Agroecologist Vandana Shiva knows that her message isn’t popular in corporate boardrooms of giant agribusinesses like Monsanto or the German multinational Bayer, which is trying to take it over. Nor is she admired at the favourite magazine of billionaires, Forbes, which posted a column on its website comparing the Indian food activist’s communications approach to that of Adolf Hitler.
But she remains a hero to many Indian peasant farmers, a beloved icon of environmentalists, and the world’s foremost critic of genetically tampered seeds and monocultures.
In a phone interview from Delhi, Shiva told the Georgia Straight that after obtaining her PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 1979, she went back to India, only to witness intense strife in the coming years.
“Agriculture was not my chosen field,” she said. “But I was compelled to look at it because of 1984.”
That was the year when the Indian army attacked Sikh militants in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, inflicting serious damage on Sikhism’s holiest shrine. The same year, then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards retaliated by gunning her down at her official residence. And that, in turn, sparked a pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi and other cities, spurred on by high-ranking members of Gandhi’s Congress party.
The following year, bombs were placed on two Indian-government owned Air India jets leaving Canada, killing 331 people.
“I had done my MSc honours in physics from the University of Punjab—and that was ’73,” Shiva said. “Punjab was a very, very peaceful place.”
It left her wondering what had happened in the following decade to breed such unhappiness. And it dawned upon her that Punjab was at the centre of the Green Revolution, where semidwarf rice, also known as “miracle rice”, was promoted as a solution to famine. It won its promoter, Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Shiva, however, saw less than glowing consequences, notwithstanding widely distributed reports about the dramatic growth in rice production. To her, the Green Revolution promoted the use of chemicals and pesticides as part of “industrial agriculture”. And she traced many of these chemicals back to world wars.
“Synthetic fertilizers came from explosives factories,” she said. “Pesticides grow from the gases used in concentration camps, poison gas, et cetera.”
According to Shiva, these products are the result of extremely sophisticated science during wartime, but they are not effective in controlling pests or producing more food.
“Data is clear that it is biodiversity that feeds the world,” she said. “Wiping out biodiversity for industrial monocultures is, in fact, a very inefficient use of solar energy because, per acre, you’re producing less biomass and, per acre, you’re producing less nutrition.”
In her new book, Who Really Feeds the World?, she embraces agroecology as a more efficient means of meeting nutritional needs than the industrial approach, promoted by Monsanto, in which seeds are genetically altered and then patented. She pointed out that genetically modified cotton seeds have put Indian farmers deeply in debt.
“We’ve lost 300,000 farmers to suicide,” Shiva said. “Most of these are concentrated in the cotton belt.”
That number has been challenged by Cornell University political scientist Ronald Herring.
In 1991 Shiva founded the nongovernmental organization Navdanya, which works with communities to preserve thousands of varieties of seeds. She has since appeared in high-profile documentaries, including Micha X. Peled's Bitter Seeds and Seed: The Untold Story, which was codirected last year by Portland filmmakers Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel.
Betz and Taggart reported that 94 percent of seed varieties have been lost since the early 20th century in America.
When the Straight asked Shiva why this topic hasn’t received a great deal of media attention, she cited two factors. First, she said, an “amazingly complicated vocabulary” has arisen to confuse people. If seeds are called high-yielding, Shiva claimed that they aren’t subjected to much scrutiny.
“Were they high-yielding in nutrition? No, they weren’t,” she declared. “Were they high-yielding in biomass? No, they weren’t. Were they high-yielding in food overall? No, they shrunk the food base.”
India, the country with the greatest consumption of lentils, beans, and chickpeas, has to import these staples from Canada.
"Canada is looking towards India as a big market in the world," she stated.
The second factor, according to Shiva, is companies’ use of the language of intellectual property to corner the seed market.
“I give a lot of time to creating awareness of how important the seed is,” Shiva said. “Food begins in seed. If you don’t have good seed, you don’t have good food. There is no way you can create healthy food with toxic seed.”
Shiva came under fire in a New Yorker article in 2014, which fuelled the intense global debate over whether genetically tampering with seeds could feed more people. She declined to comment about this with the Straight, but has responded at length on her website.
Shiva says human hubris is a huge issue
She argued the root of the problem is human beings’ arrogance about their ability to exert mastery over nature and their deep denial of the complexity of ecological processes on Earth.
A follower of Gaia theory, Shiva sees the world as an interconnected entity that will react in complicated and unexpected ways to changes inflicted on it. The Earth and every organism are, in her words, "self-organized intelligent systems, which is why they are able to evolve".
She pointed to parallels between industrial agriculture and its efforts to genetically modify seeds and the belief that geo-engineering can protect the Earth from climate change.
"Both come out of one very, very false idea of mastery, and a deep denial of the living process of the Earth," Shiva said.
Some researchers, including French paleoclimatologist Valérie Masson-Delmotte, have suggested that geo-engineering the climate could cause havoc with the monsoons that provide South Asia with the rains necessary to grow crops. Shiva said she shares this concern.
"I have to remind them climate change is not just about temperature," she said. "It's about untimely rain. It's about extended droughts. You can have the same temperature and get no rainfall. Messing up precipitation is the single biggest problem of climate change and all of the solutions of geo-engineering are going to make that worse."
She called geo-engineering the climate and the genetic transformation of seeds a "mechanistic approach" that is really founded on the idea that nature is dead.
“The industrial-agriculture model which claims to be feeding the world really has a very short history,” Shiva said. “In the 10,000-year history of food and farming, it’s less than a century.”
Vandana Shiva will speak at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church (1022 Nelson Street) in Vancouver next Thursday (July 14) as part of the Indian Summer festival.