The Villainous Vandana Shiva.

August 27, 2002  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  National Review Online  ·  Biotech

Attila the Hun, though widely regarded as a barbaric tyrant, is revered in Hungary. The same is true of Vlad Dracula in a region of Eastern Europe. Knowing this makes it just a bit easier to understand how the current issue of Time magazine could profile Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva as "hero."

"Shiva has made it her mission to fight for social justice in many arenas," gushes Time. True, "social justice" is a meaningless term but it certainly sounds nice.

Shiva’s "pet issue these days is preservation of agricultural diversity," we’re told. "It is under assault, she says, from global companies that encourage farmers to grow so-called high-yielding crops that result in a dangerous dependence on bioengineered seeds, chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides."

Yet even Time admits, "Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetic engineering rescued India from its eternal cycles of famine and huge debts from importing food."

"The very chemicals Vandana Shiva condemns, along with the development of new ’Green Revolution’ plants, have allowed Indian farmers to quadruple the production of food grains since independence from Britain without bringing any more forest land under the plow," says C. S. Prakash, a Tuskegee University plant genetics professor and founder and president of AgBioWorld.

"Biotechnology now offers the ability to produce more food and better quality food under demanding conditions and with fewer chemicals," he says. "Vandana has made a career in fighting this technology."

That’s why when you browbeat your kids into clearing their plates at suppertime by telling them to think of the poor starving children in this or that country, you almost certainly choose some place other than India.

If developing world farmers took her one-tenth as seriously as do Western activists and Time magazine, Shiva’s proclamations would lead inexorably to massive famine. Organic farming simply cannot produce the yields that farming using chemicals or genetically engineered crops can.

A recent study in the journal Science found that even using the most modern organic crop techniques available in Europe, yields were nonetheless 20-percent lower compared to conventional farms. Other studies have shown far lower comparative organic crop yields.

In a wealthy country like the U.S., which produces far more food than it can sell or give away, there’s plenty of room for organic farming. Further, because our consumers have so much expendable income our organic farmers have found they can more than make up for poor yields by charging organic-eating yuppies outrageous prices.

But there are no "Fresh Fields" stores in India and other such developing countries, and all too many farmers in these lands still barely grow enough to provide for their own families much less sell crops on the market.

But to Shiva, principles prevail over people.

For example, in 1999, Time’s hero worked desperately to keep her famine-threatened countrymen from receiving donated grain from the U.S. because part of it was biotech corn and soybeans. Why? The U.S. and the "giant multi-nationals" were using Indians as "guinea pigs," she claimed. Yet Americans had already been eating these same foods for four years.

Shiva has even vilified "golden rice," that which has been genetically engineered to provide Vitamin A. According to the U.N., anywhere from 140 to 250 million preschool children don’t receive enough vitamin A. Rice is a staple food for people in over a hundred countries but provides virtually no vitamin A. Improving intake of the vitamin could reduce childhood deaths by as much as a third in highest-risk developing countries and eliminate half a million cases of blindness, says the U.N.

But in what smacks of Marie Antoinette’s famous alleged sneer of "Let them eat cake!" Shiva says that better alternatives are "liver, egg yolk, chicken, meat, milk and butter." (The main difference is that the French queen never actually said any such thing.)

How could Shiva be so insensitive? How could she not comprehend that people living almost exclusively on rice obviously cannot afford chicken cacciatore? Finally, how can she not know that India has the world’s largest population of vegetarians?

It may have something to do with her having never been a part of the culture she pretends to represent. Shiva was born into wealth and her soft palms have never worked a plow. Weighing in on the heavy side of "pleasantly plump," hunger to her is something she reads about in the newspapers.

Only such bluebloods have the resources to buy into agrarian sentimentalism.

If Time wanted a true hero, it should have picked Prakash, also an Indian native. He literally gets down in the dirt to help develop new biotech plants to be used by farmers in developing countries.

Only editors of a magazine in the world’s richest country would be so naíve as to proclaim a blubbery bourgeois Indian activist to be a hero, especially when there are so many more deserving candidates. You know, like Martha Stewart.