On Wednesday, AGDAILY posted my article about Dr. Vandana Shiva’s invitation to speak at the University of Missouri Kansas City (UKMC). My thesis was a simple one, that institutions of higher education do their students and society a disservice by extending opportunities to speakers brought aboard to stir controversy, even if that means giving false information to students.
For years she has pushed a message to end modern conventional agriculture — relying on false information, selective citation, misrepresentation of data, and hyperbole to push a divisive message.
I was a signatory on a letter from dozens of international scholars that objected to UMKC hosting the presentation.
Concern was warranted. Over the last decade I’ve watched Dr. Shiva malign agriculture, trash farmers, inappropriately criticize chemistry and castigate genetic technologies. I watched videos of her lying to auditoriums of admirers, applauding furiously as she pounded a podium, denouncing the horrors of “factory farms” and “chemical agriculture.” During Q&As, I’d watch her pivot like the sleaziest of politicians, skirting sincere, challenging questions that she didn’t wish to answer.
Her brand was fire. Her strategy was to foment anger and fear, even if it took misrepresenting science to do it.
Like any honest critic, I signed up to watch her UMKC presentation.
I put on my most comfortable sweatpants with the stretchiest waistline, made a comically large pile of nachos from GMO corn chips, then settled into the comfort of my couch to take notes on her presentation. To the side, a virgin bottle of good mescal stood at attention, along with a shot glass, a few dozen lime wedges, and the whole cylinder of salt. It was time for “Drink Monsanto” — a frattish drinking game I was poised to play with the online community familiar with her typical rants against a now-defunct company.
And 20 minutes in, not a drop was served.
30 minutes in, the bottle remained capped.
40 minutes in, nachos were gone, lime wedges attracting fruit flies.
50 minutes in, presentation and Q&A are over, bottle going in cabinet, refilling the kitchen salt shaker and putting lime wedges in a baggie for juice to be liberated another day …
Aside from an occasional slip into “Bill Gates” and “agrichemical poison companies,” I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Shiva redirect her efforts to important social causes and away from baseless criticism of agriculture and associated technologies. She gave a grandmotherly disjointed talk about the importance of diversity, the problems of inequity, and an indictment of throw-away cultures of unhealthy food and cheap clothing. She likely gave a young university audience their first exposure to the fight against apartheid, colonialism and their lasting residues. Dr. Shiva lauded the Black Lives Matter movement for bringing attention to social and economic inequities in the industrialized world.
Dr. Shiva denounced our combined failure in not cooperating to create abundance. She wondered why the United States, the greatest food producer on Earth, is plagued with diet-related disease and food deserts. She asked why half of the food insecure on this planet were farmers.
Holy cats, we were on the same page!
Sure, I disagreed with some of her opinions. She’s not happy with agricultural subsidies and doesn’t understand the rationale for monocultures. She criticized the government plan to invest billions into carbon capture, suggesting that it will use more energy than it saves carbon. They introduced her as a “trained physicist”; she didn’t care to correct that mischaracterization.
But I could not help but think she had a shock collar around her ankle that buzzed every time her blood pressure inched up as she meandered toward mumbling the M-word. I’d sense her winding up like a spring and hitting “chemical agriculture” just to be racked back to script, the smiling, gentle critic of greed and inequity that shares her viewpoint rather than disinformation.
And that’s welcome. We can share opinions and discuss them. My objection to her invitation was never her point of view — it was her venom of disinformation on a college campus.
The “robust campus conversation” promised by the provost didn’t materialize. The Q&A was 10 minutes of mushy softball questions, and the whole thing was history in under an hour.
With a belly full of nachos I was pleased to see the change. Dr. Shiva’s derision against agriculture foisted profound hardship on Sri Lankan farmers and has drawn protest from farmers in her homeland. Her mistruths have been long debunked. Today a Big-Pharma-biotech-based vaccine shields her countrymen and economy from additional casualties.
I’d like to think that she had an epiphany, realizing that denouncing successful food innovation was harming her brand, as well as the developing world she claims to love. Maybe she saw that a “GMO” vaccine was the path out of a pandemic. Perhaps the criticisms of the scores of farmers and scientists that illuminated her deception are finally swaying her strategy.
My hope is that her focus remains in areas of diversity and inequity, smart environmentalism, and evidence-based improvements in farming. Last night might have been the first signs of change we needed to see.
Dr. Kevin Folta is a Professor of molecular biology and genomics at a public university, a keynote speaker, and a podcast host. The views here may not represent those of his employers or clients.