Science in Society Archive

Biodiversity or GMOs: Will The Future of Nutrition Be in Women's Hands or Under Corporate Control?

Declaration for International Women's Day, 8 March 2015

Diverse Women for Diversity, Mahila Anna Swaraj, Initiative for Health, Equity and Society, Navdanya, Moms Across the World. Dr Vandana Shiva and Dr Mira Shiva.

Women have been the primary growers of food and nutrition throughout history, but today, food is being taken out of our hands and substituted for toxic commodities controlled by global corporations. Monoculture industrial farming has taken the quality, taste and nutrition out of our food. As a result, India is facing a nutritional crisis: every fourth Indian goes hungry, and in 2011 alone, diabetes took the lives of 1 million Indians.

Now, the same companies who created the crisis are promising a miracle solution: GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Genetically engineered Golden Rice and GMO Bananas are being falsely promoted by corporations hiding behind the cloak of academia as a solution to hunger and malnutrition in the Global South. Indigenous biodiverse varieties of food grown by women provide far more nutrition than the commodities produced by industrial agriculture. Golden Rice is 350% less efficient in providing vitamin A than the biodiversity alternatives that women grow. GMO ‘iron-rich’ Bananas have 3 000% less iron than turmeric and 2 000 % less iron than amchur (mango powder). Apart from being nutritionally empty, GMOs are part of an industrial system of agriculture that is destroying the planet, depleting our water sources, increasing greenhouse gases, and driving farmers into debt and suicide through a greater dependence on chemical inputs. Moreover, these corporate-led industrial monocultures are destroying biodiversity, and we are losing access to the food systems that have sustained us for millennia. When we consider the number of patents involved in these initiatives, it becomes all too clear that the only beneficiaries of these supposedly ‘people-led’ ventures are large companies operating for profit, not for people.

On this international women’s day, we call on all women – the world’s primary food-growers and food-givers – to stand together and reclaim our knowledge, our farming, and our food; to expose the lies of the GMO industry, to reject the false promises of Golden Rice and GMO Bananas, and to reclaim the planet for all living beings.

India’s nutritional emergency

India is facing a nutritional emergency. We are the capital of hunger and malnutrition. Every fourth Indian is hungry. Every second child wasted and stunted. India is the diabetes capital of the world with 50.8 million patients [1].

In 2011, the diabetes epidemic in the country took 1 million people’s lives. Diabetes, a metabolic disorder, is a result of an imbalanced diet. The Green Revolution’s focus on rice monocultures has been made at the cost of greens, lentils, and more nutritious millets – and diabetes has crept into rural areas. Contrary to popular belief, diabetes affects more people in rural India (34 million) than affluent urban Indians (28 million) [2].

An imbalanced agriculture based on monocultures and an imbalanced diet based on white polished rice has become a killer. Nearly 50 % of Indian women suffer from iron deficiency anaemia.

What should be our response to this nutritional emergency? Bringing biodiversity into our agriculture and food, or intensifying chemical monocultures of rice through the introduction of GMO Golden Rice? Empowering women by keeping food and nutritional security in their hands, or allowing corporations to take control of our food?

Nutritional deficiencies are a direct result of destruction of biodiverse sources of nutrition by industrial monocultures. Proponents of industrial agriculture - most significantly implemented in India through the Green Revolution - did not value nutrition. Instead, they focused on increasing inputs of imported chemicals, fossil fuels, and local water resources to grow chemical monocultures that reduce food to an empty, toxic commodity. It lost its quality, taste, aroma, and most importantly its nutrition.

How industrial farming robs food of its nutrition

First, industrial breeding is based on uniformity, long distance transport, and industrial processing. In comparison, food grown by women – who have been the primary seed breeders and producers of food is based on diversity, taste, nutrition, quality and resilience. Traditional Indian wheats like kathia, bansi, and mishri are full of taste and nutrition. Industrially-bred wheats, on the other hand, are low in nutrients and have contributed to the epidemic of gluten intolerance.

Second, by replacing biodiversity with monocultures, industrial agriculture reduces the amount of nutrition per acre. With diversity we can grow enough iron for 20 Indias, and enough vitamin A for all of India today.

Third, by substituting the sophisticated ecological processes of renewing fertility with chemical inputs of synthetic fertilisers, the health of the soil is destroyed, nutrition in soils is reduced, and plants, which provide our food become nutritionally empty (see Table 1).

Table 1 Decline in mineral content (%) in US and British crops as the result of industrial monoculture


US 1963-1992 (13 fruits & vegetables)

Britain 1936-1987 (20 fruits & 20 vegetables)






















N/A, not analysed, * U.S. [3] and British [4] data

A meta-analysis done by Professor Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University and 15 other scientists from around the world [5] found significant differences in the nutritional content of organic and non-organic crops (fruit, vegetables, cereals and pulses).Organic crops and crop-based food products have significantly higher concentrations (by 18 % to 69 %) of antioxidants (including phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanines) compared with their conventionally produced counterparts. Smaller, but still statistically significant, composition differences were also detected for a number of carotenoids and vitamins.

A switch to eating organic fruit, vegetable and cereals would lead to a 20- 40 % (and for some compounds up to a 60 %) increase in crop-based antioxidant/(poly)phenolic consumption without any increase in calories. This is important as there is strong scientific evidence of the health benefits of increased consumption of (poly)phenolics and other plant secondary metabolites with antioxidant activity, most notably protection against chronic diseases, including cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and some cancers.

Fourth, GMOs are also leading to a decline in nutritional availability, because the biotechnology industry is growing commodities, not food. Some 90 % of the GMO corn and soya goes to biofuel and animal food, not human food. This is not a viable food system.

Fifth, herbicide tolerant crops account for most of the GMOs cultivated. The use of Roundup (glyphosate formulation) with Roundup Ready crops removes essential minerals like manganese through “chelation”-binding. Manganese is essential to the gut-brain connection. The depletion of this nutrient could be contributing to the autism epidemic in the USA. According the Centre of Disease Control, in the 1970s, 1 in 10,000 children were autistic. In 2007, it rose to 1 in 150. Today it is 1 in 68. At current rates of increase, 1 in 2 children in the USA could be born autistic by 2025 [6].

Sixth, just as there is an ecology of biodiversity in our fields, there is an ecology of biodiversity in our nutrition. Nutrients need each other. Fats are needed for bioavailability of vitamin A, and vitamin C is needed for absorption of iron. That is why we use mustard seeds for seasoning greens, and have “chutneys” with our meals. Mechanistic reductionism in agriculture combined with mechanistic reductionism in nutrition, undermines the ecological processes through which our farms grow nutrition and our bodies are nourished through a balanced diet.

We need to grow nutritious food; and all the evidence indicates that we can do so by increasing biodiversity and promoting ecological processes in our food and farming systems. This is the path Navdanya has followed over more than 2 decades. We have increased production of nutrition (Health per Acre) as well as farmers’ incomes (Wealth per Acre) through agroecology and biodiversity.

But today, industrial agriculture paradigm is trying to extend its non-sustainable life by promising false solutions to malnutrition through GMOs such as Golden Rice and GM Bananas.

Golden Rice is a false miracle

Golden Rice is genetically engineered rice with two genes from a daffodil and one gene from a bacterium, resulting in a yellow colouring that is supposed to increase beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. It is being offered as a miracle cure for Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD).

But Golden Rice is a false miracle. It is a disease of nutritionally empty monocultures offered as a cure for nutritional deficiency. According to [7], children under the age of 7 require 450 ‘units’ of retinol (Vitamin A) Equivalents. Children would therefore have to eat 300 gms of Golden Rice to get their daily requirement of Vitamin A. In indigenous food cultures, a child’s diet normally contains less than 150 gm of rice, but also contains a range of other nutritious foods grown by women. In fact, Golden Rice is 350 % less efficient in providing vitamin A than the biodiversity alternatives that women have to offer. To get your daily requirement of vitamin A, all you need to eat is one of the following:

-two tablespoons of spinach or cholai leaves or radish leaves

-four tablespoons of mustard or bathua leaves

-one tablespoon of coriander chutney

-one and a half tablespoons of mint chutney

-one carrot

-one mango

Not only do these indigenous alternatives based on women’s knowledge provide more vitamin A than Golden Rice at a lower cost, they also provide other nutrients. One such example is iron, which helps fight iron deficiency and anaemia. But just as the biotechnology industry is offering Golden Rice for vitamin A deficiency, it is promoting GMO bananas for increased vitamin A and iron. In reality, GMO bananas provide 7 000% less iron than indigenous biodiversity that Indian women are experts in growing and processing [8].

The Vitamin A in GMO vitamin A bananas has been pirated from indigenous bananas in Micronesia [9].The beta-carotene traits have been added to the sticky japonica rice Taipei 309, which Indians do not eat. The feeding trials for Golden Rice as well as the GM bananas were done illegally and unethically [10-12].

By foregoing biodiversity alternatives that provide more nutrition, the biotechnology industry is pushing for a monoculture rice diet, which is a recipe for intensifying the diabetes epidemic. With 62 million patients, India already has extremely high rates of diabetes [1]. Golden Rice is an irresponsible proposal that would exacerbate the situation by blocking much-needed alternatives - biodiversity and balance in our diets. For example, dietary fats are needed to absorb vitamin A. To get these in our diets, we need biodiversity of oilseed crops and livestock. Rice monocultures displace both these forms of fat, leaving us with no way to absorb vitamin A, and thus aggravate the nutritional crisis. Golden rice is therefore not expected to relieve vitamin A deficiency in rice eating countries (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Golden rice: Solving Vitamin A deficiency?
Source: [13]

Golden Rice will also aggravate the ecological crisis caused by industrial agriculture. Golden Rice is part of the industrial agriculture package (also known as the seed-chemical package), it promotes monocultures, which further destroy biodiversity. Golden Rice will increase the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, which are rupturing the planetary boundary of the nitrogen cycle [14].

India is already one of the largest importers of nitrogen fertilisers, and Golden Rice will only serve to increase that. Moreover, it will increase the use of water, intensifying the water crisis [15]. It will contribute to climate change [16] through increased greenhouse gas emissions. And it will leave our farmers liable to higher input costs through dependence on chemicals and fees for proprietary technologies.

As a source of nutrition for the Global South, Golden Rice has no real benefits. But considering the precedents set by soya, corn, canola and cotton, introducing Golden Rice makes perfect sense as a way for large companies to gain control over entire food cultures based on rice.

Golden rice is a Trojan horse for corporate control

Proponents of Golden Rice declare that it is a product of public research carried out through public funding. But in reality, the scientists involved are closely linked to the biotechnology corporations pushing royalty collection through patents.

Scientists Ingo Potrykus (Zurich) and Peter Beyer (Freiberg) are closely connected to the biotechnology corporations for commercialisation of Golden Rice through patents. There are more than 70 patents linked to Golden Rice, despite it being promoted as a product made for the public by the public. Corporations controlling these patents include Bayer AG, Monsanto Co, Orynova BV and Zeneca Mogen BV. A letter written by Dr Portykus illustrates just how enmeshed the invention of Golden Rice and corporate interests always were. When questioned about his partnerships with corporations in an email exchange with RAFI/ETC Dr Portykus wrote:

“Why did we need to involve a commercial partner? Because Golden Rice also needs a commercial basis to reach the urban poor. Why do we need a patent? Because only then we can ensure, that nobody interferes with our task. Zeneca (now Syngenta) had, therefore, legal rights on the Golden Rice. Why are you upset if in return Zeneca is trying to make profit from developing a commercial 'Golden Rice', which even also will have benefits for the poor not directly linked to subsistence farmers? Could you not agree that it is neither fair nor wise to blame industry for working for profit? This is for what they are there.”

The project leader on the Golden Rice project at the International Rice Research Institute is Dr Gerard Barry, was also involved with some of Monsanto’s ‘golden egg’ patents and the man responsible for the company’s toxic Roundup tolerant products. There is a clear revolving door between corporations and research institutions in which a handful of actors are driving a for-profit corporate venture. Giants including Monsanto and Syngenta sit in the driver’s seat by controlling patents [17], while cleverly spinning these initiatives as philanthropy [18].

The alternative lies in women’s hands and minds

On International Women’s Day 8th March 2015, we the women of India and the world commit ourselves to reclaiming our seed, food, and knowledge sovereignty so that we can all enjoy healthy, safe, nutritious, tasty and diverse food. And through our food, we will reclaim our health and the health of the planet.

We will not allow a further degradation of our food systems and knowledge systems. We do not have to go down the road of replacing our biodiversity with GMO monocultures and our rich knowledge of food and nutrition with scientific and ethical fraud. We will not sacrifice our seed and food sovereignty for corporate control and profits.

We commit ourselves to

1. Promote and evolve the use of our indigenous seeds, crops and foods to address the crisis of malnutrition and health [19]

2. Spread gardens of hope, diversity and nutrition everywhere: in schools, on rooftops, on balconies

3. Spread nutritional literacy about our diverse foods, and food safety and biosafety awareness about toxics and GMOs

4. Celebrate Mahila Anna Swaraj (food sovereignty in women’s hands) at Navdanya’s biodiversity farm in Doon Valley (27-29 March 2015) by strengthening alternatives that promote sustainability, justice and health

5. Celebrate Mother Earth Day, 22nd April 2015 to liberate the Earth, our farms, our kitchens and our bodies from the burden of disease caused by toxics. Celebrate the connection between the health of the soil and the health of all beings on the planet during 2015 the United Nations’ ‘Year of Soil’.

As women, in all our vibrant diversity, we will make a paradigm shift from monocultures to diversity, from chemicals to organic, from reductionist and mechanistic science to ecological knowledge, from corporate control and monopolies to seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and knowledge sovereignty in women’s hands and women’s minds. We will grow alternatives to the ecological and health disaster of industrial agriculture and its new false promises of Golden Rice and GMO Bananas.

We will shape the future of food and nutrition through biodiversity in our hands and in our minds. We will take back our seeds, and we will take back our food.

Article first published 11/03/15


  1. India has largest number of diabetes patients: Report. Indian Express, accessed 06th March 2015
  2. Public Health Foundation of India. Accessed, 6th March 2015
  3. Bergner P. The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients and Trace Elements. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing Co., 1997, 46–75
  4. Mayer, A.-M. Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables. Brit. Food J. 1997, 99:207–211.
  5. Barański M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, Benbrook C, Biavati B, Markellou E, Giotis C, Gromadzka-Ostrowska J, Rembiałkowska E, Skwarło-Sońta K, Tahvonen R, Janovská D, Niggli U, Nicot P, Leifert C. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014, 112, 794-811. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514001366
  6. Seneff S. Autism and Glyphosate: Connecting the Dots. Seed Sovereignty, Food Security: Women in the Vanguard. Vandana Shiva (ed.). Pinifex Press, 2015.
  7. Vitamin A Deficiency-Related Disorders (VADD)., accessed 6th March 2015.
  8. No to GMO Bananas. Protect Indigenous Biodiversity and Knowledge. Navdanya, accessed 6th March 2015
  9. GMO Banana Campaign,, accessed 6th March 2015.
  10. “Golden Rice” not so golden., accessed 6th March 2015.
  11. China sacks officials over Golden Rice controversy. Nature News, 10th December 2012., accessed 6th March 2015.
  12. GM golden rice paper to be retracted amid ethics scandal., accessed 6th March 2015.
  13. Grains of delusion: Golden rice seen from the ground., accessed 6th March 2015
  14. The nine planetary boundaries. Stockholm Resilience Centre, accessed 6th March, 2015.
  15. Industrial Agriculture. Pesticide Action Network, North America, accessed 6th March 2015.
  16. Industrial Agriculture, Agroecology, and Climate Change. Centre for Ecoliteracy, accessed 6th March 2015.
  17. Public-Private Partnership and Humanitarian Use., accessed 6th March 2015.
  18. Open letter from Dr. Ingo Potrykus to Hope Shand and RAFI in Response to Their Press Release on 'Golden Rice' from October 13., accessed 6th March 2015.
  19. Seed Freedom., accessed 6th March 2015.

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