By Swarnendu Biswas / Photos © 2010 Kartikey Shiva
She is a true radical. She has been one of the strongest voices in favour of organic agriculture and organic food on this ravaged planet, where natural resources are fast becoming depleted thanks to the unbridled greed of many large corporates.
What is even more remarkable, is that she raised her voice at the height of the propaganda of the Green Revolution, exposing the myriad economic failures and human tragedies of chemical agriculture, when such opinions were not at all fashionable to voice, both in India and outside.
The Green Revolution, in her own fiery words, “have left a legacy of diseased soils, pest-infested crops, water-logged deserts, and indebted and discontented farmers in Punjab, within two decades of its spread.”
It takes tremendous resolve to swim against the popular current of public opinion with the objective to explore the truth behind the advertisements, and with a genuine concern to uplift a large part of humanity from the perpetual misery perpetrated by a cartel of powerful blocks, but she has managed to change the mindsets and lives of many along her way, spearheading an organic movement in the process.
Her humanism spruced with vast scholarship and revolutionary thought makes Dr. Vandana Shiva, a name, that today has the power to make many harmful pesticide and fertiliser manufacturers uncomfortable.
Vandana rightly believes that the continuous war of unbridled greed against the planet earth is bigger than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. “The war against the earth has its roots in an economy which fails to respect ecological and ethical limits – limits to inequality, to injustice, to greed and to economic concentration,” she notes in her celebrated work titled ‘Making Peace With the Earth’.
And she is one of the few courageous proponents of enduring peace as an alternative to this ongoing war to deplete Planet Earth’s resources and decimate its fragile eco-system.
Over the last three decades, Vandana has fought a tireless battle to bring about potent changes in the practice and paradigms of agriculture and food, and made her enduring scholarly and activism imprints on the domains of intellectual property rights, biodiversity, biotechnology, bioethics, and genetic engineering.
Apart from being one of the most important leaders of the organic movement in India, she has contributed to the grassroots organisations of the green movement in other countries of Asia, and also in Africa, Latin America, Austria, Switzerland, and Ireland, with campaigns against genetic engineering.
Beginnings of a Journey
Armed with a Phd. in ‘Hidden variables and locality in quantum theory,’ from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, Vandana was trained to become a physicist. But her urge to free our natural resources, and our toiling farmers, from the greed of multinationals, induced her to leave a promising career in academics, after successive tenures with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and IIM, Bangalore respectively.
Her fruitful experience with the Chipko movement, the famous non-violent forest conservation movement, in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttaranchal (a state that was once part of Uttar Pradesh) in the early 1970s, where activists hugged trees in order to prevent them from being felled by the contractors, gave a kick-start to her dormant conscience towards the environment and food security.
“My journey towards ecological sustainability began with the Chipko movement in the 1970s, when women and men in the region of the Himalayas protected forests by hugging trees,” she notes.
Later, her study on the environmental pitfalls of limestone mining around Mussorie, in the Doon valley, which was threatening to spoil the pristine beauty and environment of the area, induced a public interest litigation.
The public interest litigation was followed by a landmark Supreme Court judgement that eventually stopped limestone mining around Mussorie, in 1983. Seeing her scholarly study translating into tangible human welfare, Vandana was further encouraged to infuse her environmental conscience with scholarship and activism.
The environmental disaster originating from the Union Carbide India Limited’s pesticide plant – which sparked a colossal human tragedy in Bhopal – and the long-drawn violence of separatism in Punjab (which her research revealed to be influenced by huge ecological and political demands of the green revolution), eventually induced her to leave a glorious and secure academic career and charter a life amidst the turbulent waters of independent scholarship and environmental activism.
She began a new chapter in her life by founding the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in 1982, a participatory, public interest research organisation and that set the ball rolling. Over the years, studies by RFSTE have substantiated the ecological value of traditional farming, and played a crucial role in fighting anti-people development projects in India.
In 1991, she gave birth to Navdanya, a pioneering national movement with the objective of protecting the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, and the promotion of organic farming and fair trade.
Navdanya can also be construed as a sustained program of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, which, over the years, has acted to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.
Into Organic Farming
Organic farming is a form of agriculture that does not use or highly limits the use of manufactured fertilisers and pesticides, plant growth regulators such as hormones, food additives and genetically modified organisms. Here, pesticides, include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.
One can say that organic agriculture is a method of farming which primarily practices the cultivation of the land, and raises crops, by the use of organic wastes like crop, animal and farm wastes, aquatic wastes, and other biological materials along with beneficial microbes.
These materials release nutrients to crops, leading to sustainable agricultural production in an eco-friendly environment, without polluting influences. Organic farming relies on natural methods of pest control and helps to maintain the soil in good health for a long time.
According to Vandana, and many other proponents of the organic food movement, organic food is much healthier than artificial pesticide and fertiliser-influenced agricultural produce.
Simply put, organic farming involves crop rotation, use of green manure, compost and biological pest control to maintain the productivity of the soil, and depends on a natural ecological cycle to keep the pests at bay.
According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, “Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved…”
Organic farming is not a novelty or a fashion in India, but has been a part of its agricultural legacy since millennia. However, since the advent of the Green Revolution, the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides has become rampant in Indian agriculture.
This has been largely to the detriment of the health of the soil, the health and financial health of the farmers, and also the health of the consumers of pesticide-laden agricultural products. The gainers have been the huge corporations, with the farmers and consumers being the losers.
An Earth Shifting Movement
Navdanya is one of the few powerful movements in the world in favour of organic farming, biodiversity and seed conservation. Navdanya is also a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 17 Indian states. It has also established 111 seed banks, which are spread across 17 states of the country.
For more than two decades, Navdanya has been tirelessly promoting biodiversity conservation, organic farming, the rights of farmers, and the process of seed saving.
“When I found global corporations wanted to patent seeds, crops or life forms, I started Navdanya to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming,” explains the visionary lady, adding, “Navdanya/RFSTE’s journey over the past two decades has taken us into creating markets for farmers and promoting tasty, healthy, high quality food for consumers.”
Navdanya has a primary membership of more than 70,000 farmer families spread across 17 states of India which include Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka among others.
In 2004, Navdanya also set up a learning center named Bija Vidyapeeth (School of the Seed), which is an international college for sustainable living, in collaboration with Schumacher College, U.K. This unique college was set up on Navdanya’s biodiversity conservation and organic farm, located in Doon Valley, Uttranchal.
Navdanya has its own seed bank and organic farm spread across 20 acres. Over the years, it has successfully conserved more than 5000 crop varieties which include 3000 varieties of rice, 95 varieties of wheat, 150 of kidney beans (rajma), 15 of millets and several varieties of pulses, vegetables, medicinal plants, etc.
Besides championing the ongoing organic food revolution, Navdanya is actively involved in infusing vitality into indigenous knowledge and culture. It has generated awareness and disseminated relevant information and knowledge on the hazards of genetic engineering, and has safeguarded people’s knowledge from biopiracy, and also defended food rights, which are continually being thwarted by globalisation and climate change.
The Human and Financial Cost
For pioneering scientist and environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, the right cure for our ailing planet is a shift from violent agriculture that is hugely dependent on pesticides and fertilisers and high-yielding seeds, to the sustainable, organic agriculture where nature is unhindered in providing food for its people.
She is one of the few fearless thought leaders of our times, who has the courage and the conviction to advocate putting the rights of Mother Earth and our future generations above ceaseless profit, and fight a constant battle against corporate control of the planet’s limited resources, despite shrill advertisements and manufactured news and research pointing to the contrary.
“About 75 percent of degradation of soils is due to influence of chemicals like fertilisers,” asserts Vandana, pointing out that agriculture with fertilisers or chemical agriculture requires 10 times more water than sustainable agriculture to produce the same amount of food, causing quicker depletion of our water resources. She wisely terms chemical or industrial agriculture as “thirsty agriculture.”
Vandana explains that, as a result of practicing the Green Revolution model of violent agriculture, which is water-intensive chemical farming, India has over-exploited her reservoir of groundwater, paving a situation of water famine in the process.
Moreover, the huge costs of pesticides involved in chemical agriculture have also burdened countless farmers with mammoth piles of debt, from which the only escape for some of them has been suicide. Ironically, many of the suicides are through consumption of pesticides. She notes in ‘Making Peace With the Earth’ that “Pesticides which had created debt also become the source of ending indebted lives.”
Those who escape suicide, may not necessarily escape cancer, as some pesticides can cause cancer too. “The legacy of the Green Revolution has made Punjab the toxic capital of India,” adds Vandana. She affirms that from Punjab to Bhopal pesticides have been responsible for ending thousands of lives.
One of the potentially lethal pesticides is endosulfan, which, according to Vandana, is a broad-spectrum organochlorine insecticide, which is acutely toxic and an endocrine disruptor.
The aerial spraying of this potentially lethal pesticide across 11 Panchyats of Kasaragod district in Kerala, on the cashew estates of the state-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala for over two decades has led to the bone-chilling Kasaragod Tragedy, leaving 500 people dead, and 10,000 deformed.
Many newborn children of these areas were also born with diseases and/or deformities. Of course, the surrounding environment was also damaged to a great extent. Only recently has endosulfan has been banned nationally. Vandana laments that its global production is still about 9000 metric tonnes.
That is not all. Besides incurring huge cost in terms of natural resources and health, chemical agriculture contributes to the erosion of our biodiversity. “In fact, 75 percent of the destruction of our biodiversity is accounted for by chemical agriculture involving fertilisers and pesticides,” claims the scientist-environmentalist.
Saving the Eco-system and Environment
“Industrial agriculture is shoving many species to extinction through its sustained application of toxic chemicals which are contributing towards the elimination of bees and butterflies, and also towards the elimination of our earthworms and other soil organisms that create soil fertility,” observes Vandana.
The role of bees, butterflies and earthworms in our eco-system cannot be overemphasised.
Bees and butterflies with their pollinating potential are responsible for the survival of the flowering plants, and, without them, agriculture, the food & beverage industry and in fact, the entire eco-system may collapse, and earthworms enhance soil fertility, without incurring any great cost.
We are indeed paying a huge price for our excessive dependence on farming with pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Vandana opines that agriculture, which is excessively dependent on manufactured pesticides, “decimates the beneficial living organisms in the soil, which include beneficial bacteria and earthworms.”
The fact that chemical agriculture promotes a monoculture of crops and prevents diversity of crop production is another grouse against its practice. “Many plant and animal varieties are dwindling as monocultures are fast replacing biodiversity,” Vandana elaborates.
She enlightens my limited knowledge when she informs me that, besides using huge quantities of non-renewable energy for producing food and its transport, industrial agriculture contributes to 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn destabilises agriculture by creating chaotic climatic conditions.
This eventually jeopardises our food security. And there is no denying the fact that one of the common causes behind droughts, floods and cyclones is climate change.
“Industrial agriculture facilitates climate change through the direct use of fossil fuels and the emission of carbon dioxide and also through the application of fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilisers, which emit nitrogen oxide,” explains Vandana.
As I was letting all this information and the extent of environmental damage sink into my mind, she also casually imparts the shocking fact that nitrogen oxide happens to be 300 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide!
Benefits of the Organic Movement
On the other hand, she says, organic farming contributes to mitigation of climate change, through eliminating agri-chemicals like synthetic fertilisers, and sequestering carbon in soil. “In organic agriculture, water retention and the drainage capacity of the ecosystem are being increased and the threat of floods and droughts are lower,” states Vandana.
In fact, this pioneering scientist claims that bio-diversity-based organic farming systems can provide solutions to the three huge problems of climate crisis, food crisis and water crisis. You don’t need rocket science or an Einstein to realise that these three mammoth problems, if perpetuated with the same degree, can take the planet to extinction.
She explains to me how organic agriculture can contribute towards alleviating the water crisis of the planet. “Organic agriculture entails agricultural production based on water-prudent crops, it uses one-tenth of the water that the chemical agriculture requires for producing the same quantity of food, and thirdly, the increase in organic matter transforms the soil into a water reservoir, which lowers the demand for irrigation, and facilitates towards conservation of water in agriculture,” elaborates Vandana.
The Menace of GM Crops
Vandana is also very critical of the direction genetic engineering is taking in the field of agriculture. “Genetic engineering was supposed to provide an alternative to toxic chemicals, instead it has led to an increase in the use of pesticides and herbicides,” she cites in her book, noting that genetic engineering in agriculture is responsible for the creation of super pests and super weeds.
She believes that genetic engineering in agriculture decimates the resilience and metabolism of the plant, and infuses genes for generation or toleration of higher dosages of toxins.
“Time and again, people have been told that genetically modified crops will increase yields and thereby produce more food, control pests and weeds, and provide the farmers with drought-tolerant seeds, which will be resilient to climate change. But all these claims have proved to be false,” states the champion of the organic food movement.
She informs me that genetic engineering has not been successful in raising the yield of a single crop till date. “Navdanya’s research has unearthed that contrary to Monsanto’s claim of the Bt cotton’s yield of 1500 kg per acre, the reality is much more dismal. Its yield is an average of just 400-500 kg per acre,” states Vandana
Vandana notes that, though genetically engineered crops cannot feed the world, it can easily harm health. She cites biochemist Arpad Pusztai’s research that according to her, shows “the rats fed with GE potatoes developed enlarged pancreas, suffered shrunken brains and had damaged immunity.”
The recent French study that showed that mice who ate genetically modified corn sprayed with weed killer were more likely to develop tumors, organ damage and die early, has also raised concerns globally, with a number of nations now banning the use of GM corn.
According to Vandana, during the 20 long years of commercialisation of genetically engineered crops, only two facets have emerged on a significant scale. The GM crops are showing huge herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.
“In India, Bt cotton, which is sold under the trade name Bollgard, was supposed to check the bollworm. But on the contrary, the bollworm has become resistant to Bt cotton. Therefore now Monsanto is selling Bollgard II, which is laden with two additional toxic genes,” affirms Vandana sarcastically.
According to a report by 20 Indian, South-east Asian, African and Latin American food and conservation groups representing millions of people, genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop, but has greatly increased the use of chemicals and the mushrooming of ‘superweeds.’
As expected, it was Vandana who co-ordinated this path-breaking report. Control of GM or genetically modified crops, in the hands of few corporate, has also lead to negative economic repercussions on farmers. In India, monopoly over cotton has caused mass suicides among farmers.
“The 1965-66 drought was used to push the Green Revolution, which has increased vulnerability to drought; the 2009 drought was similarly being used to push the second Green Revolution with GMO seeds and patents on seeds,” maintains Vandana in her book.
The fact remains that Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, the three largest GM seed companies on this planet, together accounts for approximately 70 percent of global seed sales. This enables them to own and sell GM seeds through channels of patents and intellectual property rights and thereby to charge farmers more. The study unequivocally accuses Monsanto of having control over 95 percent of the Indian cotton seed market and of hugely escalating the cotton prices.
“Monopoly over the cotton seed market and the introduction of genetically engineered Bt cotton has led to an epidemic of farmers’ suicides in the country,” Vandana explains. She believes that the genetic engineering model of agriculture undermines farmers who are trying ecologically sustainable agriculture, and states that, “There is no room for co-existence between GM and conventional crops.”
Towards Seed Sovereignty
She expresses deep concern over the fact that the control of seed and food is being transferred from the hands of farmers and communities into the clutches of a handful of corporate giants, and continually translates her concern into proactive and tangible actions, addressed to the welfare of the farmers.
Guided by Vandana’s empowering, intellectual and uncompromising vision, Navdanya has not only facilitated in setting up community seed banks across the country, but has also trained over 500,000 farmers across the country in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, and helped set up the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic food network in the country.
She likes the fact that despite the cartel of pesticide producers, who work in connivance with the government, India still has myriad drought-resistant crops, some of which, according to her book, “are conserved in, and distributed from, Navdanya’s community seed banks which farmers used in the drought year of 2009.”
Since 1991, Navdanya has mobilised farmers through the Bija Satyagraha Movement, to keep the seed in the farmer’s hands, and to not cooperate with IPR laws that endeavour to make seed a corporate monopoly, and seed saving and seed sharing a crime. Bija Satyagraha is a grass-roots campaign on patent issues; an assertion to people’s rights to biodiversity. It thrives on a determination of not to co-operate with faulty IPR systems.
The Champion Campaigner
Vandana’s mission with Navdanya and RFTSE is not limited to its intellectual and economic dimensions. Her sagacious scholarship is amply complemented by her flaming activism, that is highlighted by several campaigns. Navdanya has led the national and international movement for biosafety and against the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture.
During the WTO Hong Kong Ministerial in 2005, Navdanya joined hands with 740 other organisations in presenting their opposition to the WTO’s attempt to undermine the right of individual countries, and also to take appropriate steps to protect their farmland, environment and consumers from the risks posed by GM foods and crops.
“Through Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), we have also filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court in 1999, against the US seed giant Monsanto and Indian authorities for the illegal and unauthorised introduction of GMOs in India through field trials of these crops, while bypassing and violating environmental laws, and without involving and informing the local authorities and the local public,” states Vandana.
Vandana’s campaign against biopiracy is world renowned. RFSTE/ Navdanya began its potent campaign against biopiracy with the famous neem campaign in 1994. The organisation managed to mobilise 1,00,000 signatures against neem patents and filed a legal opposition against the USDA and WR Grace patent on the fungicidal properties of neem (no. 436257 B1) in the European Patent Office (EPO), in Munich, Germany.
Along with RFSTE, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) of Germany and Magda Alvoet, former Green Member of the European Parliament were party to the challenge. The patent on neem was revoked in May 2000 and it was reconfirmed on 8th March 2005, when the EPO revoked, in entirety, the controversial patent.
In 1998, Navdanya started a campaign against Basmati biopiracy of a US company named RiceTec. On 14th Aug 2001, just a day before our 55th independence day, Vandana-led Navdanya notched another triumph over biopiracy and patent on life, when the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) revoked a large section of the patent on Indian Basmati rice by the US corporation RiceTec Inc.
Vandana led Navdanya to the next decisive victory against biopiracy in October 2004, when the European Patent Office in Munich revoked Monsanto’s patent on the Indian variety of wheat ‘Nap Hal.’ This was the third consecutive victory on the IPR front for Vandana, Navdanya and RFTSE, which helped Vandana emerge as the symbol of hope and courage for the marginalised and downtrodden, in the agricultural sector across the globe.
“Through the citizens’ actions, we have won three biopiracy battles and have thus contributed to the defense of farmers’ rights, indigenous knowledge and biodiversity,” claims Vandana modestly. It is a modest claim indeed, for it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Navdanya has been one of the major forces that has been instrumental in sparking a global movement for the defense of the intellectual property rights of communities.
Due to the efforts of empowered minds like Vandana, organic farming and organic food are again gaining popularity in the Indian socio-cultural milieu. Though the popularity of organic food is still limited to the upper spectrum of Indian society, the day does not seem to be far when her genius and activism will make organic food a part of ordinary lifestyles too.
However, government subsidies towards organic agriculture are the need of the hour, which can make organic food reach common people with more affordable prices. Eventually, increased intake of organic food can not only lead to better health and well-being of the society, but can in the long-run uplift the financial condition of many marginal organic farmers (who become organic farmers by default, and not choice, as they cannot purchase artificial pesticides and fertilsers) in the country.
Her Other Voices
However, the indomitable humanism of Vandana is not only confined to the organic food movement. She is equally critical of the lopsided economic growth of India, and of the mindless and insensitive globalisation that is often supported by the government and the mainstream media in the country.
She debunks the popular myth that growth translates into prosperity for the majority. “While the Indian economy has grown, the majority of Indians have grown poorer, because, as a result of globalisation, they have lost their land and livelihoods,” affirms the thought leader in her book titled ‘Why Is Every 4th Indian Hungry?’ which has Kunwar Jalees as the co-author.
According to her, “Economic growth in India has gone hand in hand with growth in hunger. India is perceived as a potential economic power, but its impressive growth is based on large-scale take over of the land of tribals and peasants and massive destruction of livelihoods of millions engaged in agriculture, textiles and small scale industries. Poverty has increased, as the basic securities for the poor have been crushed by the forces of globalisation.”
For her ecology and feminism are inseparable. Diverse Women for Diversity is the gender programme of Navdanya which works at various levels, that is, at the local, national and global level. It was founded as a global campaign of women on biodiversity, cultural diversity and food security by Dr. Jean Grossholtz and Beth Burrows from the US, Dr. Christine von Weizsacker, Germany, and Dr. Vandana Shiva, India.
Diverse Women for Diversity brings women’s voices from the local and grassroots level to global fora and international negotiations. Its focus is biodiversity, food and water. It seeks to strengthen women’s grassroots movements and provide women with a common international platform.
Author of many acclaimed books, Vandana has won scores of prestigious awards and recognitions during her mission towards a better, healthier world. In 1993, Vandana won the Right Livelihood Award also known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize. In 2010, she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her commitment to social justice.
However, like all genuine champions, she doesn’t believe in resting on her laurels. Neither does she let herself get bogged down by her international fame. As I was moving on, after a two-hour long invigorating session with one of the greatest minds of our times, I couldn’t help but be impressed by her unassuming persona.
Despite achieving a cult status she never did once let me feel my utter ordinariness, and patiently explained the concepts to my largely unreflective mind. I am sure the passion for a better world in her voice, and the twinkling of uncompromising intellect in her eyes would help us to guide towards a better, healthier and a more nurturing world in the years to come.
“Shiva … has devoted her life to fighting for the rights of the ordinary people of India … her fierce intellect and her disarmingly friendly, accessible manner have made her a valuable advocate for people all over the developing world.”—Ms. Magazine.
“One of the world’s most prominent radical scientists.” —The Guardian.
“All of us who care about Planet Earth must be grateful to Vandana Shiva. Her voice is powerful, and she is not afraid to tackle those corporate giants that are polluting, degrading and ultimately destroying the natural world.” — Jane Goodall, the UN Messenger of Peace.
“Shiva is a burst of creative energy, an intellectual power.” — The Progressive.