Diet for a Dying Planet

Interview with Vandana Shiva

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. In India, the benefits of modern agriculture come with a high price. It’s been reported as many as 150,000 Indian farmers over the past decade have committed suicide – many by drinking the pesticides they put on their crops. According to physicist and social activist Vandana Shiva, the farmers’ despair is due to the weight of overwhelming debt. They can no longer afford the escalating price of chemicals and bio-engineered seeds, like pest-resistant Bt cotton. Shiva says the suicides in India are only part of a global problem that can be traced to the way food is produced.

SHIVA: Chemical agriculture really is a theft from nature. Organic ecological farming is the only way we will be able to address the ecological crisis related to farming, the agrarian crisis emerging from industrial globalized agriculture, and the public health crisis coming from using war chemicals to produce our food.

GELLERMAN: Vandana Shiva is editor of a new book called “Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed.” Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood recently spoke with her about the problems, the politics, and the possibilities of food production.

CURWOOD: How did you first become aware of the relationships between the environment, the poor, and food?

SHIVA: The connections between the environment and agriculture, and food systems, and the issues of poverty really came home to me in the 80s, particularly 1984—and I don’t [know] why George Orwell picked that as the title of one of his books. It was the year we had the worst terrorism and extremism in India. Thirty thousand people were killed in Punjab where the Green Revolution had been implemented—the Green Revolution had even received a Nobel Peace Prize for creating prosperity and through prosperity creating peace. And yet in the 1980s, there was the worst form of violence you could imagine. In December of 1984, we had the worst industrial disaster in Bhopal, which killed 3,000 people in one night, 30,000 people since then, and I was forced to wake up and ask the question: why are we involved in an agriculture that is killing hundreds of thousands, that is so violent, and pretends to be feeding the world? And I started to do scientific research on this. My book “The Violence of the Green Revolution” came out of the research that I was doing at that point for the United Nations. And increasingly, I have realized that if farmers in India are getting into debt and committing suicide, it’s because of these industrially driven agricultural systems that are also destroying the environment. If children are going hungry today and are being denied food, it’s because the money is being spent on buying toxic chemicals and costly seeds rather than being spent on feeding children, clothing them, and sending them to school. So chemical agriculture really is a theft from nature and a theft from the poor.

CURWOOD: In your book Vandana Shiva, you mention that 800 million people in the world who suffer from malnutrition, and the 1.7 billion who suffer from obesity. What is it that the underfed and the overfed have in common?

SHIVA: Both are suffering from consequences of corporate control over the food system, which has reduced food to commodities, manipulated it, got the farmers into debt. The farmers and farmers’ children who are hungry today are the ones who have to sell what they produce in order to pay back credit for buying the chemicals they use to grow the food. The majority of the hungry in the world are rural people today. They could be growing their own food if the food system hadn’t been converted into a market for sales of seeds and agrichemicals. And on the other hand, the obesity epidemic and other related epidemics of diabetes–and in Delhi, childhood diabetes, children with diabetes, has jumped from seven percent to 14 percent in the city of Dehli, as the staple diet of Coca-Cola and chips starts to enter our school system–both are victims. Three billion people on this planet are being denied their right to healthy, safe, nutritious food even though the planet can produce that food, and farmers of the world can produce that food, because agribusiness has turned that food into a place for highest returns on profits.

CURWOOD: Now, anyone who goes grocery shopping here in the U.S. can tell you that organically-produced foods are .. generally more expensive than conventional foods and yet, in your book you write that conventional food is not the key to feeding the poor. Tell me about what you call the ‘myth’ of cheap food?

SHIVA: The myth of cheap food is related first and foremost to the fact that cheap food is a result of our tax money being used to lure the prices of food that has been produced at very high cost financially, and in the process had driven farmers off the land, including the United States—the family farms are being destroyed because of this very artificial low price of food, the monopolies that grow with it, which creates a buyers market as far as farmers are concerned. And then, at every level, a subsidy given for manipulating food more and more to take away its nutrition and food value and to add hazards and risks to it. The entire food system is today serving corporations and not serving people or the planet. We need to reclaim the food system.

CURWOOD: Now, some of the companies will tell you that genetically modified foods help increase food production, making more food available. You’ve been opposed to genetically modified foods since they first came on the market. What do you see wrong with genetically modified crops?

SHIVA: Well, you know the first thing is if they were so productive, Indian farmers, who are using Bt cotton, wouldn’t be the worst victims of farmer suicides. One scientist keeps churning out data about how $27 million additional income–if the farmers were making that additional income, they wouldn’t be ending their lives. The recent Nobel Prize in biology has gone to biologists who have shown that the determinism on which genetic engineering is based doesn’t work. Genes work in very complex interactions. This is why those of us who critique genetic engineering started to critique it as a very crude and primitive technology, based on very wrong assumptions of how life organizes itself. This idea of one gene, one expression doesn’t work. Because of the crudeness of the technology, industry has so far managed to bring us, commercially, only two kinds of traits. One is herbicide-tolerant crops, which means spray more ground up, contaminate your ecosystems and food systems more. And the second is Bt toxin crops, where a toxin called Bt is engineered into the plant and now every cell is making that toxin every moment. It starts to kill nontarget species, the very big study of Cornell on the monarch butterflies is one example, 1,800 sheep in India dying by eating Bt cotton is another example, (inaudible) studies that shows that genetically engineered food fed to mice starts to create huge damage physiologically, immunity systems collapse, the brains shrunk. We need much more research of this kind. Unfortunately the industry censures the research, pretends that everything is fine and starts to target the scientists, who have brought some level of awareness to society of the risks of manipulating life at the genetic level or assessing the consequences adequately.

CURWOOD: In your book you include war as one of the unaccounted for external costs of corporate agriculture. What does war have to do with the food we eat?

SHIVA: Agrichemicals that have come into farming were war chemicals. They’re products of war. When 30,000 people died in Bhopal, it’s because those pesticides were designed to kill people. Herbicides were designed as chemical warfare. 243D was Agent Orange of the Vietnam War. So the tools of agriculture have become the tools of warfare. Secondly, the idea of creating food dependency is also an idea of warfare. It came out of the foreign policy of the United States the very word and phrase ‘use food as a weapon.’ It’s being used against India today in friendship. The interesting thing is that the U.S. and India are very intimate today, but the U.S.-India agreement on agriculture is trying to create dependency of India on the United States. Supplies of food, even though we’re growing 74 million tons. This is warfare by another means.

CURWOOD: You want to build a new paradigm for food. What does that mean exactly?

SHIVA: I think the first element of the paradigm is that food is not a commodity. It’s the very basis of life. Secondly, food production is not industrial activity. It is nurturing the land. It is conserving resources. It is giving livelihoods. It is shaping a culture. And it is much more than bringing corn and soya bean and wheat and cotton to the marketplace. We have to recognize that biodiversity is the real capital of food and farming and linked to it is cultural diversity–that we are richer to the extent we have diversified food cultures in the world. We are poorer as the biodiversity of our farms disappears and the cultural diversity of our food systems disappears.

CURWOOD: So what should the average person do in terms of a response to your call?

SHIVA: I think the average person should recognize that even though they are in cities they are connected to the land. That somewhere, somebody produced the food they’re eating. And we will all be freer, if around every city are rural communities where small farmers are able to produce food of quality, make a living doing that, and there is a more intimate connection between the food people eat and the land it comes from and the producers who have made an effort to bring it. I think every city should have its own food shed. The creation of farmers’ markets is a beginning. But I don’t think we can leave the farmers’ markers to be token symbols. We need to move the money of taxpayers from subsidizing corporations to bring us junk and poison, to bringing farmers’ markets everywhere, to helping small producers everywhere connect to those who are looking for more secure food, more safe food, more tasty food, more quality food. The most important issue is to break the myth that safe, ecological, local, is a luxury only the rich can afford. This planet cannot afford the additional burden of more carbon dioxide, more nitrogen oxide, more toxins in our food. Our farmers cannot afford the economic burden of these useless toxic chemicals. And our bodies cannot afford the bombardment of these chemicals any more.

CURWOOD: Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist and environmental activist. Thank you so much.

SHIVA: Thank you, Steve.

GELLERMAN: Vandana Shiva is also the editor of a new book called, “Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed.” She spoke with Living on Earth Executive Producer Steve Curwood.

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