by guest blogger Annie Spiegelman
“The challenge of agriculture must no longer be to produce huge quantities of nutritionally unbalanced food, but rather to produce nutritionally balanced food in a sustainable way.” —Dr. Vandana Shiva
Vandana Shiva was recently a guest speaker at Dominican University, in San Rafael, CA, as part of Marin Organic’s 2011 Food for Thought Series. Don’t know who Vandana Shiva is? Stop tweeting about the new iPhone and Google her! She’s about to save the planet…or at least, your lunch. Forbes magazine calls her “One of the seven most influential women in the world.” Time named her an “environmental hero” in 2003.
Just who is this supernatural mastermind with the snappy name? She graduated from the University of Western Ontario in Canada as a particle physicist. Say what? Yup, her PhD was on “Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory.” (Don’t know what that is, either? Google it and let me know.) She later received honorary doctorates from the University of Paris, University of Western Ontario, University of Oslo, and Connecticut College. In her spare time, she has written 20 books and more than 500 papers in leading scientific journals. One day, on a flight back to India from a conference in Geneva, she was so frustrated trying to explain quantum physics to the guy seated next to her that she was inspired to work instead with something the ignorant masses could actually SEE—a seed. Well, that’s my version of her story and I’m sticking to it. Her version has to do with a lesson on self-reliance she learned from Mahatma Ghandi.
At Food for Thought, Shiva entered the stage wearing a stunning dark green sari and her usual warm, humble, power-punch grin that pleasantly warns, “I will gently crush you with my Jedi brainpower.” She began her talk with, “There is so much to celebrate. But we are in a mess!” She immediately informed the sold-out auditorium of university students, healthcare professionals, farmers, gardeners, professors, grandparents, and simple folk-who-like-to-eat-food that the diversity and future of seeds are under threat. “Native seeds are embodiments of millennia of biological evolution, adaptation to changing climate, and centuries of cultural evolution of communities,” she said. “They embody the history of our ancestors, and they must be passed on to the future.”
Twelve thousand years ago humans discovered agriculture by doing something as simple as saving seeds. A vast variety of seeds were passed down from generation to generation, farmer to farmer, garden-geek to garden-geek. Today, there are seeds created in biotech labs owned by multinational corporations that believe they have the right to own agriculture. “We are pushing diversity to extinction,” said Shiva. “We used to eat 8,500 species of plants. Now we eat corn and soy.
“The United States has the largest loss of diversity and the largest concentration of corporate control over seed,” she continued. “Corporations would like to replicate that model everywhere. They are now actually thinking of killing the seeds through terminator technology, which would make sterile seeds, killing the embryo of the seed so you would never get a second generation. Native seeds are free of genetic engineering and patenting, which are two systems of control over our seed supply and food supply.”
Today, 93 percent of U.S. corn and 86 percent of soybeans are genetically engineered. This is the process wherein genes from one species are inserted into another or an herbicide is injected into a plant so that a farmer can spray weed killer on the field without killing the crop. Or a pesticide is injected into a plant to kill insects so the farmer doesn’t have to spray as much pesticide on the field, such as in Bt cotton crops. “GMOs actually increase the toxification of our food system, even while claiming to be an alternative to chemicals,” said Shiva. “Instead, there are now superweeds, which has increased the usage of herbicides, and superpests, which has increased the use of pesticide sprays.”
It’s estimated that 70 to 75 percent of today’s processed foods on supermarket shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients. A 2008 CBS News Poll found that 87 percent of U.S. consumers want GMOs (genetically modified organisms) labeled, and according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 53 percent of consumers said they would not buy food that has been genetically modified. While 30 countries, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, have significant restrictions or outright bans on the production of genetically modified seeds, there are at present no U.S. laws requiring GMO labeling.
Shiva spoke of the recent tragic genocide of a quarter-million farmers in India. “Since Monsanto started to control the cotton seed in 2002, 240,000 have committed suicide. They get into debt, since the new seeds are patented and the companies collect huge royalties,” she explained. “Farmers have been bombarded with the idea that their seeds are primitive and inferior; that the new seeds are modern and improved. Today, Monsanto has 90 percent control over the seed supply of cotton in a land where we used to have 1,500 varieties, including open-pollinated varieties,” said Shiva. “Heirloom seeds are traditional varieties that have evolved by farmers over millennia. They embody biological and cultural diversity and are the seeds on which our food security rests.”
She spoke of “freeing the seeds” as the way to liberate farmers. In the mid-1980s, Shiva launched Navdanya, a seed-saving organization that has helped rescue thousands of plant varieties from extinction. The word means “nine seeds,” or “new gift.” The group is presently working in more than 5,000 Indian villages, has created 60 community seed banks, and has trained more than 400,000 men and women in conservation, biodiversity, and organic farming.
How did we get so far away from the origins of our food? Shiva believes the first step was to separate those who produce food from those who eat it. That separation between the farmer and the consumer made most of society indifferent to what was happening with the seeds. (Just ask my dad or sister in Manhattan where their produce comes from? I bet my sister stopped reading this three paragraphs ago….) She also touched on the idea that food used to be “women’s business.” Most farmers in India are women. “The processing industry, the feed industry, and agribusiness convinced women that getting out of food and agriculture was their liberation,” said Shiva. “I think what we need to do is say that agriculture and food in women’s hands is the most important liberation. Men can join them.”
She also vigorously defended organic farming. “We have to get rid of chemicals in farming and bring back organic farming, and with that bring back native seeds,” said Shiva.
“The big debate of our times is industry lying and saying that organic can’t feed the world,” she said. “At every level, there’s a lie, a distortion. We are being driven into an absolute catastrophe. These corporations know Petri dishes, not plants!” Shiva cited the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report. The report is 2,500 pages long and took more than 400 scientists four years to complete. This distinguished international panel agrees with Shiva, claiming that GMOs are highly controversial and will not play a substantial role in addressing the challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, hunger, and poverty. The panel recommended small-scale farmers and agro-ecological (combining ecological science and agronomy, or soil science) methods as the way forward, with local and indigenous knowledge playing as important a role as formal science.
The March 2011 report from the United Nations Human Rights Council entitled, “Agro-Ecology and the Right to Food,” also agreed that the farming practice of agro-ecology outperformed the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live, especially in unfavorable environments. “Conventional farming relies on extensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climate shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore, ” said UN Special Rapporteur, Olivier de Shutter.
This seems appropriate on the 40th anniversary of biologist Rachel Carson’s bestseller, Silent Spring, in which she wrote, “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for life? They should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but ‘biocides’… For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals from the moment of conception until death.” It was because of outspoken scientists like Rachel Carson and growing public demand for a cleaner, safer environment that the Environmental Protection Agency was formed under President Nixon in 1970.
“Every scientist and every United Nations agency and all the people who work in organic agriculture recognize that only through organic growing can we protect the planet’s resources, have farmers have a viable life, and bring safe and healthy food to people,” concluded Shiva. “It’s the only viable system for the future. Either we make it or there is no future.’
Swing dirt at Annie@dirtdiva.com
Yo, Californians: Mother Earth Is calling YOU. Represent!
Be part of history. Join me in making a pledge to collect signatures so we can include the “Label GMOs—It’s our Right to Know” initiative on the California 2012 ballot. Sign up at www.labelgmos.org. Let’s go. Giddy up!
To hear a 10-minute interview with Vandana Shiva recorded before her talk at Dominican University on WeEarth Global Radio Network, go here.