article in the same issue of the New Yorker, Specter denigrates that demand). She dubbed him “a scourge on science” who “couches his nutty views in reasonable-sounding verbiage”. I think I will stick with Bittman, one of the few reasons to read the New York Times.

Specter assures us that scientists have crossbred plants long before Monsanto came along, so what’s the big deal? He writes, “Nearly all the plants we cultivate—corn, wheat, rice, roses, Christmas trees—have been genetically modified through breeding to last longer, look better, taste sweeter, or grow more vigorously in arid soil.” Leaving aside Christmas trees (taste sweeter?), the other crops are associated with the type of monoculture that has led to one environmental disaster after another. If genetic modification allows corn production to be doubled, what would that mean for a farming system that is groaning under the weight of a crop that is despoiling the ecosphere and hastening the onset of one illness or another through corn syrup, including diabetes?

Next up as a prosecution witness is Mark Lynas, who Specter describes as a repentant ex-opponent of biotechnology. Speaking before the Oxford Farming Conference a while back, he said, “For the record, here and up front, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up G.M. crops. I am also sorry that I . . . assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

Before his conversion, Lynas was identified by EuropeBio as a leading candidate for a campaign they were mounting in defense of GM crops. This is an industry coalition that includes Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, BASF, Eli Lilly, and Dupont—a rogue’s gallery of biotechnology. Lynas claims that they never made contact with him but at least they figured out that he was their kind of guy. To give you an idea of his other credentials on Green issues, he is a fan of nuclear power. Lyman was a featured interviewee on the British Channel 4’s documentary “What the Green Movement Got Wrong” that aired in 2010. He told Telegraph readers where he was coming from: “The documentary follows me as I visit Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and discover that wildlife in the area is thriving, and that the effects of the radioactive contamination on people are much less serious than previously thought.” If this guy is speaking in the name of the Greens, we have to find another color—rapidly.

Specter cannot understand why Shiva is so recalcitrant. Not only does she hold the Gates Foundation in contempt, she dismisses government agencies that are responsible for regulating GM products including the FDA, the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). When I read this, I wondered if Specter was trying to cover two bases with one article: science and humor. The trust in such agencies was a bigger hoot than any Woody Allen piece I had read there in ages.

As I pointed out in a review of “Food Inc.”, a very fine documentary on industrial farming, USDA boss Tom Vilsack is committed to GMO. I cited the Organic Consumers Organization:

–The biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He was also the founder and former chair of the Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership.

–When Vilsack created the Iowa Values Fund, his first poster child of economic development potential was Trans Ova and their pursuit of cloning dairy cows.

–Vilsack was the origin of the seed pre-emption bill in 2005, which many people here in Iowa fought because it took away local government’s possibility of ever having a regulation on seeds- where GE would be grown, having GE-free buffers, banning pharma corn locally, etc. Representative Sandy Greiner, the Republican sponsor of the bill, bragged on the House Floor that Vilsack put her up to it right after his state of the state address.

Specter makes sure to put in a good word for glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsansto’s herbicide Roundup, since it is two hundred and thirty times less toxic than atrazine. It is a little hard to make sense of this since I don’t know what that ratio is meant to prove. For example, arsenic might be two hundred and thirty times less poisonous than cyanide but I don’t have plans to sprinkle either over apple pie any time soon.

One would hope that Scientific American passes Specter’s stringent standards for accuracy. If so, the verdict on glyphosate is guilty as charged. In an article titled “Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells”, Crystal Gammon points out:

Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate, rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call “astonishing.”

“This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert,” wrote the study authors from France’s University of Caen. “Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels” found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens.

Once again resorting to dodgy ratios, Specter tries to turn the peasant suicide epidemic in India into an urban legend by assuring readers that it is “comparable” to those in France. If your image of the French countryside is that of a plump, prosperous and happy petite-bourgeoisie smiling at overflowing cornucopias of sunflower seeds and artichokes, then maybe this makes sense. But the truth is that France is suffering as well. Between 2007 and 2009, male farmers were 20 percent more likely to commit suicide than in other professions. Indeed, a farmer killed himself every two days, in nearly all instances because of economic ruin—the same problem that is driving Indian farmers to kill themselves.

In the chapter titled “The Transformation of Surplus Profit into Ground-Rent” in volume 3 of Capital, Karl Marx wrote about problems that continue to this day:

Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil.

Every advance in agriculture based on chemicals creates new contradictions that will in turn require a new chemical solution. The answer to the food crisis is not more chemicals but a reorganization of society that eliminates the profit motive and that overcomes the breach between city and countryside, a key demand of the Communist Manifesto. When animals such as cows, chickens and pigs provide the fertilizer for crops—as was the case for millennia—the natural balance will be restored.

The problem with Vandana Shiva is not a lack of scientific clarity. It is rather a lack of political clarity. As is the case with so many environmental activists, the inability to get to the heart of the crisis undermines its ultimate resolution. In India there is no solution for hunger that is possible without the overall solution of the economic problem.

Like Thomas Friedman on one of his frequent junkets to a third world country, Michael Specter visits Maharashtra to get a handle on what the natives are thinking. He visits a dozen farmers in Dhoksal who were supposedly in tune with the globalization that is transforming the world. A local petty official tells Specter that he waved to a cotton farmer riding into town on an elephant but he did not respond because he was too busy talking on his cell phone.

But not all is well in Maharashtra. Every farmer Specter met told him that they knew of a farmer who had taken his or her life. Why? Because there was almost no available credit, no social security, and no meaningful crop-insurance program. One farmer told him: “We want to live better. We want to buy equipment. But when the crop fails we cannot pay.” In other words, there are suicides because of capitalist insecurity, a global epidemic growing worse day by day. Ultimately, the environmental crisis will be resolved when there is a resolution of the capitalist crisis. Eliminating private property and producing for human need rather than private profit is the precondition for health and happiness, notwithstanding the New Yorker magazine’s blatant defense of corporate farming and, more generally, the capitalist system.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.