The University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) has invited Vandana Shiva to speak on October 7th. According to a speaker booking website, her asking price for a lecture is a cool 100k. Let’s give UMKC the benefit of the doubt, and assume they got a deal. It is hard to imagine a price for this world famous charlatan that gives good value.

It is a safe bet that most of us have never heard of Vandana Shiva, and this is, on balance, a good thing. Shiva has earned a measure of fame and a great deal of fortune railing against the use of modern technology in agriculture. She burst upon the scene by arguing that genetically modified cotton was causing hundreds of thousands of suicides amongst Indian farmers. Farmers have many reasons to be depressed, Dr. Shiva amongst them, but I can guarantee you that a technology that safely controls bugs that used to eat your crops isn’t one of them. A 2011 study published in India found no correlation between genetically modified cotton seeds and farmer suicide, a conclusion which will surprise no one whose livelihood doesn’t depend on believing the opposite, at one hundred thousand dollars per Zoom call. 

In 1999, a cyclone caused ten thousand deaths in India. The U.S. sent grain and soybeans to help feed survivors. Shiva held a news conference to protest the donation, accusing the U.S. of using the victims of the cyclone as “guinea pigs” for genetically engineered products. When India accepted the food donations, she was highly critical. Better starvation than the unthinkable alternative of eating food that has been safely consumed billions of times.  

Shiva has long been opposed to the introduction of “Golden Rice”, a genetically modified rice that helps prevent blindness by increasing vitamin A in the rice. Every year, about five hundred thousand children lose their sight because of vitamin A deficiency, and 70% of those children die within a year. Shiva has called the technology a hoax. Her appearance at UMKC is part of something called the “Social Justice Book and Lecture” series. Although social justice may be hard to define, Shiva’s position on this life-saving technology would surely be its opposite.

Agriculture owes a great debt to those who have worked so hard and so long to counter the arguments of Shiva and others against genetic engineering. For most of us the issue was long ago settled, the arguments stale, the battle won, and it was time to move on.

However much we might wish it to be so, the issue never really goes away. The fruits of Shiva’s long and lucrative fight against modernity pop up in the most unexpected places and in the most costly ways. The arguments against Covid vaccines mirror Shiva’s insane opposition to saving the lives of children, and even though the two sides have largely switched ideological labels, the horrendous costs in lives and fortunes are eerily similar.  

It has to be heartening to GMO warriors that, despite the arguments of Shiva and the like, much of humanity consumes food improved by genetic engineering every day and Golden Rice is finally being approved in countries where it is so desperately needed. In the face of unending social media criticism of vaccines, some three-quarters of the U.S. population eligible for vaccines have availed themselves of the opportunity. Facts do prevail, usually, but it sometimes takes a very long time. 

UMKC is a wonderful institution, doing valuable work. College students ought to have their ideas, beliefs, and biases challenged at every turn. The kids at UMKC who attend the virtual lecture will survive their exposure to Shiva, and may even be challenged to learn more about the relationship, largely beneficial, between agriculture and technology. Having said all that, this taxpayer would hope that social justice will be better served in the future by more discerning choices in speakers.

Blake Hurst is a farmer and greenhouse grower in Northwest Missouri.

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