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June 8, 2000


Shiva and Charles


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Back to nature in India?

The Madness of Prince Charles

Back to nature in India?

Vandana Shiva's Reith lecture, Poverty and Globalisation, has predictably
increased her standing among elitist, Western, green activist groups and
anti-globalisation protesters. At the same time it has depressed many
people with a more rational concern for poverty and hunger in the Southern

The claim of the Director of the Research Foundation for Science,
Technology and Ecology in New Delhi is that the introduction of modern
agricultural techniques in India - the 'green revolution' - has led to a
state where: "The rich diversity and sustainable systems of food
production are being destroyed in the name of increasing food production."
She even argues that the much acclaimed 'golden rice', which contains
genetically engineered higher levels of Vitamin A to combat deficiencies
that can lead to blindness, is not wanted in India: "the myth of creation
presents biotechnologists as the creators of Vitamin A, negating nature's
diverse gifts and women's knowledge of how to use diversity to feed their
children and families."

Dr Shiva omits to mention, of course, that the green revolution has all
but eradicated famine in her country and led to crop production which can
withstand the predictable periods of drought with which farmers have
frequently to cope. She also fails to realise that her vituperative
attacks on what she sees as the new 'capitalist patriarchy' can only
return India to a nation dependent on costly food imports which prevented
widespread starvation in the 1960s prior to the introduction of modern
farming methods.

Matt Ridley of the Telegraph, clearly angered by her lecture, responds
with precision and an appropriate touch of venom in The poverty of a Reith
Lecturer's thinking:

"Today, India produces 204 million tons of grain a year. To produce
that quantity with 1960s techniques would require three times as much land
under cultivation. If India had stuck to traditional methods, by now it
would be seeing millions of deaths from starvation every year - and it
would have ploughed all the wild land."

Ridley also notes that Vandana Shiva's call to return to traditional
agriculture might help the better-off members of rural populations - the
land-owning elite - but it would devastate the lives of the landless, poor
majority. It is this elitism, so characteristic of green movements in our
own country - the 'eco-toffs' - that offends so many of us who believe in
more equitable social and political systems.

Dr Shiva, of course, will be undeterred by such criticism. It was she, for
example, who openly attacked Oxfam's guarded but sensible approach to the
issue of GM crops (see Oxfam berated and Oxfam hits back). Even when Oxfam
was supplying aid to the victims of the cyclone in Orissa last year she
wrote "We hope that your food aid will be GE-free", a patronising request
for which the victims in Orissa are unlikely to be

Matt Ridley, however, directs his anger not just at Vandana Shiva but at
those of us in the Western world who seek a comforting sense of moral
rectitude through subscription to the naive views that she promotes:

"Next time you applaud Marks & Spencer for not stocking genetically
modified cotton, consider the Indian farmer whom you have just helped to
bankrupt. For him, having seen his cotton crop devastated by boll worm,
and knowing that only heavy doses of chemical pesticides can reach inside
the cotton boll, the GM cotton was a life-saver and an environment-saver,
too. Inserted into the cotton was the ability to produce Bt, the "organic"
insecticide used all over the world by organic farmers. Now he would not
have to spray his cotton with Bt or anything else. Then you came along."

Now that, perhaps, is more appropriate for a Reith lecture than the
ramblings of Dr Shiva.

The madness of Prince Charles

HRH Prince Charles' Reith lecture, Respect for the earth - A royal view,
has angered and depressed in equal measure the entire science community.
His mystical, and at times quite whimsical, views on the sacred status of
nature started to make even Vandana Shiva's earlier lecture in the series
seem half-way sensible. (See Back to nature in India?) His explicit
hostility towards scientific rationalism, which he claimed was smothering
'a sacred trust between mankind and our Creator', baffled not only
scientists but also a few theologians. And his predictable attack on
genetic engineering as failing to show 'respect for the genius of nature's
designs' added further insult to those who believe passionately in the
role of such technology in generating self-sustaining agriculture in those
parts of the world currently prey to drought,
famine and disease.

Prince Charles, of course, has a long history of high-minded pontificating
on issues about which he is generally quite ill-informed - not least his
campaign against modern architecture. And his profound lack of
understanding of the true motivation and role of the scientist in modern
society revealed the underlying vacuity of his sentimentalist speech.
Professor Steve Jones' comment that he should 'go back to school and do
more A-levels' was, in the circumstances, quite a mild rebuke - certainly
given the Prince's reference to Bertrand Russell, most commonly regarded
as a philosopher and mathematician, as a 'scientist'.

The Prince's unqualified support for the precautionary principle again
exposes his failure to appreciate the consequences of what he is
proposing. He claims that rather than being an obstacle to progress it is
a 'sign of strength and wisdom'. But he is wrong. All of our evolution and
cultural development has been achieved through evidence-based assessment
of risks and subsequent progressive action. The precautionary principle,
however, would have ruled out Columbus discovering the Americas, blood
transfusions, open heart surgery and even the steam locomotive. It also
now threatens to put a halt to the rich benefits that bio-engineering can
bring to feeding an ever-increasing world population and to the
eradication of diseases.

It is, perhaps, fitting that Prince Charles' lecture has been welcomed
mostly by members of the British aristocracy. The Baron Melchett, Director
of Greenpeace, for example, said in The Times: "it is about time somebody
pointed out how bereft of humanity and human values it is for people to
claim that they can take decisions simply on the basis of what they call
'sound science'." But if we abandon 'sound science' as
our guiding principle, then whose principle should we adopt - that of the
British monarchy and aristocracy? That of unelected and elitist
environmental activist groups? Or that of religious zealots?

The views expressed by our monarch-in-waiting threaten to return us to the
dark days of irrationality and bigotry which were characteristic of the
times leading up to the reign of his distant predecessor and namesake
Charles I - a man who believed, for self-serving reasons, in the Divine
Right of Kings and the over-riding authority of the Church. That Charles,
of course, had failed to notice the shifting tide of sentiment in English
society away from such doctrines towards a new rationalism, and he paid the
ultimate price for his lack of judgement when he was beheaded outside
Whitehall Palace. Perhaps it is just as well that we now live in rather
more tolerant times.