Albert Einstein was Dr. Vandana Shiva’s hero as a little girl growing up in India. “I was always fascinated with the workings of nature, and Einstein was the kind of scientist I wanted to be,” says Shiva, born in 1952. Trained as a physicist, with a Ph.D. in philosophy, she became an activist known globally for her opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crops and her advocacy for sustainable farming. Dr. Shiva is coming to the Islands next week to speak about food justice and ecologically responsible, diversified agriculture–issues that are pivotal as Hawaii, a cradle of GE seed corn, begins to address its severe food insecurity.
Dr. Shiva has authored more than 20 books on globalization, food supply, eco-feminism and biotechnology. Her writings reveal that modern industrial agriculture, a high-cost, chemical-intensive method, is actually a recipe for hunger. As an expert on biodiversity and intellectual property rights (IPR) legislation, Dr. Shiva has received numerous awards. She has assisted Africa, Asia, Latin America, Ireland, Switzerland and Austria in grassroots campaigns against genetic engineering. Time Magazine named her an environmental hero in 2003.
Growing up in the Dehradun forest on her mother’s farm, where wheat, chickpeas, mustard, sesame and sugarcane grew amongst guava, lemon and lychee trees, Shiva saw firsthand how much food could come from a small farm. Her father was a forester. “That childhood did shape my values, and my love for nature. More importantly, my parents taught me two things by example. Follow your conscience, and be fearless.”
Shiva began fighting globalization in 1987 when she discovered the biotech industry’s plans to genetically engineer and patent seeds. That’s when she started the nonprofit organization Navdanya, the movement to save seed. In 1993, she mobilized 500,000 farmers in India for a rally in Bangalore to say, “No to Patents on Seed and Free Trade.” She also helped form the International Forum on Globalization, which organized the anti-globalization protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999.
“Everything we predicted has happened,” Shiva recalls via email from Delhi, where she resides. “Inequalities have grown, democracy has eroded, economies are collapsing, an oligarchy is emerging. Our goal is to defend the planet, people’s rights, and democracy. This is what I call Earth Democracy.”
Earth Democracy translates into a mission of preserving biodiversity and creating seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and water democracy. Navdanya has helped set up 111 community seed banks throughout India, trained more than 500,000 farmers in saving seeds and practicing sustainable agriculture over the past two decades and helped set up the largest direct-marketing, fair-trade organic network in India.
“I have followed Gandhi’s footsteps of Swaraj, self rule, and Satyagraha, the force of truth and the refusal to obey unjust laws,” she explains. “We have practiced seed satyagraha, the refusal to obey patent laws on seed, since seed is not an invention, and seed monopolies are immoral and unethical.”
The biggest myth
Shiva wishes to dispel the misconception that industrial agriculture produces more food. In reality, “Industrial agriculture promotes monocultures, which are nutritionally impoverished,” she says. Monocultures (growing a single crop every year on the same land without rotation) and GE crops use 10 times more water than ecological agriculture, and are the single biggest reason for the water crisis, according to Shiva. She adds that genetic engineering has not increased the yield of a single crop.
“To turn the world into a dependency on staples [like corn, soy, sugar and rice] has nothing to [do] with feeding the world, it has to do with control,” Shiva said in an interview for The Future of Food video series. “Maximizing the production of commodities for international trade is directly proportionate to the decrease in nutrition availability to local communities, which is why food insecurity grows.”
In her book Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (South End Press, 2000), Shiva explains that the growth of agribusiness in the U.S. has gone hand-in-hand with U.S. foreign policy to deliberately create hunger in order to make the world dependent on our food supplies, allowing us to exert control over their decisionmaking. Shiva says that the U.S. has been using hunger as an instrument of war since the Vietnam War, when the term “food as weapon” was popularized as chemical weapons were used to destroy vegetation and crops.
The U.S. Foreign Trade Act strong-arms other countries into participating in monopolies that cause growing economic injustice, according to Shiva. “We were bullied to allow Monsanto in India,” she says. As a result, she adds, Monsanto was responsible for triggering an epidemic of 270,000 farmer suicides from 1995–2010 in India’s cotton belt, where the company had established a genetically engineered Bt cottonseed monopoly. “Monsanto controls 95 percent of the cottonseed, which is now all Bt cotton,” Shiva explains. “The costs are 8,000 percent more than cottonseeds that were available earlier. Farmers are getting trapped in debt, and indebted farmers are committing suicide.”
According to Shiva, GE crops harness farmers to a chemical treadmill. In India, Bt cotton called “Bollgard” was supposed to control the Bollworm pest. Today, the Bollworm has become resistant to Bt and now Monsanto sells Bollgard II cotton, containing two additional toxic genes. New pests have emerged, and farmers are using more pesticides. Pesticide use has increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced, according to research by Navdanya. A study recently published in the Review of Agrarian Studies also showed a higher expenditure on chemical pesticides for Bt cotton by small farmers than for other varieties.
Although Monsanto’s advertising campaign in India reported a 50 percent increase in yields for its Bollgard cotton, a survey conducted by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology found that the yields in all trial plots were lower than what the company promised. Navdanya’s research in India has shown that contrary to Monsanto’s claim of Bt cotton yield of 1500 kg per acre, the real yield is an average of 400–500 kg per acre.
GE crops create resistant pests and, through pollen drift, weeds. They need an almost sterile environment, so more pesticides are needed on these crops. In the U.S., GE crops increased overall pesticide use by 318.4 million pounds over their first 13 years on the marketplace (1996–2008), according to a study derived from U.S. Dept. of Agriculture data by Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center. Increased concentration of chemicals in air, water, and soil in the communities surrounding GE fields is a legitimate public health concern.
Dr. Shiva will visit Kauai because it’s the island with the most extensive GE crop plantings (approximately 13,000 acres) in Hawaii, where biotech companies Dow, BASF, Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer operate on ag lands throughout the state. More than a year ago, a group of 150 Waimea, Kauai residents filed suit against Pioneer Hi-Bred (a subsidiary of chemical giant DuPont) over allegedly pesticide-laden dust that has been blowing onto their properties for more than a decade from GE fields. According to the lawsuit, filed Dec. 2011 in 5th Circuit Court, Pioneer uses dangerous pesticides during open-air testing of GE crops without controlling airborne pollutants, as required by state and county law.
Dr. Shiva further contends that GMOs have their own unique health and environmental risks. This, she points out, is why a UN Biosafety Protocol was created in 2000. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is an international treaty that seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by GMOs. It establishes an advanced procedure for ensuring that countries are provided with information necessary to make informed decisions before agreeing to import GMOs into their territory. To date, 163 countries and the European Union have ratified or acceded to the Protocol. The U.S. has not. In addition, the biotech industry that brought the world agrichemicals tries to silence all scientists who do research on the health and environmental impacts of GMOs, states Shiva. Contamination of crops, soil and water, along with unknown risks of human consumption, are the major issues of scientific debate.
Monsanto’s argument is that the Bt toxin in GE crops poses no danger to human health because the protein breaks down in the human gut. However, a recently published Canadian study entitled, “Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Township of Quebec, Canada,” (Reproductive Toxicology, May 31, 2011) found the Bt toxin in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women tested and in 80 percent of their umbilical cord and fetal blood.
GMOs go hand-in-hand with patents. Patents mean royalties, which help to cause farmer debt. In addition to dangers to public health and ecosystems, biotechnology allows for corporations to own seeds and crops through patents and IPRs. Patents provide royalties for the patent holder, creating corporate monopolies, which results in monster profits for biotech companies like Monsanto and inescapable debt for small farmers.
The most dramatic case of patent bullying via contamination and genetic pollution made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada when Percy Schmeiser, a canola seed grower whose crop was contaminated by Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola refused to pay Monsanto a license fee when he found their seed had contaminated his fields. Contamination of canola in Canada is so severe that 90 percent of certified non-GE Canola seed samples contain GE material. Instead of paying Percy for the damage of contamination in accordance with its “Polluter Pays” principle, Monsanto approached him to pay a license fee for using their patented technology without a license, and then sued Percy for Intellectual Property theft (patent infringement) to the tune of $300,000.
After six years of court battles, the court ruled in a 5-4 majority that, intentionally or not, growing genetically modified plants constitutes the use of the patented invention. This case increased the protection available to biotech companies in Canada and set a precedent globally.
“I have called what is happening a new form of imperialism: bio-imperialism,” Dr. Shiva contends. “I see it as a new form of slavery–seed slavery.” She asserts that all communities should be sovereign in their seed supply. “That is why we should have seed banks of open pollinated seeds everywhere. Communities should become free of GMOs, chemicals, and poisons. Working with nature on the principles of agroecology is the best road to sustainability.”
In Hawaii, a status quo with an immense amount of privately owned land leased to the highest bidder has allowed Monsanto and other agribusiness “farmers” to use prime ag land to produce export crops that do not feed us.
For example, Kamehameha Schools has recently come under fire for leasing 1,033 acres on Oahu’s North Shore to Monsanto since 1999. According to Neil Hannahs, director of KS’s Land Assets divison, “We have looked into Monsanto’s pesticide application methods and are comfortable that they are following all regulatory protocols. We do not have any seed corn fields close to any schools or immediately adjacent to any residences,” Hannah wrote in an email.
Shiva maintains that the way to resist agribusiness and further pollution is by creating local, regenerative, resilient economies and communities. She says that communities with the greatest food insecurity today, such as Hawaii with our 85 percent imported food, could be the most self-sufficient. The solution is biodiversity–growing diverse food crops using organic and ecological methods. Such multiculture can produce five to ten times more nutrition than monocultures can, according to Shiva, who is currently advising the government of Bhutan on how to achieve their goal of becoming the first fully organic food-sovereign country. Hawaii already has a successful example: MAO Farms’ 24 acres of organic crops produce approximately 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of produce per week.
Hannahs adds that KS’s North Shore Plan includes a future 100-acre organic farm near Chun’s Reef, already has diversified Kahuku Farms and Twin Bridge Farms among their lessees, and is doubling their ag acreage in Punaluu. “We have many small farmers there and have invested heavily in the irrigation system, as well as in land clearing in order to increase the amount of acreage contributing to local food production,” Hannahs says.
In profiteering hands, food can be used as a weapon for control and oppression. However, the people can use food as weapon by voting with their dollar for every item on the grocery list. “To protect ourselves from GMOs we need to shift to local, organic food,” Shiva urges. “Know your farmer. Know your food.”