Op-Ed: On Agricultural Goddesses, Women, and Genetically Modified Seeds – The Feminist Wire

Op-Ed: On Agricultural Goddesses, Women, and Genetically Modified Seeds

By Eleni Panagiotarakou

On December 11, 1970 the father of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize claimed that “with the help of our Gods and our science, we must not only increase our food supplies but also insure them against biological and physical catastrophes.”

Had Borlaug been alive, he would have approved of the decision by the World Food Prize (founded by none other than Borlaug) to award its 2013 prize to Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton (Syngenta Biotechnology), Dr. Robert Fraley (Monsanto), and Dr. Marc Van Montagu (Crop Design and Plant Genetic Systems) for satisfying the foundation’s mission of supporting “global food security.”

Assuming that science is helping to increase and secure food supplies, how about the role of the Gods? Would they be willing to help in the same endeavor? Narrowing our focus exclusively to agricultural gods – for self-evident reasons – numerous deities from various cultures and epochs come to mind. These include such figures as: Nokomis (Algonquin), Onatha (wheat/Iroquois), Iyatiku (corn/Pueblo), Chicomecōātl (Aztec), and Pachamama (Inca) in the Americas. Mbaba Mwana Waresa (Zulu), Ala (Igbo), and Asase Yaa (Ashanti) in Africa. Rana Niejta (Sami), Ceres (Roman), Gaia and Demeter (grain/Hellas), Zeme (Slavic), and Nantosuelta (Gaul) in Europe. Amaterasu, Toyouke Omikami (Japan), Sita (Hindu), Batari Sri Dewi (rice/Mali) and Phra Mae Thorani (Thailand) in Asia. Ninsar (Sumeria) in the Middle East and Digla in Oceania, among others.

Note: all of the above are female deities. Agricultural male deities, while in existence, were few and were depicted either as androgynous (the case of Hapi/Egypt), pupils of goddesses (the case of Triptolemus/Greece), or inherently philogynistic (the case of Dionysus/Greece). In other words, agriculture was and still is (and in the case of practicing religions) dominated by the worship of female deities. Moreover, men were excluded from agricultural festivals and punished if caught spying. In one such festival, the Thesmophoria, in honor of Demeter, seeds were subjected to secret rites before being dispersed into the fields in  hopes of a bountiful harvest. Knowledge of these female-exclusive agricultural rituals was transmitted through the ages via intergenerational knowledge-sharing practices.

Consequently, it is by the same mechanisms that the intricate knowledge of seeds and their harvesting was transmitted. For instance, according to a report by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, on the subject of Gender and Genetic Resources Management, in the case of Andean women “the conservation and use of plant genetic resources begins with women.” Namely, women are “involved in all areas of the crop cycle from seed selection to planting, harvest, storage and processing… [and they] often determine which plant resources to conserve and use, which seed to select, which crop varieties to grow.” According to the same source, this distinctly female-based knowledge system not only “ensures subsistence and community needs” but it also “contributes to the conservation and use of local [plant] varieties.”

To the above, I would add that the knowledge these agricultural women possess and convey to younger generations has been and often is accomplished without monetary compensation; their sole benefit being the well-being of their families and communities. These communitarian-based ethics and values, which are reflected in the nature and essence of agricultural goddesses, stand in fundamental contrast to those of transnational biotechnology corporations.

Unlike agricultural women, biotechnology firms do not distribute their knowledge or seeds for free or altruistically. What is more, the seeds  they sell contain non-renewable traits or are patented. In either case, this leads to farmers forming dependencies since they need to buy new seeds on a yearly basis.

Making matters worse, the 1980 decision by the United States Supreme Court to authorize the patenting of living beings led to a race by biotechnology corporations to patent trees and medicinal and agricultural plants. Because knowledge of medicinal and agricultural plants often rests with local populations, and because biotechnology researchers rely on indigenous women for identification purposes, critics have argued that patenting is the theft and exploitation of indigenous intellectual resources. That is, as Ikechi Mgbeoji points out in his book Global Biopiracy, biotechnology corporations appropriate ancestral and collectively-generated knowledge and turn it into private property without permission or compensation. The same accusation has been leveled by physicist-turned-activist Vandana Shiva, in her book Stolen Harvest (2000), to say nothing of the more grave accusation by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (2011) that hundreds of thousands of suicides by Indian framers are attributable to genetically modified (GM) seeds.

But surely, some will protest, in the case of the Golden Rice Project biotechnology firms are redeeming themselves for any real or imaginary “sins” by providing to poor farmers free, self-propagating seeds.

In reply, similar to the saying “One swallow does not make a summer,” so too with the Golden Rice Project. If the biotechnology industry is sincere about its efforts ,they will extend the same offer to all past, present, and future GM seeds. That is, they will have to rise to the same level of altruistic ethical conduct as millions of agricultural women have done. Anything other than a complete donation, or “open-source GMOs” as Frederick Kaufman labels it, will mean that the Golden Rice Project is simply a public relations strategy under the guise of humanitarianism designed to erase a negative reputation and endear the biotechnology sector to the public.


Agricultural Goddesses, Women, Genetically Modified SeedsEleni Panagiotarakou, Ph.D., grew up in Sparta, Greece but now lives in Lachine, Canada following a (particularly) egregious lapse in judgement. During summers, she cultivates heirloom vegetables and herbs in her garden, followed by weekend hikes in the Adirondacks, where trails have a way of mysteriously ending at the front door of a microbrewery pub. During winters – for the Canadian Spring and Fall seasons are nothing more than imaginary climatic constructs – she teaches Political Theory at Concordia’s Political Science Department and Feminist Theory in the Institute of Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research interests are varied and include Canadian Aboriginal women, Native architecture, political comedy, ancient Greek political thought, and environmental ethics. Her work has been published in English and Greek academic and popular venues alike.