January 9, 2011
Terry Link replied to my blog last week offline, suggesting an alternative view of Borlaug and the Green Revolution contributed by Vandana Shiva. It’s a piece that I am very familiar with, and interested readers can find it here. I knew Borlaug well enough that we would always greet each other when meeting in the years between my departure from Texas A&M and his death in September of 2009. I do not know Shiva, although I have read a great deal of her work and have heard her speak once. Like Borlaug, Shiva is an iconic figure whose symbolic function in debates over agriculture and development transcends her actual works. Where Borlaug stands for development by technical means, Shiva stands for empowerment of marginalized groups, especially women.
Women do the majority of the farming in Asia and Africa. It is not uncommon for men in a village or household to help with occasional tasks such as plowing, but it is women who tend the crops, make the decisions and often do much of the harvesting. Early development projects (including the Green Revolution) were often gender biased. Interactions between the extension agents charged with disseminating the new seeds focused on men. Men were powerful, could dominate women with violence and stood to benefit both economically and in status from these interactions. So this development practice of focusing on men only reinforced patterns of gender inequality. Shiva’s iconic status as an intellectually formidable Hindu woman plays a vital cultural role in countering all these sad trends.
But as foolish (and unethical) as this way of approaching development was, it did not endure. Well before Shiva herself became active in writing on women and development, there was a widespread appreciation of the role of women in development activities. There was also a widespread appreciation of the failures of the Green Revolution. In 1974 Keith Griffin published a book called The Political Economy of Agrarian Change which detailed many foibles of the Borlaug era Green Revolution, including strategies that led to concentration of land ownership and further marginalization of poor women farmers. In 1977 a Marxist economist named Michael Perelmann published Farming for Profit in a Hungry World, which linked these inequalities to environmental issues and called for an approach more focused on smallholder production for subsistence. In 1979 Western Michigan University’s Kenneth Dahlberg published Beyond the Green Revolution: The Ecology and Politics of Global Development, a book that emphasized the environmental critique of Borlaug’s approach.
One of the things that has always irked me about Shiva is that she writes as she were the first person to discover problems with the Green Revolution in the late 1980s. In fact, everything in the 1991 article Terry sent me was known in development studies a decade earlier, and people working in agricultural science (including Borlaug) were already thinking about how to do better. This is not to say that the situation was entirely reformed. There are still idiots out there promoting stupid plans in agricultural development projects. But as important as Shiva has been for bringing the critique of the Green Revolution to general readers, it is not as if she was saying much that was really new.
Now I recognize that giving credit where credit is due may be an obsession among college professors, but not really that important in the larger world where helping poor people is what really counts. On that score, I give Shiva a lot of credit. She has been involved with grass roots development projects with poor Indian women, and no one has done a better job of bringing the justice issues to a wider audience. No one is better than Shiva in a 30 second sound bite or even in an eight minute evening news special highlighting the imperatives and perils of addressing hunger. That’s why she is an icon, and I support all the things for which she is an icon.
There are some other problems with Shiva’s analysis that general readers should know about, however. Shiva’s work on women farmers often promotes a nostalgic portrayal of how things were before the Green Revolution. Bina Agrawal’s work is better. Bina (who is also an intellectually formidable Hindu woman) has corrected Shiva’s analysis for being naïve about the role and status of women prior to the advent of new agricultural technologies. Indian women were denied legal standing in dispute resolution, and they were not allowed to own property. The issue of women’s inequality and marginalization in India simply cannot be laid at Borlaug’s feet alone, nor is it the case the Green Revolution “messed up” an agricultural system that had no ethical problems. If I were going to recommend someone for making a powerful feminist critique of agricultural development, the credit would go to Agrawal, rather than Shiva.
And Shiva’s campaign against genetic engineering has involved a lot of claims that range from being deceptive to being dead wrong. On the deceptive end, she recounts stories of crop failures from planting genetically engineered (GE) crops in India that have led to death and destruction. She does not mention that the only GE crop in India is cotton, or that the farmers growing it (however poor) are thoroughly enmeshed in markets and quite cognizant of the economic risks they are taking in buying these seeds. They are not growing this crop for their own food. She also does not mention that there is a major problem with seed counterfitting in India, and that the crop failures may well derive from farmers having been duped by the seed salesman, rather than owing to anything related to genetic engineering. She does not mention that the GE cotton they are growing is a variety that eliminates the need for chemical pesticides, or that studies have shown dramatic improvements in farmworker health in regions where this GE crop is grown. She does not mention that pesticide companies concerned with lost revenues are at the forefront of campaigns against GE crops in India.
On the dead wrong end, Shiva has written that GE crops contain the so-called “terminator gene.” This genetic construct indeed exists. Plants containing it set seed just fine, so they produce the rice corn or cotton that the farmer is trying to grow for sale. However, farmers who try to save seeds for next year will be very disappointed, because yields will be very, very low. Or perhaps I should say that they would be very disappointed, because although the construct has been tested in laboratory conditions and patents for it have been awarded, it has never been incorporated into any commercial seed variety being grown by farmers anywhere in the world. Shiva also writes as if every trait associated with any GE crop is somehow found in all of them, so a reader would think that all GE crops not only are terminators, but they also make their own pesticide and are made to tolerate applications of chemical weedkiller. That’s false. All this may just be sloppy writing, but I sometimes wonder if she even knows what she is talking about.
I report all this not to promote GE crops, though I do think that we should be more open to this approach than many alternative ag types generally are. My point is that while I support the perspective and point of view that Shiva represents in the iconosphere, I also think that we should try to get the details right.
Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University