by Marion Nestle
Aug 27 2014

On two views of GMOs: Michael Specter vs. Vandana Shiva and Gary Hirshberg

Michael Specter’s article “Seeds of Doubt” in the current issue of The New Yorker  is a critical profile of  India’s Vandana Shiva and her active opposition to genetically modified foods.  At the end, it offers this somewhat temporizing statement:

Genetically modified crops will not solve the problem of the hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry every night. It would be far better if the world’s foods contained an adequate supply of vitamins. It would also help the people of many poverty-stricken countries if their governments were less corrupt. Working roads would do more to reduce nutritional deficits than any G.M.O. possibly could, and so would a more equitable distribution of the Earth’s dwindling supply of freshwater. No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world. To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.

Despite this peace offering, his article elicited a firm rebuttal from Dr. Shiva. It also elicited a rebuttal from Gary Hirshberg, chair of Just Label It. If you want to get into the weeds of the GMO arguments, all three of these pieces are well worth reading.

They raise and debate the same arguments I discussed in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003 and out in a second edition in 2010. As I explain in the book, the gist of the arguments comes from two apparently irreconcilable views of GMO foods:

  1. The “science-based” position: If GMOs are safe (which they demonstrably are), there can be no rational reason to oppose them.
  2. The “societal value-based” position: Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable), there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them.

Specter holds the first position.  Shiva and Hirshberg hold the second. Those who hold the “science-based” position would do well to take societal values more seriously.

Seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance, and other such concerns trouble people who care about food systems that promote health, protect the environment, and provide social justice.

Labeling, right from the start, would have acknowledged the importance of such values. Until GMO foods are labeled as such, the same arguments are likely to go on endlessly, with no reconciliation in sight.


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  • Healthy Food

    The use of GMOs is one of the most controversial topics in discussions concerning the future of farming. For some people, generic engineering seems to represent a sort of “silver bullet” for most of the problems related to agriculture, such as the climate crisis and food security. At the same time, others see GMOs as a menace, a technology that does not maintain its promises, and that even represents a threat to humans and the natural environment. Great article!

  • Ewan R

    So Marion, are you now advocating labeling of anything that might “trouble people” – this seems a pretty bold stance.

    Some people are troubled by immigrant labor. I suppose that you are for mandatory labelling of country of origin of picker on all foods?

    There is a pretty sizable population of bigots in the US who are probably troubled that homosexuals, blacks and other minority groups may have played some role in the preparation of the food they are buying – no doubt their concerns, while grounded in fantasy, should be kowtowed to – we cannot reconcile with the bigots until we provide labelling so that they eat only food that is produced according to whatever the hell societal norms they wish right?

    “Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable)”

    we sit in the year 2014 and I think you’ll find that creationism is still debatable (Ken Ham made a tidy penny debating Bill Nye quite recently) – whether or not something is debatable is a rather meaningless measure of anything. The science shows that there is no inherent risk of genetic engineering as a broad tool, and that currently commercialized GMOs are quite obviously as safe as their non-GMO counterparts. Could the techniques be used to create dangerous foods? Absolutely. So can non-GM approaches though.

  • Carole

    Ewan R
    Over 60 countries label GMOs around the world. The only reason we don’t have labeling in the US is the poor decisions by the FDA and all the money that is spent to confuse voters and dissuade politicians. Additionally, you cannot prove something is safe for human with animal studies.