Building Community At America's Table

What our fields actually need is a heavy application of honesty

– written by Ellen

Though I had certainly heard much of her, my first true exposure to Vandana Shiva was the night I returned home from Monsanto, climbed into bed with my laptop, and started Googling.

I Googled Indian mustard seed but was a bit stymied that I couldn’t find any mainstream or scientific sources. (Please send them if you have them!)

I typed ‘Indian farmer suicide’ into my browser, because I was told Ms. Shiva claimed hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers had committed suicide because of Monsanto. It is a terrifically sad fact when anyone commits suicide, but these farmers didn’t commit suicide because of Monsanto. They committed suicide because of drought, bad government support and the rapid transformation of a society.

(It was odd, after the fact, to read Shiva’s “mainstream” article on the farmer suicides. It appeared far more “fact-based” than what I had earlier read and heard. But it is rather cleverly written, and I will get to that in a moment.)

In sum, I got home from Monsanto and started learning that “our side” is biased, largely uninformed and often just out and out scaryass wrong. (The science supports that.) And a good deal of this misinformation is coming from sources we trust. This is a really, really bad state of affairs and, along with fueling some weirdly crazy hate, is actually contributing to the problems of our food supply more than it is helping us find a way to fix it, even in a small way.

Here’s the thing: The work Vandana Shiva does with Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade, is important. Native seeds, organic farming and fair trade are all vitally important.

But, there’s a right way and a wrong way. And while Navdanya may be a right way, what I saw at the Bioneers conference where Shiva spoke in Chicago recently, was most definitely the wrong way.

And I’ll address what is wrong in an open letter.

Dear Vandana Shiva:

Heros don’t lie. At your Bioneers talk in Chicago, in your keynote address you told the audience that “they” are spraying Agent Orange on the fields. This is not true; and I am certain you know it is not true.

Likely, you were referring to 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, which is one of the components of Agent Orange. Today, 2,4-D is used on farms and on many home gardens. And while I will absolutely agree it is not awesome, it is also not Agent Orange. You wouldn’t call it Agent Orange unless you were specifically looking to instill fear and anger because for any American with any kind of conscience, Agent Orange is a hot button. That said, even if that was your goal, it is a lie.

The real sad fact is that the Bioneers audience was comprised of precisely the type of people who don’t want to use one of the ingredients in Agent Orange  in their home gardens. So, sharing with them the fact that 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, is the third most widely used herbicide in America and available at any garden center, would allow you to use the words Agent Orange but in an honest and actionable way. It would still be throwing gas on a fire, but at the very least it would have meant that you at least armed them with useful information.

Unfortunately, I could only conclude, in listening to your speech, that arming them with useful information didn’t seem your goal. Scaring them, inciting them — that seemed to be your goal.


Why did a great deal of your talk seem to incite rather than educate — and to no end other than spreading hate and anger?

It would have been helpful, maybe, to share with the group what they need to do to create these living cities of which you were scheduled to speak about. That, at the very beginning of the journey out of the morass of our food supply, we need to do research, think about our actions and be educated consumers —  that change starts there. But throughout the talk, it seemed obvious that your point wasn’t to educate these people on steps they could take to achieve the assumed goals of your initiatives — in fact, educating folks on truths and what we should all do to be the change we want to see was the one thing left out of your talk. (Oh, wait, you said you wanted to see more gardens in Chicago. Yes, you did say that. It seemed a toss-in at the end of the speech. That was your take away. That was it.)

Of point in fact, it was my impression that your entire speech barely rose above the level of outright lie. It was brimming with clever turns of phrase meant to elicit a reaction (GMO — God, Move Over), scarily reductionist pronouncements (all the GMO folks have achieved in all these years is two things: shooting “poison” into seeds and adding herbicides to seeds — p.s. work on the wording for the herbicide bit, it wasn’t nearly scary-sounding enough) and specifically crafted sentences meant to drum up emotion (It’s extremely easy to take life to make money). But what it was missing was honestly educating the audience on usable and actionable facts.

This is worrisome to me today of all days.

Ms. Shiva, today is the day Californians are voting on Prop37, the GMO labeling law. One of the biggest problems with the law is that it incites Americans with fear without educating them on the facts. So, at the end of the day, the vast majority of Californians are not actually voting because they understand what they are voting for — they are voting because they’ve been scared by people like you who deliver half-truths, manipulated facts and, it seems, lies.

And here’s why that is really damning: these Americans are being denied choice.

Here’s why: they are turning to people like you who proclaim to be a leader in the anti-GMO fight and they hear things like “they are spraying Agent Orange on the fields.” And they believe it. Because, well, you’re held up as this model of purity and right.

So, in reality, these Californians are being coerced and cajoled into making a certain choice. They are being coerced to vote for something they don’t even know about.

This isn’t a good thing, even if the end goal is to stop the spread of GMOs.

This isn’t what America stands for.

Voting — it’s sacred in America. You really shouldn’t mess with that just to get to your end goal.

When you spoke about Prop37, you said that it is, “asking for something very simple.” I ask something very simple of you: stick to honest, verifiable facts. In your position, you have a responsibility to tell the truth. You have a responsibility to educate people honestly. You have a responsibility to not do the very thing that you criticize others for.

If you are so confident in your belief that GMOs are bad, honest verifiable facts, delivered with integrity, will prove that to be true. Are you brave enough to stand up to that challenge? I certainly hope so.

Until then, please stay out of American politics. We have enough trouble seeing eye-to-eye on our own.


Ellen Malloy


21 responses

  1. Great read Ellen. I agree a little more honesty on all sides of debates and discussions happening in America is desperately needed.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:20 am

  2. “Until then, please stay out of American politics. We have enough trouble seeing eye-to-eye on our own.” Doesn’t this just about sum up everything? Wow Ellen…Awesome, just awesome.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:26 am

  3. The way you stand up and demand honesty from all sides in a discussion makes me very proud to call you my friend.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

  4. Doug

    Interesting perspective. I know these untruths and half truths are what drives agriculturists crazy when we hear some of the arguments from the “other side.”

    Both sides of the debate can be guilty, but I feel like it is to different degrees. The notion that prop 37 would increase food prices by $400 dollars a year is pretty dubious. It will have a cost, but who really knows how much. But, that still feels less disingenuous than claiming farmers spray Agent Orange.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:34 am

    • elliecm

      Doug. Your comment comes perilously close to the “but mommy, he hit me first” defense. Demand more. From both sides.

      No lie that takes away freedom is ever justified or less disingenuous or anything other than a lie, told on purpose, to achieve a goal other than choice.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:58 am

      • Doug

        I completely agree. Neither is justified…and each side should focus on being completely truthful rather than “more right.”

        November 6, 2012 at 12:15 pm

  5. Long time reader, first-time commenter. Can I hug you?

    November 6, 2012 at 10:49 am

    • Having met Ellen, I think when we met she said she’s a hugger so I’m willing to bet she’d be ok with that! LOL

      November 6, 2012 at 8:29 pm

  6. Dave Miller

    I so agree with your request for honesty in the dialogues about agriculture.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:27 am

  7. Yes! This is what I’ve been saying all along. Both Yes and No on 37 promoted bad information to further their goals – and both are wrong. Lying is wrong. Period.

    My co-blogger Karl did an interview with advocates for both Yes and No on 37 and it was striking what they chose to spend their time talking about. While No may have had some information that was exaggerated (we can’t know for sure how much food prices will increase, for example) at least she spent her time talking about her position. In contrast, Yes spent a large portion of her time saying how bad No was. It’s so strange.

    I too am frustrated that Vandana Shiva relies on bad information to further her agenda when if she would just stick to the facts she would be so much more effective. Of course more community gardens are a good thing! Then let’s talk about how they are good and how we can get more started, not waste time demonizing other people. Apparently she’d never heard that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

    Quick note – how did Shiva introduce herself? I’m just curious if she’s still saying she’s a physicist or not.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    • elliecm

      Thanks, Anastasia, for even reading our little blog here.

      Shiva did not introduce herself and while I did start jotting down the superlatives and “titles” that the introducer used, there were so many I literally could not have written them all down. That said, she was referred to as a doctor and one of the titles was, indeed, nuclear physicist.

      I was surprised, if she was a scientist, how reductionist her description of “the achievements of biotechnology” were just two things: shooting poison into the plant and the herbicide resistant. I mean, that is like saying all NASA has achieved is going to moon. Sure, you could say that, factually, but it discounts so much hard work. I personally may not understand (or love) what biotechnology has done but I wouldn’t reduce the whole thing to such a flip little statement. It didn’t seem very respectful of the work, even if you don’t agree with it.

      Let alone my harping on and on about possible us “greenies” are missing a huge opportunity to leverage that seed chipper for our own goals!

      November 6, 2012 at 2:29 pm

  8. Can I hug you too? I’ll wait in line, even pay a cover charge.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm

  9. Yes, yes. I must hug you too. Will wait in line, and will pay a fee.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm

  10. That was a very disappointing experience. I don’t have much more to say, but I had to comment so I could subscribe to them. It was so amazing to follow the comments on the last post, and I don’t want to miss out!

    November 6, 2012 at 4:33 pm

  11. These conversations are getting better and better. What a great resource to have for Agriculture. I am enjoying all of this information and open conversations. I really appreciate the work you and Grant are doing. I am wondering if it is not too personal to ask is your research causing stress on your friendships or is everyone enjoying the conversation.

    November 8, 2012 at 9:10 am

    • elliecm

      Thankfully, I am a bit of a recluse so I have no idea if it is impacting my relationships!!!!! That said, if people decide they don’t like me because I am concerned with finding the truth, not sure they are an awesome addition to my day. Thanks for asking, though, I appreciate the concern!!!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    • elliecm

      Lying effing blows no matter who is doing it. Though, from a strategic perspective, I think the guy would have a stronger arguement if he left out the dubious stuff. I would be happy to detail the stuff that I Have problems with. But for one, I would try to see if that Sygenta link led to a convection and was not a false charge. You know, why link to “charged” and not a “convicted” post? Lots of companies are charged and not convicted. this is the kind of thinking I am learning to do. It is kind of awesome to learn to be more balanced and to do some forensic research instead of just believing stuff.

      But the net net: lying and the false manipulations are outta control all over the place. It is human nature, I know, to craft and spin (at least for PR types like me!), but it is crazypants at this point.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm

  12. On the unfortunate topic of Indian farmer suicide I came across this article recently. It provides something that I was searching for. What of the rest of the Indian population? A good read for perspective vs what a Google search may bring you on the subject.

    “While the spotlight is on farmers, forgotten is a suicide crisis among Indians where the suicide rate is twice as high for the general population and even higher for young females.”

    Still a terrible issue, and perhaps even worse than one would be led to believe. But certainly all the troubles of a nation can’t be blamed on a cotton plant.

    March 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm

  13. Pingback: Breeding Bitter Seeds of Deception & Indian Suicides

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