Vandana Shiva: 'Diversity is the answer'

Vandana Shiva (°1952), Ph.D. in particle physics, is an icon in India and beyond and especially among advocates of organic farming, social struggle and ecofeminism. She is the founder of Navdanya, a movement of Indian farmers who apply their traditional know-how for an agriculture that is based on seed biodiversity. Over the last few years she has led the international movement for seedfreedom, i.e. the right of farmers to exchange and multiply seeds. A few years ago she founded a European observatory for the purpose in Tuscany, Italy. In September 2013 she was in Belgium to give her views in the European Parliament in the new seed legislation debate.

What is at stake in the new seed legislation?
Vandana Shiva: The European proposal aims to establish a seed monopoly like an Indian bill did in 2004. The first aim is to obtain patents and to claim intellectual ownership of seeds.  In 1987 I had the privilege of being invited to a biotechnology industry meeting, which was also attended by the seed industry. At the time, it brazenly stated: “We want patents.” To obtain these, one must pretend to have something that is genuinely “new”, i.e. a genetically modified solution, and claim having designed a certain seed. For me, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) stand for God moves over. The plan behind this is to generate royalties and to turn seeds into a huge source of revenue.

So, what is the reform’s goal?
Vandana Shiva: Nature has so many seeds and plants that the seed multinationals will not be able to patent all of them. Instead, they aim to force farmers and market gardeners to register their seeds, which at present they can still handle freely. Seed multinationals want a system based on broader uniformity and their request is being supported by the European Commission. For me uniformity is like fascism, while diversity equals freedom. In India we have two hundred thousand rice varieties. They have come from nature and have been selected by farmers.

This is all about two opposing views: Farmers cultivate crops and achieve diversity whereas the industry cultivates crops to achieve uniformity. Uniformity is easier to control and at the inputs level; the eventual goal is to establish a monopoly.  

How did this process go in India?  
Vandana Shiva: I crisscrossed the country at the time, organised information sessions and started a movement of civil disobedience.  We collected signatures and handed them over to prime minister Manmohan Singh. I told him: “Mister Prime Minister, you forget we live in Gandhi’s country. In the past, the British tried to do the same and told Indians they should not mine salt. Gandhi walked to the coast and got salt from the sea, saying: ‘Nature provided us with salt free of charge. Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life. We will ourselves come and get this salt; we will not obey your law.’”

I said: “Let’s do the same and not obey that law. We have 100,000 signatures of farmers that resist. And this is only the beginning. These varieties were passed down in the past and we need them to survive. Nature gave them to us free of charge.  Any law that makes our seeds illegal and criminalises their use will be challenged by higher laws that force us to be disobedient: the law of ecology and the law of social justice.”
The bill did not pass because awareness grew and because of the civil disobedience movement. The same must be done with the law proposed by the European Commission. This law should not pass and if it does pass, it should not be followed.

This all regards complex legal procedures and very important decisions that are being taken silently. Unless you are concerned by agriculture, you cannot understand the impact.
Vandana Shiva: That is why Navdanya set up a global as well as a strong European campaign for “seed freedom”. We have opened an international office in Florence, Italy. The president of the Italian office will also come to the European Parliament to discuss the topic. The network also brought together people who have lost their jobs because of the crisis but who can rely on their experience, knowledge and a broad network. I have worked for ten years in Tuscany in a campaign on the future of food with the president of Tuscany. We succeeded in passing a seed law that stated that the seeds of farmers in Tuscany can never be illegal when in the hands of the farmers.

This was a success at a small scale but at the international level it will be much harder to pass such legislation.
Vandana Shiva: Tuscany was a first step. We have also launched a global seed law, based on a few fundamental principles. The starting point is that it is a scientific lie that uniformity is better than diversity. Diversity is essential in times of climate change. Today diversity is also essential because very often food does not have any nutritional value any more. People get sick because of nutritional deficiencies. The bulimia epidemic is not only caused by junk food but also because the metabolism is disrupted as it lacks the right micronutrients. Both the health crisis and the ecological crisis win by diversity. Cultivating seeds is about the importance of diversity.

A second lie we want to expose with our global seed campaign is that Monsanto produces seeds. Seed is a common good. We brought together top jurists and top scientists to discuss the matter. This had never been done before. The model draft that we propose is available on the Navdanya website. It is to inspire people to draw up a charter of their own to stop the proposed law on privatising seeds in the European Union.
The European Union is built on the principle of subsidiarity.  It means that whatever can be done on a subsidiary level, should be done at that level. Seeds are best developed, stored and used at the local level. Consequently, any legislation on seeds should come from national governments and not from the European Commission.

You have been on the barricades for decades to fight multinationals.  What have you learned?  
Vandana Shiva: The first lesson is you should never be afraid. These giants are very powerful. They have threatened me and despised me. They may have a big influence but you should never use their statements or words as a standard. Nature, the age-old know-how of farmers is my standard. If you do the right things according to your conscience with your full understanding of what is right and true, you should not be afraid.
Gandhi gave us the ultimate weapon, civil disobedience. In Hindi that means: “satyagraha”, “the power of truth”. We all carry that power within us. This is about the future of the planet and the future of humanity being at stake.

Your opponents claim your know-how does not deserve to be called “science”.
Vandana Shiva: That is exactly what my next book is about. The point is they do not know how an ecological system works. You have to know soil life; you have to know something about biodiversity to understand the relation between good and damaging insects, between plants and animals. That is what is called agroecology. My opponents’ knowledge brings death. It is not a life science.

Is every (bio)technological intervention in agriculture bad?
Vandana Shiva: Pesticides are produced by the chemical industry, which also provided munition for chemical warfare in the past. In my view, a technology that emerges from war technology and that is applied on living organisms and systems must be destructive. However, there are also technologies that are based on life processes as well as traditional know-how and new insights developed from studying ecology. These are new insight generated by agroecology or epigenetics. Genes are not gold nuggets with which you can earn millions. Instead we should study their relation with the environment and see how complex the functioning of genes is.

The alternative view remains marginal though.
Vandana Shiva: Yet, the movement is growing strongly. I have just been in Bhutan where the government asked me to help set up full transition to organic farming. Twenty Bhutanese are gaining practical experience on our organic farm in Dehradun in India. Recently, I was at the presentation of a book of the Karmapa (a spiritual leader, comparable to the Dalai Lama, who leads one of the four Buddhist schools) about how our current agricultural system is leading to famine. Five Tibetans came to me and told me that several of their farmers had been trained with us.

In July I go to a conference in Brazil upon the invitation of the Ministry for Family Agriculture.  Brazil has a very strong agro-industrial lobby, but it also has the movement for family agriculture and landless farmers. Also, we should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by looking at just one trend. We must stimulate and foster the trend that protects life and safeguards the planet, biodiversity, humanity and the future.

Can the alternative approach to agriculture respond to such issues as global population growth, climate change and failing ecosystems?
Vandana Shiva: It is exactly because the population grows that we must use resources more efficiently. All industrial and chemical agriculture as well as GMO agriculture is based on monoculture. But monoculture produces less nutritional value per hectare. And since these monocultures are used towards commodities for the global market, they produce hardly any food. Ninety percent of maize and soy cultivated in the world is not for food for human consumption but for biofuels or to feed animals in stock farms. This is not a food system, it is a commodity system. It leads to famine, because when you take away food from people to feed stock you cause famine and misery.

With Navdanya thirty years ago we started to store seeds under the slogan “foster diversity”. Numerous farmers in India now contribute to agriculture based on diversity. Diversity is the basis for resistance and resilience. The leading agricultural model is also very vulnerable to climate change because it is so uniform.

Food is not just a matter of volume; it is also about nutritional value and quality. Biodiversity in agriculture produces more nutritional value per hectare than intensive farming with chemicals. We could feed India twice if we used the Navdanya model. We could feed the global population twice. Now we are seven billion people and Monsanto projects nine billion. We could even feed fourteen in a sustainable way without harming the ecosystems.

The current model also causes diseases because it produces toxins. Bt-crops are pesticide-producing crops that have killed 75 percent of bees. These bees represent 200 billion euros worth in pollination. Where will you get that if there are no bees any more?

Also a healthy soil is invaluable because of its nutrients. Because of poor soil management, in twenty years phosphate will be depleted. Where will we get phosphate then? Soil organisms can produce phosphorus, if we care for our soils properly. Nowadays I consider industrial, agro-industry-driven, agriculture irresponsible and ignorant because it negates the processes at work in agriculture.

You were asked by the Annual Forum of Deutsche Welle (German international broadcast) to speak about values. What is your message?
Vandana Shiva: The value that is driving this system is greed. The first value we should put against this and cultivate again is solidarity and sympathy. Not just to save humanity but also the planet. Nowadays many people live these values. A mother cannot raise her children if she lives only for herself.

The second important value is cooperation. We have always thought that competition is a value that we have to adhere to. But today working together is much better for the world.

A third aspect is the value of solidarity. Today, the world thrives on solidarity. We are blind if we do not see this. The economy and science is completely dominated by capitalist patriarchs and this has led to a sense of disconnection. Solidarity also appears in new science. Our brains are shapeable and elastic. They absorb what their environment offers them. Computer games influence your brains but so does organic urban farming.
Scientific evidence seems to confirm this. New science increasingly highlights solidarity. System thinking instead of reductionism.

I also consider these to be female values, whereas the male values of dominance and greed have defined our humanity and have only led to an inhuman society. Economy and ecology both have the same root word “oikos”, or home, but we have not taken care of our planet as our home for a long while. We must bring back the economy within ecological limits and have it take root in dignity and human rights, also of future generations.

On 17 September 2013 Vandana Shiva gave a public lecture in NTGent (Ghent). An initiative of Oikos and GONZ, Broederlijk Delen and MO*. After the lecture, in which Shiva talked about food and agriculture, writer Jeroen Olyslaegers and Thierry Kesteloot of Oxfam-Solidariteit talked with her. Shiva gave testimony in the EP on invitation of the European Greens.

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