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The sari-wearing firebrand who for two decades has fiercely fought biotechnology in her native India was complaining yet again about the men in lab coats who say they know best how to manage the world's food supply.

And the audience was enthralled.

"Ten thousand years of expertise in feeding us is a woman's expertise," Vandana Shiva railed, her forehead dotted with the traditional Hindu bindi. "That work is now being claimed as an invention by a handful of corporations."

The decidedly liberal crowd at the University of California at Santa Barbara whooped and cheered adoringly as Shiva took on the likes of Monsanto Co., a company she sees as bent on overtaking India's centuries-old agricultural practices.

She'll be repeating the message to a less-friendly crowd as she joins demonstrators outside the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization that opens in San Francisco on Sunday. She'll also be leading anti-biotech workshops.

Then, Shiva is off to deliver the commencement speech at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Shiva, who lives on a farm outside New Delhi, brings an image of Third World authenticity to an organic farming crusade that wraps Luddite sensibilities in a fiery anti-imperialistic message. To Shiva, biotechnology is an ecologically dangerous tool for Western corporations to win global domination of agriculture.

Shiva, 51, made her initial mark in the West in the 1980s when she and Jeremy Rifkin were among the few voicing opposition to the then-novel technology of combining genetic material from separate plant species to produce food.

In the developing world, that technology was supposed to help prevent blindness among the millions of poor people whose diets lack vitamin A, by engineering daffodil genes into new, patented varieties of "golden rice."

Shiva led the opposition to the idea, arguing that such high-tech solutions would enslave subsistence farmers to a first-world economic scheme and rob India of its agricultural heritage - a theme she's expanded on in one way or another in 16 books and hundreds of essays.

The rice has not yet been distributed as the debate continues.

Shiva also has used India's courts to slow down Monsanto's efforts to establish new markets in the world's second most-populous country. Her lawsuits kept the St. Louis-based biotech company from selling its genetically engineered cotton seeds in India until last year - eight years after it was approved in the United States.

She is now pressing her lawyers to take her fight to the World Trade Organization, where the United States sued the European Union to open up its markets to biotech food.

"Vandana is tireless, a great communicator and she bridges the First World and the Third World," Rifkin said. "She can lecture at the university and be out on the hustings with local villagers."

To biotech proponents, however, she's a false prophet preaching to a small choir of activists while hurting the millions of poor people she claims to protect.

"I believe that Vandana Shiva's notoriety is better known among Western academic and activist circles than in her native country," said C.S. Prakash, a Tuskegee University biotechnology researcher who frequently attacks Shiva in conservative journals. "While she is admired by certain naive elites in the West, her relentless attack on modern farming techniques and open economies can only keep countries like India backward."

But even Prakash admits a grudging respect for the international folk hero.

"Vandana Shiva is probably among the most effective environmentalists in the world," Prakash said. "As a fellow Indian, I'm really proud of her. As an Indian woman she has accomplished so much - even if she's wrong."

Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace co-founder who became an industry lobbyist, calls Shiva a patronizing elitist who was born to wealth and privilege and revels in her celebrity.

"She knows nothing of the people she's purporting to help," Moore said.

That particular charge upsets Shiva the most. Her parents were middle-class government bureaucrats and farmers during her childhood, she proudly declares, and her entire college career was funded by academic scholarships.

"I scored very high," she said, with trademark bravado.

Shiva, who is divorced and has no children, was educated as a nuclear physicist - she holds a doctorate from the University of Western Ontario. But activism appears to be, well, a genetic trait.

Her grandfather died in the 1950s during a hunger strike protesting government reluctance to build a school for girls in his town.

"I lost my grandfather for the cause of education of girls," she said proudly.

Shiva's mother was a schools superintendent in Pakistan before becoming a farmer in northern India, and her father was a forestry official who taught her about conservation.

She first dabbled with activism in the late 1970s as part of the women-led "Chipko Movement," which stopped timber companies from harvesting thick Himalayan forests near Tibet.

Then she turned to academics.

But after getting the doctorate, she decided to give up working with subatomic particles and take on global agricultural and environmental issues. She founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, based in New Delhi.

Her transition from academic to activist was completed in the early 1980s as she was worked with the United Nations, exploring international environmental disputes. She made a connection between political violence and Western influence over Indian resources like water and seeds vital to farming.

"I said, 'It's too big. I'm going to save things,"' she recalled. "So I started saving things."

Since then, she has doggedly traveled the world, from South Africa to Canada, unflappably delivering her sermon to anyone who will listen.

Only one question seemed to momentarily trip her up during her time in Santa Barbara: What do you do to relax?

"My life is my hobby," Shiva replied after regaining her composure. "I practice always what I believe."

On the Net:

Shiva's Web site:

Biotech industry: http://bio.orgAssociated Press: