Editor’s note: Robert Shapiro, former CEO of Monsanto, and someone who passionately believed in his work, stated “The application of contemporary biological knowledge to issues like food and nutrition and human health has to occur, for the same reasons that things have occurred for the past ten millennia. People want to live better, and they will use the tools they have to do it. Biology is the best tool we have.” Whether or not bio-engineered food is healthy for humans and ecosystems is certainly open to debate. But the health and ecological safety of genetically modified crops is only one part of the issue. Equally important are the social consequences of powerful multinational corporations encouraging farmers in developing countries to buy genetically modified seeds, something which, since these seeds cannot be saved and reused, can trap the farmers in a cycle of debt and economic servitude. In some cases, small farmers in developing countries have actually been sued for using seeds they have used for millenia, because multinational corporations acquired the genetic “intellectual property” of their seeds. Multinational corporations argue that genetically modified crops, protection of the intellectual property therein, and privatization of water resources and other “commons” are necessary to feed the world’s burgeoning population and fund development. Vandana Shiva, a scientist and activist from India, does not entirely agree. Here is her story.
Time magazine depicted her as a hero who “has made it her mission to fight for social justice in many arenas” and a major environmentalist who is leading a noble fight for “the preservation of agricultural diversity.”
However, some advocates of biotechnology have expressed different views. For Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, “if developing world farmers took her one-tenth as seriously as do Western activists, her proclamations would lead inexorably to massive famine. She was born into wealth and her soft palms have never worked a plow. Hunger to her is something she reads about in the newspapers.”
The controversial figure in question is the well-known physicist and writer Vandana Shiva, from Doon Valley, India. For more than twenty years, she has been dealing with issues like sustainable development, biodiversity, ecofeminism and globalization through international publications, books and lectures at conferences and universities worldwide.
Technology & Ecology
In 1982 she established the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, an organization which works with local communities in India to promote sustainable agriculture. A member of the Indian National Environmental Council and ecology adviser to the Third World Network, Vandana Shiva has been involved in many international NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and forums, such as the International Forum on Globalization and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The Indian author is also one of the leaders of the global citizen movements against water privatization. In March this year, as the Third World Water Forum was taking place in Kyoto, she co-organized the People’s National Water Forum in India, which issued a declaration of commitment to keep water as a common good.
“Ending the water crisis requires rejuvenating ecological democracy”, she wrote in her recent book Water Wars. “Water can be used but not owned. People have a right to life and the resources that sustain it, such as water. With globalization and privatization of water resources, new efforts to completely erode people’s rights and replace collective ownership with corporate control are under way”.
Along these same lines, Vandana Shiva criticizes the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) because “its rules are shaped entirely by corporations without any input from NGO’s, local governments or national governments”. In her opinion, services related to water, the environment, health and education should not be subject to the WTO’s “unregulated power to hijack common resources”. Shiva sees the international treaties on intellectual property rights (such as TRIP under GATT) as an attempt by a few multinational corporations to seize the rights to life.
In her book Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, Shiva describes patents on seeds and life forms as a new form of colonialism. “Corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta are pirating centuries of farmers’ innovation and patenting rice, cotton, mustard, corn, soya and practically all other food crops.” When Texan company Rice Tec claimed exclusive rights as makers, producers, sellers, distributors of seeds, plants and grains of the Basmati rice variety, the Research Foundation engaged them in a Supreme Court battle. RiceTec was eventually forced to give up the title of its patent.
“Seed, the source of life, has become a source of death in the hands of global seed and biotechnology corporations. Thousands of farmers have committed suicide since multinational corporations entered the seed sector,” Shiva wrote in a recent article.
Transnational corporations are introducing GM crops to local farmers, promising increased resistance to pests and higher yields, she explained. The farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year, because these genetically engineered plants are sterile. If the crops fail, the poor farmers are left with unpayable debts, no food and no hope for the future. To counter this, Vandana Shiva started Navdanya (“nine seeds”), a movement which enables farmers to access native seeds for free through community seed banks and seed exchange networks and go back to organic farming. Navdanya is also an organic farm, with an attached college, called the Bija Vidyapeeth, which means the “School of the Seed.” The school offers courses on several topics related to sustainable development and ecology, with internationally renowned lecturers.
All these initiatives are intended to promote biodiversity conservation. In Vandana Shiva’s vision of the world, “diversity is wealth, not a threat. Weaving harmony in agriculture implies bringing back the diversity which creates pest – predator balance and organic methods of breeding and production which produce resilient plants.” Navdanya, she says, has already rescued more than 3,000 rice varieties.
Rice is particularly important in India, where 200,000 rice varieties existed before the “Green Revolution” brought intensive monocultures and pesticides. In several of her books, including The violence of the Green Revolution and Monocultures of the Mind, Vandana Shiva described how the “reductionist paradigm”of the Green Revolution perpetrated violence to the Earth as well as to women and children.
“Suddenly agriculture in India was no longer the entire community working with the land in peaceful ways, it was men reduced to pesticide sprayers and tractor drivers. The women were left with no role in agricultural production. They had been turned into the dispensable sex, and having been made redundant, they were being killed in the womb”, she explained in Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, describing the startling practice of “female feticide.”
The Indian author and activist was one of the founders of “Diverse Women for Diversity”. Vandana Shiva and the other women who started this project, Beth Burrows, Christine von Weizsaecker and Jean Grossholtz, think that it is vital to coordinate women’s grassroots movements so that their voice can be heard at an international level. They feel that women need to speak out for life, for cultural and biological diversity as a response to the threats posed by globalization. “The current globalization is based on the patriarchal paradigm of control, which requires uniformity. It is based on Cartesian reductionism and the Baconian ‘rape of nature’ as the ‘masculine mode’ of knowing.”
Speaking at a conference on organic farming in Maine, Vandana Shiva said: “For us weeds are the basis of our survival, because weeds are what nature gives us in her generosity. They’re the medicinal plants. Lots of landless women in India make a living by having access to the free greens in the free commons. And that’s the fodder that goes to feed their one goat, their one cow, that then feeds their children. But all these weeds, this amazing diversity – and our studies show 250, 350 species on farms which have the generosity to be at peace between species – according to Monsanto, all these weeds are stealing the sunshine!”
In an article on biotechnology she wrote: “Global traders controlling production and distribution worldwide need square tomatoes and tomatoes that don’t rot. Small farmers and consumers looking for fresh produce do not. People need locally produced food, consumed as close as possible to the point of production.”
While it may be true that she has never worked a plow or gone hungry, and her idea of reintroducing trade barriers to protect domestic agriculture may be extreme, some of Vandana Shiva’s views on farming, ecology and patriarchy make sense and her works are definitely worth reading.
About the Author:
Paolo Scopacasa is a journalist based in Milan, Italy. After completing his studies in 1995 with a master’s degree in Conference Interpreting from the University of Strasbourg, France, Scopacasa has worked as an interpreter and translator in English, German and Italian. Since 2000 Scopacasa has been working as a freelance journalist, covering mainly environmental issues for Italian web magazines such as e-gazette, LifeGate Magazine and Blue Planet.