Political Ecology of GMOs

A Middlebury blog

Placing Vandana Shiva

Katie Michels

Positionality Statement:

I am a student of geography and environmental studies at Middlebury College. I’ve spent much of my time here as a volunteer and co-director at the Middlebury College Organic Farm, and live in a house that prides itself on eating a local, organic, GMO-free diet. I am also a type one diabetic, dependent on insulin produced by GM bacteria. These lenses differently color my perceptions of GMOs. As an advocate for agrarianism, farmers, and small-scale agriculture, I have long admired Vandana Shiva’s work.

Figure 1. Genetically modified and traditional varieties of seeds look just the same; the words we use to describe them shape our perceptions and interpretations. These diagrams, each the shape of a cotton seed, are composed of words drawn from Vandana Shiva’s writings in Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, a publication from the 2007 Slow Food International Terra Madre Conference. This text was chosen to illustrate the words Shiva uses in the company of other activists and scholars in the Slow Food movement, to offer a suggestion of the lifeworld she inhabits.  Shiva chose the words in the left seed to describe traditional varieties of seeds, while the words on the right describe genetically modified seeds. Capitalized are those that appear most frequently.

Placing Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva speaks passionately and loudly in the debate over Genetic Modification (GM) in food crops. However, as illustrated in her discussions of “terminator technology,” or self-sterilizing seeds, many of her claims are exaggerated (Herring, 2006): Though terminator technology has never been commercialized, Shiva continually claims it exists. In the project of political ecology, context is central. It is impossible to understand Shiva’s perspectives on GM without first understanding her lifeworld, or the “culturally transmitted background” of ideas, experiences, and people in which she thinks and speaks (Schurman and Munroe, 2010). Using the case of “terminator technology,” I hope to place Shiva’s rhetoric within her lifeworld in order to better understand her positions.

What is GURT?

GM crops contain genetic material from other species (Nestle, 2004). Gene Use Restriction Technology (GURT) is one method of genetic modification: by adding foreign genes, then activating those genes with an antibiotic, seeds self-produce a toxin which renders subsequent generations sterile (Kaiser, 2000, 709-710). GURT was developed specifically for self-pollinating plants in order to prevent transgenic genes from spreading beyond species (Niiler, 1999, 1054). Seed companies viewed GURT as a protection against seed saving, which they believe violates their intellectual property rights (Service, 1998; Kaiser, 2000). GURT was jointly developed by Delta and PineLand seed company (DPL) and the USDA, and in March 1998, they received a patent (Service, 1998, 850).

Monsanto expressed interest in purchasing DPL in 1998, though the merger did not occur until 2006 (Pollack, 2006). In response to public pressure, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro promised “a public commitment not to commercialize sterile seed technologies” in food crops (1999). Syngenta, DuPont, BASF, Novartis AG, and Purdue, Iowa State, and Cornell Universities also hold GURT patents (Caplan, 2007, 772). Aside from Monsanto, only DuPont and Novartis have made public promises to not commercialize GURT, though research continues (Fumento, 1999, 62; Niiler, 1999).

GURT inspired widespread opposition, and was termed “terminator technology” by Canadian activist organization Rural Advancement Foundation International (Service, 1998, 850). In 1998, India’s government banned it (Herring, 2010, 618). In 2000, and again in 2006, the UN Convention on Biodiversity recommended a GURT moratorium (Caplan, 2007, 776).

Shiva’s Version:

Vandana Shiva identifies as an Indian activist, environmentalist, globalization critic, and eco-feminist (2000, 1-2). She is a part of organizations like the International Forum on Globalization and Slow Food International, and the founder of the Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy (Shiva, 2005, “About”).       She holds advanced degrees in physics and the Philosophy of Science (London, 1998).

         Though Shiva’s words suggest understanding of the delineations between hybrid, GM, and GURT, she continues to incorrectly describe it. In 1998, she explicitly differentiated between transgenic seeds as “something which has crossed species boundaries,” and GURT as “a technology […] to prevent seed from germinating” (Shiva cited in: Paget-Clarke, 1998). And yet, in 2006, she said, “Bt cotton is based on what has been dubbed ‘Terminator Technology,’ which makes genetically engineered plants produce sterile seeds,” wrongly implying that existing GM cotton contains GURT (Herring, 2010, 616).

Shiva’s descriptions of GURT and its potential are extrapolated and misleading. Figure 1 illustrates some of the words she attaches to GM seeds. In many of her writings, she refers to GURT in the present or future tense, suggesting it exists commercially. For example, on page 83 of Stolen Harvest, she says, “The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet”; on page 84, she admits, “Monsanto announced in October 1999 that it would abandon its plans to commercialize terminator technology” (Shiva, 2000). This quote also illustrates the implications she assigns to GURT. Her organization Navdanya also describes GURT in the present or future tense multiple times in multiple publications (Navdanya, 2011, 44, 71, 158; Navdanya, 2012a, 2, 10, 24, 31, 47-48, 296, 324; Navdayna, 2012b, 4).

Shiva assigns great power to seeds, making statements like “When you control seed you control food” (Shiva cited in: Moyers, 2012). For her, seeds are significant non-human actors (Robbins, 232, 235-238). By changing the ways farmers grow and use seeds, she argues, the social, cultural, and knowledge structures of Indian farmers are shifting from collective towards individual modes (Barsamian, 2002). Shiva fears that control of the seed may prove “a replay of colonialism,” arguing that “this last resource of the poor […] is also being taken over through patenting. And seeds which peasants had freely saved, exchanged, used, are being treated as the property of corporations” (Shiva cited in: Paget-Clarke, 1998). To Shiva, GM seeds are yet another manifestation of science and technology as part of a project of control. Shiva’s experience of science reduces and categorizes the world with particular aims: “Modern science and development are projects of male, western origin, both historically and ideologically” (1989, xvi).

Why does Shiva posit such extreme claims and potentialities? Why does she continually refer to GURT in the present tense, when she admitted as early as 2000 that it was not being pursued? Very few of her writings provide citations, and those that do are incomplete and hard to trace. Because we do not have links to her sources, it is difficult to understand the conclusions she draws.

Shiva in Context:

         Shiva’s Lifeworld: It is important to situate Shiva’s thoughts within her lifeworld. Schurman and Munro describe lifeworlds as “culturally transmitted background knowledge” which provide “a common cognitive and normative frame of reference” (2010, xvii). Anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone describes lifeworlds as mutually reinforcing “authentication loops” which separate pro- and anti-GMO rhetoric. All carry beliefs which influence the research and rhetoric they choose to emphasize (Stone, 2012). These authors draw from Donna Haraway’s (1988) conception of knowledge as partial, situated in experience rather than objectivity.

Shiva’s lifeworld includes activists and ideas critical of corporations, globalization, development, neoliberalism, and science, and a desire for sovereignty, justice, and environmental conservation (Schurman and Munro, 2010, 8-12; Herring, 2008, 461). She lives in an India where, she feels, much control is being transferred to multinational corporations through privatization (Rajgopal, 2002, 135; Barsamian, 2002; Shiva, 1991). She admits, “I view biotechnology through the lens of my experience looking at the Green Revolution” (Shiva cited in: Barsamian, 2002), which she describes as “a western patriarchal anti-nature model of agriculture, which shifts the control […] to food and agri-business multi-nationals” (1989, 97). She brings these experiences and perspectives to her words.

The Influence of Lifeworlds: Globally, a “very real vacuum in authoritative local knowledge about biotechnology” means that global narratives can continually run in parallel without ever conversing or being verified locally (Schurman and Munroe, 2010, 148). Like Shiva, the anti-GM lifeworld attaches significant implications to GM technology. Ronald Herring describes these extrapolations as “coalitional discursive hegemonies” with “universal” resonance: “No one,” he says, “can legitimately oppose ‘health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy’” (2010, 615-616, 621). For example, many in Shiva’s lifeworld attach great significance to corporate control of seeds. International small farmer organization La Via Campesina has said, “If we rely on corporate seed, we lose food sovereignty. If we lose food sovereignty, we lose political sovereignty” (2013). The founder of FedCo, a small seed company in Maine, said, “Terminator may be understood as the final step in the transition from a land-based farmer-controlled system to a capital-based business-dominated system” (Lawn, 1999). Though they each draw upon different experiences, Shiva and others come together within this anti-GM lifeworld. They echo each other, assigning globally resonant implications to GURT and reinforcing beliefs about fear and control.

Activist Scholarship: Shiva’s simplifications and methods have provoked great critique, especially from academics trained in peer review and citation methodology, and has been labeled an “activist scholar” (Caito, 2012, 433). Many now dismiss her work, considering it an effort to “reconfirm consensus among the like-minded” (Varty, 2002, 304). Though Shiva uses universalizing terms to critique GM, claiming to represent the experiences of all peasant farmers, Stone emphasizes that there are multiple experiences with the technology (2012; 2002; Cochrane, 2007; Subramanian et al., 2002). Shiva’s framings are so oppositional that they forget individual agency and grounded experiences, such as a farmer’s right to choose GM seed (Herring, 2006, 472-473). Shiva’s celebration of traditional cultures can ignore and perpetuate conservative, hierarchical norms (Cochrane, 2007; Nanda, 2002). Her perspectives on science inform her distrust of GM, but Subramaniam et al. ask if her outright rejection of science and technology allows it to remain in the hands of outsiders, rather than allowing for local empowerment through local adoption (2002, 203-205). Indigenous knowledge and science need not preclude each other; instead, to add a situated, reflexive science into traditional knowledge structures could lead to different and improved ways of living (Chadha, 1998, 2967; Subramanian, 2002, 205). These critiques leave space for her ideas, but ask that she allow for grounded experiences, too.

Placing Shiva

By contextualizing Shiva’s rhetoric, we can better understand its extremity. Because she lives in a world that has been treated poorly by recent globalization and development, I think she fears losing something so basic as the human right to grow food. Shiva’s perspectives on GM are chiefly concerned with maintaining diversity through sovereignty at local levels (2005, 61-62). She hopes for a world where all can “make the very basic choices that allow us to lead a human life, a life of dignity […] a knowledge society [of] informed citizens making free choices” (2005, 38). To Shiva, GM and the introduction of GURT carry implications far beyond physical seeds. By maintaining control over seeds, farmers can maintain their culture and their sovereign ability to feed themselves.

Certainly, though, there is a tension in her work. As such an advocate for individual sovereignty, local experience, and “keeping life free in its diversity” (Shiva cited in: London, 1998), Shiva relies upon extreme instances, universal framings, and simplified claims to create a globally resonant story. Though these frames are powerful, they detract from her scholarship and forget GM’s nuances and realities. As exemplified by the case of GURT, these frames may also be untrue. Her words are strong, strong enough to rally activists and elicit response from entities like Monsanto. But I think her rhetoric could be better documented and nuanced by reality. Shiva’s rejection of science and dramatization of potentialities closes listeners from her important words, and ignores other experiences and possibilities. Perhaps otherwise her thoughts could extend beyond her lifeworld to ensure sovereignty and justice for the people she cares so deeply about.


(* indicates pieces which were influential in my thinking, but whose words or direct ideas I did not specifically include).

Barsamian, D. (Interviewer) and Shiva, V. (Interviewee). 2002. “Monocultures of the Mind: An Interview with Vandana Shiva” [Interview Transcript]. Z Magazine 15 (12), December. Web. Accessed 26 April 2013. http://www.zcommunications.org/monocultures-of-the-mind-an-         interview-with-vandana-shiva-by-david-barsamian

Caito, A. 2012. “Review: Vandana Shiva: Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply.” Agriculture and Human Values 29 (3): 433.

Caplan, R. 2007. “The Ongoing Debate Over Terminator Technology.” Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 19 (4): 751-782.

Chadha, Gita. 1998. “Sokal’s Hoax: A Backlash to Science Criticism.” Economic and Political Weekly 33 (47/48): 2964-2968.

Cochrane, Regina. 2007. “Rural Poverty and Impoverished Theory: Cultural Populism,  Ecofeminism, and Global Justice.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 34 (2): 167-206.

Fumento, Michael. 1999. “The Science Terminators.” Forbes 164 (11, November 1): 62.

Haraway, D. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575-599.

Herring, R. J. 2010. “Epistemic Brokerage in the Bio-Property Narrative: Contributions to Explaining Opposition to Transgenic Technologies in Agriculture.” New Biotechnology 27 (5): 614-622.

Herring, R. J. 2008. “Opposition to Transgenic Technologies: Ideology, Interests, and Collective  Action Frames.” Nature Reviews Genetics 9: 458-463.

Herring, R. J. 2006. “Why Did ‘Operation Cremate Monsanto’ Fail? Science and Class in India’s Great Terminator-Technology Hoax.” Critical Asian Studies 38 (4): 467-493.

*Jackson, C. 1993. “Doing What Comes Naturally? Women and Environment in Development.” World Development 21 (12): 1947-1963.

Kaiser, J. 2000. “USDA to Commercialize ‘Terminator’ Technology.” Science 289 (5480): 709-710.

La Via Campesina. 2013. “Tunis 2013: If We Rely on Corporate Seed, We Lose Food Sovereignty.” La Via Campesina. Accessed 26 April 2013. http://viacampesina.org/en/          index.php/actions-and-events-mainmenu-26/world-social-forum-mainmenu-34/1394-           tunis-2013-if-we-rely-on-corporate-seed-we-lose-food-sovereignty

Lawn, C. R. (Fed-Co Seeds CEO). 1999. “Terminator Technology.” FedCo Co-op Garden Supplies. Web. Accessed 24 April 2013.  http://www.fedcoseeds.com/seeds/articles/terminator.htm

London, S. (Interviewer) and Shiva, V. (Interviewee). 1998. “In the Footsteps of Gandhi.” Insight and Outlook: The Radio Series [Interview Transcript]. San Luis Obispo, CA: KCBX. Accessed 28 May 2013. http://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/shiva.html

*Monsanto. 2013. “Is Monsanto Going to Develop or Sell ‘Terminator’ Seeds?” Monsanto Corporation. Accessed 25 April 2013. http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/        terminator-seeds.aspx

Moyers, B. (Interviewer) and Shiva, V. (Interviewee). 2012. “Vandana Shiva on Seeds of Humanity” [Video Recording]. Moyers and Company. Accessed 26 April 2013.  http://billmoyers.com/segment/vandana-shiva-on-seeds-of-humanity/

Nanda, M. 2002. “Do the Marginalized Valorize the Margins? Exploring the Dangers of Difference.” In: Saunders, K. (Ed) Feminist Post-Development Thought. Zed Press: London: 212- 223.

Navdanya. 2011. “The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes: A Global Citizens Report on the State of GMOs.” Navdanya International. Accessed 25 April 2013. http://www.navdanya.org/ attachments/Latest_Publications5.pdf

Navdanya. 2012a. “Seed Freedom.” Navdanya International. Accessed 25 April 2013. http:// www.navdanya.org/attachments/Seed%20Freedom_Revised_8-10-2012.pdf

Navdanya. 2012b. “You too can be a Seed Saver! A Guide to Seed Saving.” Navdanya International. Accessed 25 April 2013. http://www.navdanya.org/attachments/seedkit.pdf

Nestle, M. 2004. “Appendix: The Science of Plant Biotechnology.” In: Safe Food. University of California Press: Berkeley: 277-283.

Niiler, E. 1999. “Terminator Technology Temporarily Terminated.” Nature Technology 17: 1054.

Paget-Clarke, N. (Interviewer). Shiva, V. (Interviewee). 1998. “An Interview with Dr. Vandana Shiva” [Interview Transcript]. In Motion Magazine. August 14, 1998. St. Louis, MO. Accessed 25 April 2013. http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/shiva.html

Pollack, A. 2006. “Monsanto Buys Delta and Pine Land, Top Suppliers of Cotton Seeds in U. S.” New York Times, Business Section. Aug. 16, 2006. Accessed 25 April 2013. http:// www.nytimes.com/2006/08/16/business/16seed.html

Rajgopal, S. S. 2002. “Reclaiming Democracy? The Anti-Globalization Movement in South Asia.”  Feminist Review 70: 134-137.

Robbins, P. 2012. “Chapter 12- Political Objects and Actors.” In: Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Wiley: Chicester: 231-243.

Schurman, R., and W. Munroe. 2010. Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists Versus Agribusiness in the                        Struggle Over Biotechnology. Minnesota University Press: Minneapolis.

Service, R. F. 1998. “Seed-Sterilizing ‘Terminator Technology’ Sows Discord.” Science 282 (5390): 850-851.

Shapiro, R. B. 1999. “Open Letter From Monsanto  CEO Robert B. Shapiro to Rockefeller Foundation President Gordon Conway and Others.” Monsanto Corporation. At: http://      www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/monsanto-ceo-to-rockefeller-foundation-       president-gordon-conway-terminator-technology.aspx.

Shiva, V. 2005. Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. South End Press: Cambridge, MA.

Shiva, V. (Editor). 2007. Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed. South End Press: Cambridge, MA.

Shiva, V. 1989. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. Zed Books: London.

Shiva, V. 2000. Stolen Harvest. South End Press: Cambridge, MA.

Shiva, V. 1991. The Violence of the Green Revolution. Zed Books: London.

*Shiva, V. 2006. “Vandana Shiva on Terminator Seed.” Lecture at USC Canada, March 2006, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Accessed 25 April 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?          v=wrwUecuK8WM (click through links to watch videos 2, 3, 4)

*Stone, G. D. 2004. “Biotechnology and the Political Ecology of Information in India.” Human Organization 63 (2): 127-140.

Stone, G. D. 2002. “Both Sides Now: Fallacies in the Genetic-Modification Wars, Implications for Developing Countries, and Anthropological Perspectives.” Current Anthropology 43 (4): 611- 630.

Stone, G. D. 2012. “Constructing Facts: Bt Cotton Narratives in India.” Economic and Political Weekly XLVII (38): 62-70.

Subramaniam, B., J. Bever, and P. Schultz. 2002. “Global Circulations: Nature, Culture, and the Possibility of Sustainable Development.” In: Saunders, K. (Ed) Feminist Post-Development Thought. Zed Press: London: 199-211.

Varty, J. 2002. “Agriculture and Environmental History: Reviews of Gardens of Their Dreams,  Brave New Seeds, and Hungry for Trade.” Labor/ Le Travail 50: 297-306.



Herring, R. J. 2008. “Opposition to Transgenic Technologies: Ideology, Interests, and Collective      Action Frames.” Nature Reviews Genetics 9: 458-463.

Herring describes the “collective action frame” which has created an impasse between opposing sides of GMO rhetoric. He claims that rhetorical and political arguments over the technology, and especially the fear that activists have played upon, have halted its adoption. He argues that even the term “genetically modified” is contentious and politically motivated, and that we must instead understand GMOs as situated and constructed in order to determine contexts where they might be appropriate.


Navdanya. 2011. “The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes: A Global Citizens Report on the State of    GMOs.” Navdanya International. Accessed 25 April 2013. http://www.navdanya.org/ attachments/Latest_Publications5.pdf

Navdanya is an activist organization founded by Vandana Shiva to advocate for sovereignty for small farmers throughout the world. This publication describes their stance on GMOs. In addition to their stance on terminator technology, Navdanya’s charatcterization of Monsanto as the “GMO Emperor” exhibits their reliance on particular frames and conceptions (11). This report thoroughly describes both their and their affiliate organizations’ stances against GMOs.


Schurman, R., and W. Munroe. 2010. Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists Versus Agribusiness in the            Struggle Over Biotechnology. Minnesota University Press: Minneapolis.

This book captures the dynamics between different actors in the debate over GMOs. Schurman and Munroe tell a story where activists and industry/science inhabit two different lifeworlds, which influence and intersect one another. They have thoroughly researched the history, lifeworlds, beliefs, and experiences of each group, helping us to better understand the reasons underlying the dynamics between the groups. Though their narrative rarely touches upon Vandana Shiva’s work, the framework they create helps in placing Shiva among her peers.


Shiva, V. 2005. Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. South End Press: Cambridge, MA.

One of Shiva’s many writings, this book explains her ideas about an ideal political system. She argues that we must equalize political power throughout the world and within individual societies: men and women, global north and global south, rich and poor, people and nature. I think this quote captures many of the ways she characterizes the current world, and what she hopes it could be: “Since indigenous oilseeds are high in oil content, they can be processed at the household or community level, with eco-friendly, decentralized, and democratic technologies […] our indigenous oilseeds symbolize freedom for nature, our farmers, our diverse food cultures, and the rights of poor consumers. Soyabean oil symbolizes the concentration of power and colonization of nature, cultures, farmers, and consumers (2005, 154).”


Stone, G. D. 2012. “Constructing Facts: Bt Cotton Narratives in India.” Economic and Political Weekly XLVII (38): 62-70.

Like many others, Stone groups GMO rhetoric into pro- and anti- camps, and argues that because each side experiences a different reality, they draw from different information in constructing their arguments. He claims that each side lives in a rhetorical echo chamber, and that neither side tells a full story: scientists cite each others’ facts and rely only upon empirical information, while activists eschew processes of peer review and make exaggerated claims.

Full list of the Political Ecology of GMOs annotated sources from all papers


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