Activist Vandana Shiva Is A Mortal Threat To the Most Vulnerable

By Henry I. Miller, MS, MD — Jul 13, 2023
Indian activist Vandana Shiva opposes the tools and practices of modern agriculture and science and advocates regressive policies that cause widespread malnourishment, famine, and death to the very people she claims to champion. And she's no friend of the environment, either. She should never be given a podium.

Below is the text of a letter sent to officials at London's UnHerd Club in anticipation of an appearance there on July 18 of anti-science, anti-technology, anti-innovation activist Vandana Shiva. The signatories of the letter, of whom I am one, wished to make them aware of Shiva's longstanding perfidy and mendacity and the damage she has wrought, especially to the world's poorest and most vulnerable. In addition to the link to my article cited in the letter, I have also written about Vandana Shiva elsewhere, including here


Letter regarding Dr Vandana Shiva's anti-scientific and unethical stances

Date: 10 July 2023


Mr. Freddie Sayers, CEO and Editor in Chief, UnHerd

Ms. Flo Read, Producer, UnHerd Club

Ref.: Vandana Shiva: The war on farming.

Dear Mr. Sayers and colleagues,

We are scholars and journalists of life sciences and social sciences from around the world who have published hundreds of scholarly papers and articles about agriculture, food, biomedicine, and related biotechnologies; some of us are science communicators and agronomists.

We are contacting you in response to the scheduled appearance of Dr. Vandana Shiva. We are concerned about her history of promoting views out of step with modern science and for endorsing policies that undermine global food security. There is near to universal belief by scientists and journalists (from perspectives as ideologically diverse as Grist, Discover, The New Yorker, and Forbes: see the references below) that Shiva fosters distorted ideas, often demonstrably false, about a variety of issues but most prominently the safety of vaccines and the use of sustainable agri-food technologies.

We are surprised that a science-based and ethically inspired organization would invite her to speak, let alone without an opportunity to balance her views with evidence-grounded science. We hope you will consider posting this letter to the announcement and make it available to those attending the event.

Here are just a few examples of Shiva’s viewpoints which end up hurting the very people she purports to support.

1. Shiva promotes and endorses anti-vaccine conspiratorial viewpoints. She recklessly echoed the far right-wing claim that more people died from getting a COVID vaccination than from COVID itself. She stated in July 2021: “In England more people have died, who were vaccinated than those of who are not.” A statement that was only true in 2022 for one month, as a new variant swept through Europe. She frequently partners with vociferous promoters of vaccine denialism, most notoriously Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, who recently published a conspiracy book claiming COVID was a government-Big Pharma conspiracy. Shiva is a contributor of disinformation on RFK, Jr.’s conspiracy Children’s Defense Fund site.

2. Shiva does not understand some basic science, e.g. saying: “Most #GMOs are #Bt toxin or #HT herbicide tolerant crops. Toxins are poisons. GMOs=Poison Producing Plants. Poisons have no place in food.”  

Bt is a natural protein that organic farmers have been spraying on their crops for more than a century. Engineered into cotton, soy, eggplant (in Bangladesh) and other crops, it has reduced the spraying of synthetic chemicals by as much as 95%. Bt proteins are toxic to some clearly identified classes of insects (plant pests), but not to fish, birds, mammals. See also the scientific papers quoted in response to her delusional Twitter post, in particular, the classic study by Ames et al. which clarifies that many plants naturally produce substances to defend themselves from pests and 99.99% of pesticidal substances in food are natural – and harmless to humans.

3. Shiva shows a tendency to nonsense. See her absurd statement regarding the alleged risks of the Genetic Use Restriction technology (GURT), which could provide the means to either restrict the use of a plant variety or the expression of a trait by turning a genetic switch on or off. In her book Stolen Harvest (p. 82-83) she wrote: “the possibility that the Terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or to the natural environment MUST be taken seriously. The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet.” She has repeatedly used the same words in other documents in her websites.

Against any logic, she claims that (second generation) sterile seeds – which of course cannot germinate – can spread sterility and wreak havoc all over the world.

4. Shiva is not interested in civil discourse, consistently resorting to attacks and hyperbole. One of many examples is this tweet: ”Saying farmers should be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic farms is like saying rapists should have freedom to rape”.

This is a grotesque insult to millions of honest workers who use modern technologies to farm more sustainably and efficiently.

            5. Shiva rejects technologies which help farmers (mostly women and children) to alleviate the painful, back-breaking labour of hand-weeding, which she glorified in a paper that was posted for years on her website. Note that she removed it recently after universal criticism but it’s preserved here: “Indian women selectively do weeding by hand, hereby preserving our biodiversity.” Photo and caption at p. 21.

            This is preposterous: as this recent peer-reviewed article (one of hundreds) documents, weeding releases greenhouse gases while no-till farming limits climate change disruptions. And her “biodiversity” reference is misleading: any act of weeding, by hand, machine or using herbicides is exactly aimed at eliminating detrimental plant biodiversity (weeds!), which, in a field or garden, stifles crops. We must underline that herbicides have resulted in dramatic increases in yield per acre, and chemical toxicity of chemicals used in agriculture has been going down for 30 years.

6. Shiva invents misleading and deceitful connections between useful agricultural tools and war, demonizing the use of fertilizers. She has claimed: “Fertilizer should never have been allowed in agriculture. I think it’s time to ban it. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. Its use is like war, because it came from war.” (Quoted in various articles linked below.)

Rather, data show that fertilizers have resulted in a dramatic global increase in production since they were widely introduced in the 1940s/50s after millennia of using inefficient farming techniques. They contributed to the Green Revolution which has saved billions, including turning her India from a global food security disaster into an exporter of many crops.

The policies advocated by Shiva have been unmasked by recent events as not only wrong but detrimental. Shiva was a consultant to the Sri Lankan government which in 2021 banned synthetic chemicals including fertilizers at her urging. As this article  in The New York Times: Sri Lanka’s Plunge Into Organic Farming Brings Disaster (and dozens of similar reports) explains, Shiva helped crash the entire Sri Lankan economy. Quoting from a Foreign Policy article:

As Sri Lankan crop yields have plummeted, exactly as most mainstream agricultural experts predicted they would, the fertilizer ban’s leading advocates have gone silent. Vandana Shiva, an Indian activist and ostensible face of anti-modern agrarianism in the global south, was a booster of the ban but turned mute as the ban’s cruel consequences became clear.

In sum, Shiva’s worldview and policy recommendations have been shown to be more than just fantastical; they are harmful.

We are confident that our reasoned remarks will be seen by the addressees of this letter, by their colleagues and supporters as constructive criticism: it is critical that event organizers expose their public to balanced, science-based perspectives, rather than outlandish, harmful and injurious claims.

Unfortunately, none of us will be able to attend the event to challenge Dr. Shiva in person. We would greatly value a point-by-point response by an appropriate person at UnHerd to the matters we raise as evidence-based discourse, refusing unaddressed propaganda.

We hope that in honouring a rational debate on issues of global importance, and in the spirit of liberal engagement, you will make this letter available in written form to everyone in the audience who attends the event and diffuse it through your website and/or newsletter.

Here are links to some articles that present reasoned criticism of Shiva’s untenable stances.

Sincerely yours.

Signatories in alphabetical order. Institutional affiliation is for identification purposes only and does not indicate institutional endorsement.

-- Flavio Barozzi – Agronomist, Confienza (Pavia), Italy

-- David J. Bertioli – University of Georgia, USA, Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator and Professor, Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics

-- Giuseppe Bertoni – Università Cattolica, Piacenza, Italy, Professor Emeritus of Animal Husbandry

-- Peter Beyer – Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg, Germany, Professor (retired). Co-inventor of the Golden Rice. Member of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board

-- Borut Bohanec – University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, Biotechnical Faculty, Plant Biotechnology and Breeding

-- Enrico Bucci – Temple University, Philadelphia, USA, Adjunct Professor in Systems Biology, Sbarro Health Research Organization

-- Trevor Charles – University of Waterloo, Canada, Professor in the Department of Biology, Director, Waterloo Centre for Microbial Research

-- Bruce M. Chassy – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA, Professor Emeritus, expert in agri-food biotech regulation

-- Felice Cervone – University of Rome "La Sapienza", Italy, Full Professor, Dept of Biology and Biotechnologies, M.A.E. (Member of Academia Europaea)

-- Pellegrino Conte – University of Palermo, Italy, Full Professor, Agricultural Chemistry

-- Gilberto Corbellini – Italian National Research Council (CNR), Rome, Italy, Professor of Bioethics and History of Medicine, “La Sapienza” University of Rome

-- Roberto Defez – Italian National Research Council (CNR), Naples, Italy, Senior Researcher, Microbial Biotechnology laboratory

-- Adrian Dubock – Member & Executive Secretary, Golden Rice Humanitarian Board

-- Jon Entine – Genetic Literacy Project website, Cincinnati, OH, USA, Executive Director

-- Edgardo Filippone – University of Naples "Federico II", Italy, Full Professor, Department of Agricultural Sciences, Section of Plant Genetics and Biotechnology

-- Kevin Folta – University of Florida, Professor, Department of Horticultural Sciences

-- Silvano Fuso – PhD in Chemistry, Science Communicator, Genua, Italy

-- Corrado Lodovico Galli – University of Milan, Italy, Department of Pharmacological and Biomolecular Sciences

-- Jonathan Gressel – Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, Professor, Plant & Environmental Sciences

-- Alberto Guidorzi – Agronomist, Sermide Felonica (Mantua), Italy

-- Larkin C. Hannah – University of Florida, Professor Emeritus, Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology & Horticultural Sciences

-- Dirk Inze – Ghent University (Belgium), Professor, Plant Biotechnology

-- Klaus-Dieter Jany – Wadi International University, Syria, Vice-President for Teaching and Research

-- Jonathan D. G. Jones FRS – The Sainsbury Lab, Norwich, UK, Professor and Senior Group Leader

-- Drew L. Kershen – University of Oklahoma, USA, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law Emeritus

-- Marcel Kuntz – University of Grenoble-Alpes, France, Director of Research at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)

-- Christopher J. Leaver CBE FRS FRSE – University of Oxford, UK, Emeritus Professor of Plant Science

-- Michele Lodigiani – Agronomist, farmer, Piacenza, Italy

-- Tommaso Maggiore – University of Milan, Italy, Full Professor, Emeritus, General Agronomy, Dept. Agrarian and Environmental Sciences

-- Alan McHughen – University of California, Riverside, USA, Botany and Plant Sciences, expert in agri-food biotech regulation

-- Henry I. Miller, M.Sc., M.D. – Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow, American Council on Science and Health, New York, USA; Founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology

-- Giovanni Molteni Tagliabue – Como (Italy), Independent researcher in socio-political/legislative aspects of ag biotech and political science

-- Angelo Moretto – University of Padua, Italy, Professor of Occupational Medicine, Dept. of Cardiac Thoracic Vascular and Public Health Sciences

-- Piero Morandini – University of Milan, Italy, Associate Professor of Plant Physiology

-- Jean-Paul Oury, PhD – Chief Editor of “The European Scientist” website, Paris, France, PhD in history of science and technology

-- Domenico Pignone – National Research Council, Italy, Emeritus Researcher, Plant genetics

-- Deborah Piovan – Farmer and scientific communicator, Padua, Italy

-- Ingo Potrykus – ETH Zurich, Switzerland, Institute of Plant Sciences, Professor Emeritus;, Co-inventor of Golden Rice; Chair, Golden Rice Humanitarian Board

-- Channa Prakash, Tuskegee University, USA, Dean, Arts & Sciences

-- Catherine Regnault Roger – E2S University of Pau and the Adour Countries, Professor Emeritus; Member, French Academy of Agriculture; Member, National Academy of Pharmacy

-- Sir Richard John Roberts – Chief Scientific Officer, New England Biolabs, Ipswich, USA, 1993 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine

-- Daniele Rosellini – University of Perugia, Italy, Associate Professor of Agricultural Genetics

-- Filippo Rossi, Researcher, Catholic University, Faculty of Agricultural, Food & Env. Sciences, Piacenza, Italy

-- Eddo Rugini – Università della Tuscia, Italy, Past Full Professor in Fruit Tree Science and Biotechnology

-- Donatello Sandroni – PhD in Ecotoxicology, Journalist & Science communicator, Italy

-- Angelo Santino – Institute of Sciences of Food Production, National Research Council (CNR), Lecce, Italy, Senior Scientist

-- Giuseppe Sarasso – Agronomist, member of Accademia dei Georgofili and Accademia di Agricoltura of Turin, Italy

-- Massimo Scacco – Agronomist, Pontecorvo, Italy

-- Eleonora Sirsi – University of Pisa, Italy, Full Professor, Agricultural and Agri-food Law

-- Teemu Teeri – University of Helsinki, Finland, Professor in Plant Breeding

-- Roberto Tuberosa – University of Bologna, Italy, Professor in Biotechnology Applied to Plant Breeding, Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences

-- Ignazio Verde – Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA), Rome, Italy, Senior scientist on Plant Genetics and scientific advisor

-- Robert Wager – Vancouver Island University, Canada, Molecular biology, Biochemistry

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. His research focuses on public policy toward science, technology, and medicine, encompassing a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, genetic engineering, models for regulatory reform, precision medicine, and the emergence of new viral diseases. Dr. Miller served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.

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