Vandana Shiva

What's the Big Deal about GMOs Anyway?

Suicide, "food fascism," and gene-jumping, among other things, says activist and scientist Vandana Shiva. But she sees a GMO-free future ahead.

By Dana Blinder and Leah Zerbe


What's the Big Deal about GMOs Anyway?

Genes added to plants in the laboratory could spread once the crops are grown in the outside world.

RODALE NEWS, BETHLEHEM, PA—Sometimes, protecting the future means going back to your roots…and back to the soil, to the seeds. That's how Vandana Shiva, PhD, world-renowned physicist and relentless eco-crusader, is leading the charge to save her country from a corporate GMO takeover. (GMO refers to genetically modified organisms; crops that have extra genes inserted into them in the lab.) Shiva, who studied in Canada to earn her doctorate in particle physics, took her knowledge back to her home country, India, where she leads the attack against GMO pollution. There, she launched Navdanya, a seed-saving organization that has helped save thousands of plant varieties from going extinct.

Read more about GMOs:
How Common is Genetically Altered Food?
GMOs in Your Food: Hidden Ingredients, Unknown Consequences
Where Are Pesticides Made? Perhaps Inside Your Belly
The GMO-Free Challenge

Shiva speaks of "freeing the seeds," which in turn frees farmers from reliance on failed biotech agricultural methods that are expensive and require increased use of dangerous pesticides because pests and weeds are growing resistant to chemical warfare. Growing GMO crops is also expensive. So far, 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide, overcome by the insurmountable debt they've accumulated after switching from traditional, sustainable farming to corporate, chemical, GMO-based "farming."

Shiva spoke with before her Tuesday-night speech to a packed crowd at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in which she made connections between GMOs and antibiotic-resistant superbugs, unprecedented chronic global hunger, and biopollution. What are the biggest dangers that GMOs pose to our environment and our health?

Vandana Shiva: They actually increase the toxification of our food system, even while claiming to be an alternative to chemicals. If you look at what has been achieved in the last two decades, you have herbicide-resistant crops and you have Bt-toxin crops. The former was intended to control weeds, the latter to control pests. What you have instead is the creation of super-weeds, which has increased the usage of herbicides and the creation of super-pests, which has increased the use of pesticides sprays. We have monitored the Bt cotton in India, 13-fold more pesticides are sprayed on Bt cotton.

That’s the first problem, but the second problem is now you have the toxins built into the plants. With the Bt toxin you’ve taken the genes that produce a toxin and put them into the plant. And because it’s such a clumsy technology, you don’t just put a toxic gene into the plant, you have to add antibiotic-resistant markers to separate the cells that absorbed the gene from those that didn’t. And because no plant wants an alien gene in it, like no organism wants an alien element, what you have to add is a viral promoter to pump up the expression of the gene.

So for every GMO you have three lethal transformations: A toxic gene whose impact you don’t know; antibiotic resistance markers—which already is a problem, given that antibiotic resistance is emerging both with farm animals and human beings; and if you have antibiotic resistance markers, you’re going to have gene jumping. I think the whole issue of the H1N1 virus, the fact that it had genes for three influenzas, human, chicken, pig—all of these crossings are becoming possible because of the crossing of genes across species barriers.

Are we getting closer to eliminating or reducing GMOs, or are things getting worse?

VS: There is proof we are making progress if you look at data in the U.S. It’s not just those who don’t like GMOs who are turning away from them, it’s farmers who went for GMO planting who are realizing it's more costly, they’re losing more, you’re better off in GMO-free agriculture. Monsanto shares are coming down, and the acreages they expected are coming down. I think because a false promise was sold with GMOs, I do believe we have a GMO-free future ahead.

Published on: October 13, 2010
Updated on: October 14, 2010

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