A controversial leader in the global movement against genetically modified foods slammed the Midwest’s industrial agricultural paradigm, and research planned at Iowa State University on GM bananas during a lecture Wednesday evening on campus.
About 700 people showed up at the Memorial Union’s Great Hall to hear Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist and founder of the Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India.
Shiva argued that agribusiness giants such as Monsanto have been wreaking havoc on food systems throughout the world through their practice of monocropping, widespread pesticide use she said has killed off insects crucial to plant pollination, and patents on GM seeds she said have forced small farmers off their land in the developing world.
“Intellectual property rights were always the basis for introducing genetically engineered seeds and crops,” Shiva said. “It is still the only real basis.”
Shiva is something of a celebrity among environmentalists but has at times been criticized by sympathizers and GMO proponents alike for her fiery rhetoric — near the start of Wednesday’s lecture, she referenced “crimes that were committed in the name of science” by Nazis — and dubious claims she has made about GM crops in the past including the popular argument that they were responsible for a farmer suicide epidemic in India.
Wednesday evening, Shiva criticized a study planned at ISU on the potential health benefits of bananas genetically modified by an Australian scientist to contain more vitamin A.
Comparing GM biosafety experts to climate change-denying shills of the oil industry, Shiva claimed the study’s leader at ISU, Associate Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition Wendy White, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, lacked knowledge about GM food safety.
Shiva noted that India is by far the world’s largest banana-producing country, arguing the nation would be harmed by the GM banana’s introduction.
The banana research was initially scheduled to begin last fall but got delayed.
“Dr. James Dale at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, the principal investigator, has said the nutrition study will go forward when the researchers are satisfied that the banana material meets quality standards,” said Annette Hacker, an ISU spokeswoman. “We do not yet have a timeframe as to when Dr. White’s portion of this research will begin.”
After Shiva’s lecture, Rebecca Chamberlin, 21, a junior studying agronomy at ISU, said she appreciated her views on crop biodiversity.
“I think one of the most important points that she made was about the importance of biodiversity, and that why we use GMOs is because we want plants that are drought-tolerant and resistant to pests,” she said. “However, biodiversity and evolution and natural selection already do that for us.”
Chamberlin’s favorable impression of Shiva was common among many in attendance Wednesday evening but is far from unanimous at the university, which is home to one of the nation’s top agriculture programs and where heated debates over GM foods are commonplace.
Camden Watson, 19, a junior in agronomy at ISU who attended the lecture wearing a bright yellow Monsanto T-shirt he was given on a tour of a company breeding facility in Williamsburg, took issue with Shiva’s claim that non-GM foods were significantly more nutritious than their genetically modified counterparts.
“With all the scholarly research I’ve done through Iowa State, there’s been little to no difference (in studies on nutritional value),” he said, before adding that what he described as Shiva’s portrayal of Iowa as a market dominated by large-scale industrial farming was unfair to the state’s many small, family farmers.
A lecture Watson would likely sympathize with more is scheduled for March 25, when Kevin Folta, chairman of the University of Florida’s Horticultural Sciences Department and a strong critic of Shiva’s fiery rhetoric and anti-GMO views, plans to visit ISU’s Curtiss Hall.