Editor’s Note: The New Yorker carried a very long article in its 25 August 2014 issue “Seeds of Doubt” by journalist Michael Specter, dedicated ostensibly to Vandana Shiva and the anti-GMO campaign, but is in truth a none-too-subtle ploy to discredit both in the service of the biotech industry. Specter had already published a book in 2009, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, purporting to defend science from its critics in denial of scientific progress (see a review of the book here: http://grist.org/article/2009-10-31-michael-specter-denialism-organic-gmo/). This is her reply.
I am glad that the future of food is being discussed, and thought about, on farms, in homes, on TV, online and in magazines, especially of The New Yorker’s caliber. The New Yorker has held its content and readership in high regard for so long. The challenge of feeding a growing population with the added obstacle of climate change is an important issue. Specter’s piece, however, is poor journalism. I wonder why a journalist who has been Bureau Chief in Moscow for The New York Times and Bureau Chief in New York for the Washington Post, and clearly is an experienced reporter, would submit such a misleading piece. Or why The New Yorker would allow it to be published as honest reporting, with so many fraudulent assertions and deliberate attempts to skew reality. ‘Seeds of Doubt’ contains many lies and inaccuracies that range from the mundane (we never met in a café but in the lobby of my hotel where I had just arrived from India to attend a High Level Round Table for the post 2015 SDGs of the UN) to grave fallacies that affect people’s lives. The piece has now become fodder for the social media supporting the Biotech Industry. Could it be that rather than serious journalism, the article was intended as a means to strengthen the biotechnology industry’s push to ‘engage consumers’? Although creative license is part of the art of writing, Michael Specter cleverly takes it to another level, by assuming a very clear position without spelling it out.
Specter’s piece starts with inaccurate information, by design.
“Early this spring, the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva led an unusual pilgrimage across southern Europe. Beginning in Greece, with the international Pan-Hellenic Exchange of Local Seed Varieties Festival, which celebrated the virtues of traditional agriculture, Shiva and an entourage of followers crossed the Adriatic and travelled by bus up the boot of Italy, to Florence, where she spoke at the Seed, Food and Earth Democracy Festival. After a short planning meeting in Genoa, the caravan rolled on to the South of France, ending in Le Mas d’Azil, just in time to celebrate International Days of the Seed.”
On April 26th, 2014, at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, one of Germany’s most renowned state theatres, I gave a keynote speech for a conference on the relation of democracy and war in times of scarce resources and climate change. From Berlin, I flew into Florence for a Seed Festival organized by the Government of the Region of Tuscany, Italy, The Botanical garden of Florence (the oldest in Europe), Banca Etica and Navdanya. I was joined by a caravan of seed savers, and we carried on to Le Mas d’Azil where we had a conference of all the European seed movements.
It would be convenient in the narrative that Specter attempts to weave, to make this exercise look like a joyride of ‘unscientific people on a “pilgrimage”’. Writing about the European governments, universities and movements accurately would not suit Specter’s intention because the strong resistance (including from governments) to GMOs in Europe is based on science.
My education doesn’t suit his narrative either: a Ph.D. on the ‘Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory’. Specter has reduced my M.Sc. Honors in Physics to a B.Sc. for convenience. Mr. Specter and the Biotech Industry (and The New Yorker, by association) would like to identify the millions of people opposing GMOs as unscientific, romantic, outliers. My education is obviously a thorn in their side.
“When I asked if she had ever worked as a physicist, she suggested that I search for the answer on Google. I found nothing, and she doesn’t list any such position in her biography.”
Specter has twisted my words, to make it seem like I was avoiding his question. I had directed him to my official website since for the past few months I have repeatedly been asked about my education. The Wikipedia page about me has been altered to make it look like I have never studied science. The Biotech Industry would like to erase my academic credentials. I have failed to see how it makes me more or less capable of the work I do on evolving and ecological paradigm of science. I consciously made a decision to dedicate my life to protect the Earth, its ecosystems and communities. Quantum theory taught me the four principles that have guided my work: everything is interconnected, everything is potential, everything is indeterminate, and there is no excluded middle. Every intellectual breakthrough I have made over the last 40 years has been to move from a mechanistic paradigm to an ecological one. I had the choice to continue my studies in the foundations of Quantum Theory at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) or to take up a research position in interdisciplinary studies on science policy at IIM, Bangalore. I chose the latter because I wanted a deeper understanding of the relationships between science and society.
Article first published 05/10/09
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Harriet Barlow Comment left 1st September 2014 15:03:06
I am grateful to Vandana for this, but it seems like a mere beginning as a response to the New Yorker article. I hope that other ISIS members will join in the critique.
Rory Short Comment left 1st September 2014 15:03:10
It seems to me that the bio-tech industry is only interested in making money. In the face of advancing science the out-dated science behind the products that they promote is becoming less and less plausible. For this reason they have to try to discredit anyone whose thinking is moving forward in tune with scientific advance. They have to so because their income stream depends on the public buying into the out dated science behind their products. It is actually totally cynical and I would categorise their behaviour as criminal because it is aiding and abetting ecocide.
Mary Saunders Comment left 1st September 2014 20:08:11
I find this an interesting downturn in credibility at The New Yorker. I wonder why their report on Tyrone Hayes and the harassment he experienced from Syngenta seems now to belong to a different era. This piece sounds like the hit jobs from magazines like Forbes where there are clear reasons why industry bias would obtain. A mean, frat-boy type tone is in evidence here. I wonder about gender in this context as well. Did it seem ok to attack an Indian woman in a place where U.S. exceptionalism might play well? This was really a cheap and sad article in my estimation. I hope it is not a trend, and I hope independent scientists can get a few words in, in push-back.
Elizabeth Slipp Morgan Comment left 1st September 2014 17:05:01
Even without quantum theory or an industrial or university education, with age and experiences comes wisdom. The problem is, not many people are willing to listen to their conscience or sort out the bombardment of information that is coming at them every day. Thus, we quietly go away with our knowledge and suspicions that it has all happened before.
david llewellyn foster Comment left 2nd September 2014 07:07:05
"Could it be that rather than serious journalism, the article was intended as a means to strengthen the biotechnology industry’s push to ‘engage consumers’?" Ha ha ha! Bravo Vandana... Mr Specter's devious tactic will have regrettable consequences for the New Yorker; and, happily, for the biotech racket. Such disreputable and disgraceful behaviour may be de rigeur for the shabby proponents of criminal disinformation and character assassination ~ but to anyone with the capacity to discriminate wisely, exercise their cognitive faculties freely and judge matters in the clear light of empirical evidence, it is yet another futile and febrile exercise in deceptive merchandising.
Anupam Paul Comment left 2nd September 2014 11:11:37
Whatever the jargon or educational qualification in dealing the biotech industry is not tantamount to science for the people, nature and the poor farmers around the world. Common sense is very uncommon now a days specially those who earns money from GM crops.They are so blind that they try find faults with others. They can't see the cheaper, safer and eco-friendly alternatives that exists over millions of years.According to them the greater the money the greater is the science. Dr Vandana Shiva actually talks about common sense and nature conservation for sustainable safe food production.
Todd Millions Comment left 2nd September 2014 20:08:49
Last year,M. Specter was interveiwed on CBC radio,flogging his book.He used multi vaccines,in a lie on those critisising side effects,CBC had just done an expose interview on what was actually said on this matter a couple months earier-But they let Mr Spector's comment slide.My impression was he knew he was lying.So now-he is emboldened.This bears following-Hill and Knowlton are back at warmongery AND working for Toxanto in Ukraine.New venues and useful idiots for such work would surely be appreciated by the patrons of such campains.
GMOsRdeadl4allbutCorporateAmerica Comment left 3rd September 2014 06:06:34
It is so witness the decline of American science, American journalism, American academia, and the health of the American People -- thanks in large measure to Corporate America. But perhaps such decline is inevitable. So, let it be said again: empires rise and empires fall. America is, apparently, no different. But I hope I am wrong. In the meantime, Americans need to be profoundly and mercilessly skeptical of American mass media -- including American magazines and newspapers which are conventionally assumed to have a "liberal," "intellectual," or "scientific" slant. As a lifelong academic, I am almost daily reminded that our honorific institutions are in dramatic decline at seemingly every level. We have "scientists" who are little more than bad corporate technicians, "academics" who should have never darkened the doors of academia, journalists who are incapable of conducting genuine journalism and asking tough questions, and of course, "leaders" utterly incapable of real leadership. But perhaps I'm being optimistic. Let us be skeptical. And now, let us be particularly skeptical of the newspapers and magazines of record as never before. It is 2014, and the last word concerning GMOs has yet to be said, although I hope to hear that "last word" in my lifetime : Banned ... banned from Planet Earth... long with pesticides, herbicides, and all the failed detritus of the most massive technological failure in the history of the world: American "Agriculture."
Melvyn Firmager Comment left 3rd September 2014 15:03:47
I was taught from young never to believe what the newspapers say, without finding out for myself. A lifetime of experience has confirmed that stance. On occasions when I have been reported on, I hardly recognise myself! It is said the mainstream American newspapers are ‘in bed’ with the corporate biotech industries, and the rest, and being controlled. I can well believe it. And see no reason to assume otherwise, the newspaper in question. Good on you Vandana, for the work you do for the sake of all life and the planet. Your qualifications matter little to me in one sense, as it is the person who counts. But on the other hand it is good to see and know a ‘qualified’ person is not being contaminated by the power hunger and money grabbers of the industries, who are pulling out all the stops to take control of, well everything. Of course, on the other hand, your qualifications enable you to be looked upon highly by many, and that does make a big difference.
Vivian Parker Comment left 5th September 2014 12:12:26
Thank You, Vandana Shiva, you are brilliant. I read the article in the New Yorker also--it got forwarded to me as a link on Facebook, and I could not believe what I was reading. It seemed so clearly a hit piece paid for by the biotech industry. It had all the marks. There is backlash in the air--I believe the biotech industry is worried, and they are putting lots of money towards shaping public opinion, as they did after the first "Flavrsavr" tomato was rejected by the public ($5 billion then, as I recall...for public relations). Sadly, many scientists are actually not deep thinkers or original thinkers, they frequently are of herd mentality and excel at following others.(Of course, we know that all good scientists question everything!). So it is easy enough for the industry to find willing spokespeople who will dismiss GMO opposition through that old hackneyed technique, calling the opposition "anti-science" and "luddites." The biggest problem is their own lack of education. Most have spent no time at all in wild nature. If they did, they would begin to appreciate true complexity. It is that wildness that is at risk from unleashing what cannot be called back.
tony villar Comment left 6th September 2014 12:12:12
Monsanto and their minions will stop nothing to control the Food Supply. The mainstream media has been corrupted.
algimantas k bronisas Comment left 8th September 2014 21:09:07
the money worshiping capitalist snake has run out of greed and envy and is now cannibalizing itself,in its suicidal rush for more,cheaper and faster ,it gnawed, tasted and decided to eat and swallow its own tail.....lets risk life itself for profit....and cover up the deaths......HIROSHIMA,NAGASAKI,BHOPAL,VIET NAM,CHERNOBYL,BP OIL SPILLS,ALL OIL TANKERS TOXIC CLEANOUTS DUMPED INTO THE WORLDS OCEANS,FUKUSHIMA RADIATION KILLING FOR THREE YEARS,ISRAEL LIKE A SUICIDE BOMBER,STRAPPED WITH 500 NUCLEAR WEAPONS!!!!! THE SUNS ENERGY THAT LANDS ON THE EARTH IN ONE DAY ,CAN SUPPLY THE WORLDS ENERGY NEEDS FOR A YEAR...where are our wise men.....??????
Pat Ewing Comment left 19th September 2014 09:09:11
From Remnick's response. "4.) We take particular exception to your charge that Mr. Specter’s physical description of a farmer, with “skin the color of burnt molasses and the texture of a worn saddle” was racist. It wasn’t. In a 2005 profile he described the Italian designer Valentino this way: “Valentino spends a lot of time in the sun. His skin, the color of melted caramel, has the texture of a lovingly preserved Etruscan ruin.” Last year, Specter described a sixty-eight year old American farmer as having “ a tan, weather beaten face.” His fourth point is still wrong, though not necessarily deeply racist. The writer does describe the Indian farmer in a condescending and disparaging manner. The first part of the descriptions, describe the Indian farmer as 'burnt molasses,' burnt generally conjures somewhat more negative connotations. Burnt body, burnt food, burnt forest. Valentino, who has a name, is described as melted caramel. Melted caramel sounds pleasant and is the basis of many desserts. The American farmer was described as tan, an actual Crayola color. Two, the second halves of the descriptions also possess a similar tinge. The Indian once again gets the shabbiest treatment. Velentino is described as an 'Etruscan antiquity,' something of great value and beauty. The American farmer has a 'weather beaten face.' Not very positive, but within the American mindframe brings up notions of hardworking sons of the soil imagery. Even if you disagree it beats the poor 'worn saddle' our Indian farmer is described as. A saddle, a utilitarian object placed upon an animal, which you'd place your rear upon. Possibly your writer has come to hate all Indians in the process of hating Vandana Shiva, or maybe he is a racist, or just some yuppy hack shill who gets a thrill out of bullying and spitting upon the most unfortunate and non-white of us.